What is a Cozy Mystery, Really?
by Vicki Delaney
What, exactly, is a cozy mystery?
On one hand, that seems to be an easy question to answer. A cozy mystery is often described as a book containing no overt violence or sex on the page. It’s a character-and-community based mystery featuring an amateur sleuth.
But I believe a cozy mystery is far more that than.
A mystery novel without sex and violence is not necessarily a cozy. Plenty of intense psychological dramas have no sex and violence, but they can be very grim indeed. Books that are character and community based can also be dark and disturbing. Mysteries with a frightening supernatural or horror element, for example.
In my interpretation, to be a cozy, the story must have no sense of tragedy or impending doom.
People in cozies do not live tragic lives, and they don’t fear tragic happenings. They live in a very pleasant, close to idyllic, community, surround by good friends and close family. Not everything is perfect in their lives (how boring would that be?) but generally they are good and happy people.
Someone is murdered, and that’s never funny, but that person is (usually) not much liked by the community or strangers to it. Their death needs to be solved so that the perfect, orderly community can go back to the way it was—perfect and orderly. The characters live in an essentially good world that needs to be put back to rights. No human trafficking rings, child prostitutes, mob hit men, gangs, or Russian assassins here.
A cozy mystery will never feature child-endangerment or abuse, terrorists, organized crime (unless handled with a humorous touch), or natural disaster. The murder is intimate and personal, and committed for personal reasons. There are no far-reaching or long-lasting implications. At the end of the book, order has been restored and all is once again right in their world.
Cozy mysteries are not trying to make an important statement about the human condition, or hoping to change the world. A cozy mystery tells a story that attempts to be entertaining, that’s about people much like us (or like us if we were prettier, or smarter, or younger!) and our friends and family.
In terms of structure, cozy mysteries are very much ‘puzzle mysteries’: a game of wits between the author and the reader as to whether or not the astute reader can solve the crime before the amateur detective does (i.e. before the author reveals it). Clues must be laid down in such a way that the reader has a chance of reaching the conclusion on their own. The author lays red herrings in such a way as to hope to distract the reader from reaching the truth before all is revealed.
Cozy mysteries are about real people living real lives (except for that pesky murder bit), although writ large. Everything is exaggerated. The nosy neighbour is nosier, the ditzy friend is ditzier, the mean girl is meaner. And the handsome man is, well, handsomer. Even better if there are two of them.
Readers who enjoy cozies often tell me that they read them to escape from the real world. They get enough bad news on TV, and sometimes even in their own life. Cozy mysteries really are an escape.
I began my career writing gritty police procedurals and intense psychological thrillers and I recently switched to cozies. I’m having a lot of fun with them. Keep it light, keep it funny, and have a good time with it.
The word I often use for the cozies I write is FUN. They should be fun for the author and fun for the reader as well.
My newest book is the fourth in the Sherlock Holmes bookshop series, A Scandal in Scarlet from Crooked Lane Books.
These books are firmly in the cozy camp and are about a woman who owns The Sherlock Holmes Bookshop and Emporium in the Cape Cod town of West London, located at 222 Baker Street. The business next door is Mrs. Hudson’s Tea Room, at 220 Baker Street.
The main character, Gemma Doyle, is a modern young woman who bears an intellectual resemblance to the Great Detective himself. Her side-kick Jayne Wilson is ever-confused but always loyal.
Sounds a bit silly? Sure it does. And it’s supposed to be. It’s nothing but fun, and what’s wrong with that?
So pull up a comfortable arm chair or get out your deck chair. Light a fire in the fireplace, or slap on that sunscreen, pour yourself a mug of hot tea or something icy and simply enjoy the adventures of a cozy heroine and her friends as they try to put their world back to rights.
Vicki Delany is one of Canada’s most prolific and varied crime writers and a national bestseller in the U.S. She has written more than thirty books: clever cozies to Gothic thrillers to gritty police procedurals, to historical fiction and novellas for adult literacy. She is currently writing three cozy mystery series: the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop series for Crooked Lane, the Year Round Christmas mysteries for Penguin Random House and, as Eva Gates, the Lighthouse Library series, for Crooked Lane Books.
Her newest book is the fourth Sherlock Holmes bookshop mystery, A Scandal in Scarlet.
Vicki lives and writes in bucolic Prince Edward County, Ontario. She is a past president of the Crime Writers of Canada. Her work has been nominated for the Derringer, the Bony Blithe, the Ontario Library Association Golden Oak, and the Arthur Ellis Awards.