I love a good mystery, but not being a fan of psychological thrillers which keep me awake at night, I gravitate toward cozies for my light reading. Lately I have begun writing them too, and as an inveterate ‘pantser’, cozies fit into my obsession with sorting where every detail, clue, red herring and revelation is going to go before I draft the first chapter.
For those who haven’t tapped into this genre yet, the most well-known amateur sleuth is Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. A quiet-speaking little old lady who asks questions, sometimes irritating ones, whose persistence and ability to put seemingly unrelated observations together solves a crime.
Cozies begin with a killing, usually ‘offstage’ with which the sleuth has some sort of tenuous connection. Maybe the crime was committed in a friend’s house when the sleuth was staying, or her cousin is being accused of the murder and the sleuth applies her mental abilities to prove otherwise.
The plot is key, of course, and all those writing articles are correct when they tell you to start at the solution and work backwards. Once you have a villain and a reason, it’s easier to weave the why, how and when, than begin with a killing and concoct a thread to fit afterwards.
The sleuth is usually female, and also intelligent with a fondness for puzzles and - often to the disparagement of those around them - digs out clues, asks questions. There is also distinct lack of profanity and sexual content in cozies. I have included a little romance in both of mine, but historical romance is different to contemporary romance.
In a contemporary mystery, the female sleuth may jump into bed with the hero simply because of chemical attraction, or maybe she feels he knows more than he is saying and this is a way to get him to talk. [Well, why not, we are all grownups aren’t we?] In a historical, the attraction is mainly mental, and either ends in a wistful parting or a wedding - no middle roads.
Cozies tend to take place in confined settings, a country house, a ship, or a snowbound hilltop church, thereby drawing upon a small cast of characters and suspects. In historicals, this is ideal, as having a man clamber over ten foot snowdrifts to summon the authorities is more atmospheric than using a mobile phone.
Placing a group in a setting outside their normal lives also means certain facts about them can be hidden more effectively - only to be revealed as part of the plot at the end.. The abiding quality of a cozy, is that by the end of the story, the criminal is revealed, they are led away and order is restored to the community.
Red herrings are great fun, but too many can be confusing. That the worried looking man who drops things may simply do so because he’s afraid of losing his job, not because he’s a killer searching for a hiding place for the murder weapon. All the clues must be picked up by the end - mystery buffs don’t like to be left hanging.
Cozies are great for flawed characters - my first cozy included a colourful grand dame with a sharp tongue but shrewd mind who was admired by everyone. My critique partners loved her, unequivocally, so I made her the villain and it worked - everyone was surprised, shocked and delighted. Well I say everyone but this novel has only been read by a dozen people, so maybe I exaggerate - and it isn’t published - dare I say yet!
So maybe inveterate mystery lovers wouldn’t agree with my making them love my character, only to turn on her at the end.
The Sleuth is an amateur with whom the reader can identify - someone whose faults are minor but
Readers like series as they know what to expect, and become attached to the detective’s character, even her stumbles and wrong conclusions hoping to beat her to the punch to see if they can work out who the villain was first.
The Victim is someone who is often not seen and unlikely to be missed, either an unpleasant character themselves - but everyone deserves justice - or maybe a rich aunt the reader never meets, who had to die for the plot to get started.
The Antagonist is usually motivated by greed, jealously, or revenge - no serial or thrill killers. They may also commit a second crime during the story, but this too takes place in the background, not on the page.
The Suspects and those who assist the sleuth can be stereotypes, the social climber, the bigot, the sleezeball, the snob, the gambler etc. They are not necessarily likeable, but nor are they evil.
The Crime - usually a murder, either occurs before the story starts or soon after it begins. There may be a threat to the sleuth to increase the tension, and a fear that a second crime might occur, and sometimes it does, possibly as the villain tries to hide the first killing.
Amateur sleuths don’t have access to the same information as a policeman, but maybe they have a policeman friend who feeds them snippets. Bystanders can discover things the police cannot, so maybe there is a collaboration between the two and they share information.
Cozies are not action-packed, roller coasters of action that hit the ground running and don't stop until the end. They are more a portrait of human nature, frailty and personal prejudice, the meat of the story conveyed in dialogue, and usually finishing with startling revelations.
Some articles on mystery writing specify that editors usually like five or six suspects, with one being killed off along the way. Hmmm, I have a couple more, but there is a reason for that which is revealed at the end - but I’m not saying, . . . . . .
Had enough, or do you want to know more? Suspensesisters is a great blog which has some informative articles on all aspects of crime and mystery writing, including cozies.
Nancy Mehl wrote a great post about writing cozies
And here is a new crime book club hosted by crime writer Rebecca Bradley - Great fun and some brilliant authors meeting on Google hangouts once a month to discuss the month's mystery novel.