Mystery Structure – The Cozy
Before I get into the post proper, I’m going to be gone for three Wednesdays starting next week. I have a guest post lined up for next week, and will figure out the other two. Do not be alarmed. I haven’t forgotten this series, and will resume after I come back. It’s just that I won’t be here, and connecting might be iffy.
Anyway, back to our series. So, Cozies are a subtype of mystery, and I sort of get why the glitterati try to avoid the name. They’re convinced it means “tea cozy” or something equally stupid.
If you divest yourself of that notion, “cozy” fits.
Cozies, a subtype of which is the “Malice Domestic” are murder mysteries that take place in and are solved in a small set of people, often related to each other. Most of Agatha Christie’s work are cozies, except for what might very well be the worst thrillers in the history of thrillers.
My favorite of Christie’s work is the Hollow, closely followed by The Moving Finger (I WAS Megan from the Moving Finger, as much as one can be a fictional character.)
The crime, which is described in glossed-over terms and where you don’t indulge in exactly what went where usually shatters an otherwise “normal” situation. IOW, if you didn’t have a crime, that book would be a mainstream slice of life. (Yes, even the funnier cozies which would be mainstream comedy.)
One of the objections of those who hate cozies and one of the reasons that in the nineties various people, from editors to reviewers to writers of how-to books tried to read the Cozy entirely out of the mystery genre is that they say it’s not logical. No old spinster, no funny little man, no people with no qualifications can solve a crime better than the police. The police are professionals and have training, and writing these things is pure fantasy.
This is me rolling my eyes. Someone pointed out that mysteries are morality plays, and the cozies are very much morality plays. What I mean is: it’s fiction. Yeah, surely, in those medieval stories the babe at the breast didn’t talk, and if it did, it wouldn’t give the right answer. And of course, in most cases little spinster ladies or smashed up fliers don’t solve the crime before the police. Or do they? Do you really know if someone with internal knowledge of the people involved did put the police onto the right track? How would you know?
Of course you have to sell it. Why is the police not on the right track? There are tons of explanations you can deploy, including having all the physical evidence pointing in the wrong direction, or having the people in the group where the crime happens be so close knit and tight lipped that they’re hiding some essential point from the police. At which point only one of them can solve the crime.
Often in the first books with a ‘detective’ this means he/she is personally and closely involved. After that, they either become known for doing this or their extended family has really bad luck. There are the Miss Hart and Miss Hunt mysteries by Celina Grace where one wonders why anyone employs these women as maids. you know someone is GOING to die.
Be that as it may, the book takes place in a tiny circle, and its plot is usually spiral-form. You go over the same people again and again, each time with something that happened or was told before forming the crowbar with which the questioner will uncover the next circle of deception.
Dreams are acceptable in pointing you at the solution, but should not GIVE you the solution because fairplay is important in these books. it is, in fact all about pitting your brains against another “normal person” (the detective.)
The other part of the structure is that there is often a second murder halfway through. This is so expected, I know I’m halfway through the book when I hit the second murder. It is often the running suspect up to that time that gets murdered. Piling on clues (false herrings, of course) against him helps you hide the clues against the real murderer, so that when you have to redirect, the reader has to re examine everything just like the “detective” has to.
How unpleasant can you make the murderer and the murder? Pretty unpleasant. The motives can be anything from hiding other murders to far worse stuff. Then how is it cozy? Well, you don’t usually dwell on filth that you’re bringing up, just mention it, matter of factly.
So… are these mysteries really depressing? Oh, heck no. Yeah, sure, these “normal” people are often terrible, but it is a normal person that solves the murder and returns order to the world, and this is often done to save the innocent (often two people in love) from suspicion. In the end, good triumphs.
How to have a successful cozy series: have a sympathetic amateur detective and sidekick/s.
Take Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, the books, not the series: she is everyone’s favorite grandmother, and you want to spend more time with her.
If you’re writing about younger “detectives” it’s not bad to have a little “romance” and will she won’t she going on. It will make people look for the next book.
Must it be murder mystery? Well, probably not, but some ghouls like me prefer if it is. It makes the whole thing more important and puts the detective in more “peril.”
Oh, yeah, most mysteries have a “timing clock” that is something that will happen if the murder isnt’ solved. In cozies this is often the imminent arrest of the wrong person, or of course, the killer striking again.
I think that’s what you need to know, but I confess I’m a little scattered with the impending trip, so I’ll be happy to take your questions.