Years after Agatha Christie penned her last Miss Marple novel, the cozy genre has exploded across the reading world. Cooking mysteries, murders set in cheese shops, even bee-keeping mysteries are relentlessly devoured by rabid fans, and publishers keep them coming. What makes this genre so popular? Why are readers choosing amateur sleuths over cops? Humor over violence?
Sit down, have a cup of tea, and let's talk murder.
Welcome to the world of cozy mysteries, where between tastes of cheese, samples of scones, or sips of wine, you can enjoy the excitement and suspense of solving a murder, all without dropping a single crochet stitch. But don't be fooled by the books' colorful, inviting covers featuring soft furnishings, sweet treats, and bright flowers. Look closer and you'll begin to notice the shadow of foreboding, the hints of impending doom. These are not all fluffy stories with bumbling cops and slapstick hilarity. People die in these books. Often horribly.
In the world of crime fiction, cozies occupy a very comfortable corner. What makes this genre so popular? I have a theory, but before we get to that, let me ask: Do you know what a cozy mystery is? Don't worry if your answer is "no," most people don't. While there are many fans out there who devour new books as soon as they're released, the vast majority of readers have never heard the term.
Cozy mysteries, also known as traditional mysteries, provide all the suspense and intensity of a high-stakes murder investigation, but they do it in a place where you might like to live. The detectives in these stories are amateurs who rely on their talents, wits, and no small bit of snooping to get the job done. They tend to be smart, likeable young women who already have their hands full juggling work, love lives, and family--when someone in their circle is murdered.
The term "Cozy Mystery" is a controversial one. Carolyn Hart (an award-winning author and champion for the genre who has written more than 50 novels and whose fiction has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize) asks: "How cozy is it to die in agony from poison, knowing your killer is among your intimates, but dying without knowledge of the culprit?" How cozy, indeed? Hart prefers the term "Traditional Mysteries," as in the tradition of Agatha Christie.
Outselling many of their rough and tumble mystery brethren, cozies/traditional mysteries feature amateur sleuths thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Rather than follow a grizzled police detective, a down-on-his-luck private investigator, or a corporate spy, cozies ask the question: What if? What if an ordinary person--someone like you, or me, or the local librarian--were to be thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Like, say, a murder investigation?
Who among us hasn't imagined being caught in exactly the right place at the right time (or wrong place at the wrong time, depending on your perspective) and daydreamed an exciting, life-threatening, high tension scenario where we were the hero? Where we saved the day? Call me Walter Mitty, but I know I'm not alone in this.
When we follow the adventures of a person who's like us--someone who serves on the P.T.A, runs a booth at a Farmers' Market, or manages a lingerie shop--we get the chance to live vicariously. We inhabit their lives for a short time, visiting with their friends and fuming at their enemies. When danger lurks, our adrenaline runs high.
Cozy/traditional mystery protagonists uncover all sorts of dreadful deaths: a victim
swarmed by killer bees (Hannah Reed's Queen Bee series), smothered in a garbage tote (Lorna Barrett's Booktown Mysteries), or tossed over a four-story railing (my Manor House Mysteries). Not so different from blood-spattered police procedurals or creepy psychological thrillers. Except maybe that along the way, cozy readers learn something about beekeeping, bookselling, or curating antiques.
Readers of traditional mysteries are sophisticated enough to recognize a gruesome death without all the gory details. They don't need to see puncture wounds, spouting blood, or eviscerated guts. Traditional mystery readers aren't in it for the grisly display. They're in it for the story. They're in it to spend time with characters they've grown to love.
What sets cozy mysteries apart from other crime fiction genres is that the jolt of adrenaline we get while reading comes because we've been there. We've dealt with unpleasant guests, demanding clients, and overbearing relatives. We know how it feels to be wronged, and all of a sudden murder doesn't seem so far-fetched.
Readers tell me how much they enjoy the adventures I write, how much they love revisiting characters who have--over the course of several books--become good friends. These readers often use the word "escape." Some of them are facing debilitating disease or are dealing with a family member's illness. Others simply need a break from hours behind a desk or from changing baby diapers. They write to me to say thank you for the chance to disappear into someone else's crazy life for a while.
Cozy/traditional mysteries offer a safe place for readers to indulge themselves. Cozies provide fast-paced entertainment without the fear of nightmares--a journey in the company of beloved protagonists. And if, in the process, readers learn a little bit about curating a museum, pairing wines, or are granted a peek behind the scenes at the White House, well, that makes the journey all the more fun, doesn't it?
Julie Hyzy is the author of the Manor House series. The newest book in the series, Grace Takes Off, is out this week.