Saturday, 14 January 2012

The Enigma of Cozy Mysteries

Who hasn't heard of Miss Marple and Jessica Fletcher, but it seems there is s specific genre for these amateur sleuths known as 'Cozy Mysteries', and like all genres, there are rules about how to write one. I love such stories, and decided to try my hand at one - which has, of course, proved harder than I imagined but there are lots of blogs around telling me how.

A 'Cozy' is usually a murder where the character doing the clue gathering is often an amateur who becomes inadvertently involved because they knew the victim, or the crime happened in their backyard.

Clues should be evident and fair, but not too contrived, and red herrings, are allowed, but misdirections must be explained at some stage. i.e. an averted glance at an important moment cannot be left hanging. If the 'looker' isn't guilty, their actions need to be attributed to something else.

There is little or no violence, sex, or coarse language and the culmination of the story is that the villain is exposed, taken into custody and punished, and
thus order is restored to the community.

Cozy Sleuths are of good character, likeable, quirky individuals with forgiveable faults, thus might be easily distracted in a conversation as they are busy working out scenarios in their head, but mustn't tipple constantly from a hip flask of brandy - or kick puppies!.

The victim in a 'Cozy' usually falls at the first fence, so the reader doesn't invest any emotion in their character, only to have them thrown off a cliff. Thus they tend to be the rich spinster aunt nobody knew, or even liked. But murder is wrong and the kiiller must be caught no matter how unpleasant their victim.The villain is motivated by greed, jealously, love or revenge, and not because they are psychotic, or like using sharp knives!  Cozies are not place for serial killers.

Agatha Christie's Jane Marple was a student of human nature and her philosophy was that every human failing that existed in the wider world could be found in an average country village; that a person's character will betray them at some stage and people do not act against their inner self - or not often anyway! Another feature of Christie's novels is that they rarely, if ever, give the reader sufficient clues to solve the crime. The end conclusion also reveals details of the suspect's life the reader knew nothing about - details which prevent them coming up with the correct solution earlier.

One popular 'cozy' device is to trap her characters in a snowbound hotel, or in a village cut off by a collapsed bridge, or a train, thus confining the list of suspects to a small circle. Then the solution of the crime depends on talking to characters who all know each other. A 'Cozy' is not a roller-coaster of action and emotion, rather an examination of human frailty, where every suspect has a secret, a link to the crime, and a motive. This adds layers to the story and helps turn it into a puzzle to solve. Clues need to point to at least one person or more and false clues are essential to lead the reader down certain paths and then be re-directed to the correct one.

What I find the hardest, is how to drop clues into the plot at the right places that are not too contrived, or reveal too much too soon, or don't reveal enough to keep the reader interested. These threads also have to be tied into a not-too-shocking ending which is not only satisfying, but also contains a twist. And don't forget, the main male and female characters need to end up in each other's arms.

My amateur sleuth is more Lady Emily Ashton than Miss Marple, and I can only hope she becomes half as fascinating as either of them.