My mother devoured every Agatha Christie novel ever written, and though I developed an early appreciation for Christie’s fussy little Belgian, Hercule Poirot, I didn’t become familiar with the term “cozy mystery” until many years later, but the moment I heard it, I knew it described Christie’s work to a tee. Or a tea, if you will. The cozy is the gentle workhorse of mystery fiction, a reliable subgenre with a dedicated following, and one that shows no signs of falling out of favor. So pull your slippers and housecoat on, settle into your favorite overstuffed chair, and blow softly across your steaming cup of Earl Grey, as we enroll in Cozy 101 with mystery writer Nancy J. Cohen.
The author of more than twenty novels, Cohen is a premiere practitioner of the form. Her popular and acclaimed Bad Hair Day series features hairdresser/sleuth Marla Vail, who solves crimes with wit and style in the steam-bath weather of South Florida. Beyond her novels, she literally wrote the book for writers of the subgenre, with her concise how-to guide, Writing the Cozy Mystery (2014).
In an interview, Cohen outlines for me the conventions, origins, and evolution of the form. “A cozy mystery involves an amateur sleuth in a unique setting or occupation,” she says. “The setting is a character itself, giving us a glimpse into a lifestyle we might not see otherwise. These stories focus on relationships among characters and not on crime scene details. Suspects often know each other, and all may have a motive for murder. Motives are personal and do not involve terrorists, serial killers, or drug cartels.”
Christie pretty much invented the genre, and Christie’s The Mousetrap remains a personal fave of Cohen’s. But her intro to the cozy came from elsewhere. “Jill Churchill’s books turned me on to this genre with their amusing titles,” she says. Others opened her eyes to the expansive horizons of settings, characters, and themes. “Diane Mott Davidson was probably one of the earliest authors who introduced the culinary mystery, with her caterer sleuth. Pets, crafts and hobbies are other popular subgenres. Some stories may have a cat detective or a dog that sniffs out clues.”
The genre continues to shift and adapt, with cozy paranormal mysteries now in vogue. “You might have a sleuth with psychic abilities or a ghostly sidekick,” Cohen says. Despite changing subject matter, however, some things remain true. Tone is important, the cozy being more lighthearted than darker crime fiction. Lighthearted, yes, but that doesn’t mean they have to be funny, although readers like a touch of humor and a romantic subplot. But mystery remains the heart of the work. “The puzzle is the thing,” Cohen says. “Readers want to solve the mystery along with the sleuth.”
The cozy is a welcome respite from the blood-drenched content of many modern crime novels, and Cohen cautions writers to take care with execution. “Cozies do not have graphic sex or violence or use of bad language. Rape is out of bounds, as well as anything terrible happening to a child. Bad language and graphic sex or violence are no-nos. Also, never kill the family pet. You can do so in a suspense novel but not in a cozy. Readers expect an author to follow genre conventions.” Get too grim and readers might look elsewhere for their next reads.
Trends come and go in publishing, but the cozy remains among the most reliable genres, with a dedicated fan base. If anything, it seems to be growing in popularity. Of the genre’s staying power, Cohen offers a simple explanation. “We all want to escape from the horrible news out there. There’s a certain fantasy element involved, in that the sleuth always wins; justice is served; and another murder to solve is just around the next corner…and readers like solving the puzzle. These stories appeal to the intellect and engage your attention with their glimpse into a particular slice of life. They’ll always appeal to readers who want to read a mystery but who don’t want to be horrified.”
That’s key. All mystery, thriller, and crime writers would be well-served to pick up a cozy now and then and pay attention to the lightness of touch and style. Even writers of truly grim material can learn a thing or two about engaging, likable characters, and leavening with humor.