by Christina Lay
I’ve always loved reading and watching cozy mysteries, but not until recently have I tried my hand at writing them. As with many things, you don’t really understand the complexity of a task until you try to do it yourself.
As well-versed in the ins-and-outs of the genre as any avid fan, I dove in quickly and with relish. But soon, one important and fairly obvious question occurred to me: how, exactly, does one make murder, the most heinous of crimes, cozy? How do you create a world in which murder happens (and maybe regularly, if you’re writing a series) that the reader or viewer nevertheless finds comforting? A place where half the population ends up dead but still seems like a very nice place to visit?
Clearly one of the anchors of the cozy mystery is a cozy setting. A majority of these stories take place in small towns, and not just your run of the mill small town, but one that is quaint, meaning it’s preserved its historic charm. These towns have lovely architecture, lots of twisting alleys, probably a waterfront of some sort, nearby woods for the disposing of bodies, and a VERY PROMINENT CHURCH. Quaint shops abound, and our sleuth might even be the sole proprietor of one (maybe the bakery, which is a very popular setting for cozy book series, with cute names like Til Death do Us Tart and Survival of the Fritters. Baking fancy cakes and crime solving seem to complement each other. Here’s a link to a list of them http://cozy-mysteries-unlimited.com/bakery-dessert-list.
Any cozy worth its imported sea salt will feature a tea shop and an antique store—bare minimum. Sometimes the town is larger, like Oxford, but within the larger town are cozy communities, like an elite college, in which everyone knows everyone else’s business, which always proves to be a very important element in helping our sleuth solve the crime.
Which brings us to the other most important key to a cozy, the sleuth. Mostly this will be an amateur, but private detectives like Hercule Poirot and rumpled Detective Inspectors like Tom Barnaby also qualify. The more professional the sleuth however, the less cozy the murders tend to become. The sleuth is nearly always an outsider, no matter what their profession. Even a detective inside the police department will be the odd one out, the one who uses brain over brawn, who always doubts the obvious first clues and champions whatever poor soul is arrested first. Often the amateur sleuth/slash pastry chef is conveniently married to, dating, best friends with or otherwise connected to a professional in the biz, like a police detective, coroner or forensic expert, which is quite handy. But in the end, the sleuth relies on their powers of observation, keen intuition and wits to solve the crime. Which they always do.
The likability and relatability of the sleuth are key to creating a memorable and enduring cozy mystery series. They must, like all good protagonists, be flawed, but in a lovable way. And usually, whatever their deep wound is, it helps them understand the criminal mind and have compassion for the underdogs. First and foremost, they must be unusually smart, even if not everyone thinks so.
Other factors to ensure your murder is entertaining rather than disturbing include:
A victim who was a no good so-and-so. Lots of people wanted them dead, and no one is overly sorry to have them gone. Anyone who is, probably did it. Also, their death, though possibly elaborate, is swift and unseen. Usually, the murder happens before the book even starts, or off-the-page. It might happen after the world famous detective arrives and the murderer foolishly decides to go through with their plan anyway. Or after all the guests are assembled at the manor house, or when the train leaves the station. Isolating the group of suspects is a great trick for upping the tension. There’s a murderer amongst us!
Limit the bloodshed. This is an element that seems to be ignored more and more in the television version of mysteries, usually the result of what I call “the slaughter of the innocents”. This is when, once the murderer commits the initial crime, they then feel compelled to kill off several innocent bystanders to cover it up, which of course is what usually tips their hand. I have to admit to being disappointed when what is touted as a cozy mystery ends up with a high body count, among them unfortunate girl guides and birdwatching old ladies who were in the wrong place at the worst time. Besides being depressing, these acts of senseless violence are usually stupid, which diminishes the fun of solving the crime. I shouldn’t even have to say this, but NEVER KILL THE DOG.
No sex. Wait, what? Well, I’ve wondered about this, but it appears to be true. While amateur sleuths are often romantically pining over the local detective, or visa versa, the most they will ever do is share a pint at the quaint local pub and match wits. I believe this is because sex is really just a distraction from what readers of cozies care about most, which is solving a mystery. No one wants to see rumpled whosit and the dowdy baker get down. It’s just not where the appeal lies. Romance, a hint of it, is just fine, as long as it doesn’t pull our heroine/hero away from what they’re there to do. And naturally, the suspects will be fornicating up a storm, only not on the page.
Cats are king. Throw in a smart cat, or perhaps a reasonably intelligent dog. Readers of cozies love sleuths who love pets. If the cat helps solve the crime, well, that’s a subgenre unto itself. http://cozy-mysteries-unlimited.com/cat-list If you can combine cooking and cats, all the better.
Provide a wide array of colorful, likable characters to consult, kill or arrest. Sometimes even the murderer is likable. The sleuth will have an extensive network of interesting acquaintances to contact regarding the case. If, for example, a body is washed up near the quaint lighthouse, the sleuth’s uncle will be the local captain of the coast guard. There will always be busybodies, town gossips, town drunks, and loose but large-hearted women who know the town’s secrets and our sleuth will be friends with them, or have some way of convincing these people to talk. Think tea and cookies instead of truth serum and truncheons.
Comeuppance will be got. In a cozy, the murderer is always flushed out. They might escape the long arm of the law, but they will lose everything they were willing to kill for. If you can think of an exception in the cozy mystery field, feel free to enlighten me. One exception might be the Serial Adversary, a Moriarty of sorts, but since those chaps tend to be serial killers, their evil antics don’t qualify as cozy.
To sum up, the key to a cozy murder is the fun of watching a character we love solve a baffling riddle by their wits (and possibly their cat’s) alone. So naturally, you’ll need a riddle worthy of their and the reader’s attention. Anything over the top, like graphic violence, graphic sex, grit, torture, profanity, end of the world scenarios or gratuitous explosions, you can pretty much leave at the door. Raymond Chandler claimed that readers of cozies, especially the English variety, “like their murders scented with magnolia blossoms and do not care to be reminded that murder is an act of infinite cruelty”. For some, I’m sure that’s true, but I don’t think readers are drawn to mysteries just so they can ignore the murder at the heart of it; rather, they prefer to focus on the solving, rather than the commission, of the crime. And just because a setting is cozy, or the sleuth an old English spinster, doesn’t mean we can relax. As Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple says “One does see so much evil in a village”.