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.


38 thoughts on “Mystery Structure – The Cozy

  1. Think I am going to have to pick up some cozies to read. My mother is currently working her way through Agatha Christie mysteries and has been enjoying them immensely. So I definitely see a market for books like this.

    1. Marian Babson is an author that I enjoy if you need to branch out. They’re very short, and they’re almost certainly out of print, but aside from some loose “series” using the same characters but not with a required sequence, they’re all stand alone.

      One of note is a murder mystery taking place during a “murder mystery” weekend (where everybody plays characters and tries to figure out whodunnit.) At the time she wrote this, it was an unusual thing and that was the draw. It’s a lot more common now. There’s even a dinner theatre in my city that does it (the place is called Suspects.)

  2. What’s ‘Malice Domestic’?

    For more reading:

    And my muse is asking if a cozy involving the administration of a Nazi concentration camp is technically possible. My better judgement’s answer is yes, but it would only function that way for a fringe audience. It might well have zero readers. Excepting maybe whoever gets pulled in by the sound and fury of SJW hissy fits, but I have some doubt that such would translate into actual enjoyment.

    It does seem like mystery in general might have room for police organizations based on models outside of traditional modern English and American forces.

    1. And my muse is asking if a cozy involving the administration of a Nazi concentration camp is technically possible. My better judgement’s answer is yes, but it would only function that way for a fringe audience.

      Ooh … what if it was a cozy involving the prisoners?. The Nazis aren’t going to care about one more dead prisoner, so if it’s solved, it’s going to have to be by one of the inmates.

  3. “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.”

    You know, I’m not really sure if this is true. The police are professionals, yes, but what they’re professionals at isn’t really solving mysteries. Most crimes are not mysteries: Gangbanger A kills Gangbanger B, or habitual domestic abuser Bob finally kills his wife. Crimes of the true “whodunnit” variety, much less the sort of crimes you see in a cozy, represent such a very tiny percentage of what the police do that I’m skeptical that they get a whole lot of training in how to solve them. In fact, the one true case that immediately comes to mind as having a similar structure to a cozy, the JonBenet case, is one where the police demonstrated startling incompetence and almost certainly will never solve it (granted, it was the Boulder police, who’s competence in the best of circumstances is measured in pico-units, but still…).

    That being said, it seems like the “friend on the force” is almost a mandatory element of the cozy: somehow or another, there has to be someone to make everything official. Poirot had Inspector Japp, Miss Marple had Sir Henry Clithering, Miss Silver had Detective Sargent Abbot, Jessica Fletcher had Sheriff Tupper and then Sheriff Metzinger. Any insights on that particular element of the cozy?

    1. Nero Wolfe said several times that the police were better qualified than he for ninety percent of the cases they dealt with. He made his living on the other ten.

    2. I can see a few reasons for having the police. First and foremost, the police partner is an effective foil for the protagonist. Second, the police partner can provide any physical evidence the protagonist would be unable to get — toxicology reports, cause of death, time of death, etc. Cozies may not rely on these details, but a few specific details establish some boundaries for the mystery. Third, they often create an incenting event by arresting the wrong person.

      The cynic in me wants to add one more item: the police help eliminate false leads. Because you know if the police suspect someone, especially early in the book, they’re usually wrong.

    3. Reading your entry, my mind immediately went to JonBenet Ramsey before you even got there. Yes, perfect example of what you’re describing, a local policeman whose specialty was drugs (where you know who did it, you just have to scrape enough evidence to bring them in), put on a case of murder instead of calling in the state police.

      There’s a special out there where the top state police forensic guy was brought in, and looking at the house plus a very good set of photographs, was easily able to see massive evidence of an outside intruder.

      So there’s a way to have a stupid policeman without condemning all of law enforcement, though as a reader, I would find it very frustrating and you’d run into “Truth is stranger than fiction because fiction has to make sense.”

      1. For that matter, let us consider Richard Jewell, the scapegoat of the ’96 Olympics bombing.

    4. And Sherlock Holmes had Lestrade; Batman had Commissioner Gordon.

      As the authors of Champions pointed out, any investigator / vigilante MUST have a “friend on the force”; otherwise, a 25 point normal detective will have an Investigation skill that can crack secret identities, and the motivation to do it.

  4. We just finished watching the “Father Brown” mysteries and enjoyed them. I don’t think that I would be able to write in that genre without laughing myself silly, but they can be fun.

    1. Father Brown stories are not cozies, at least, not like any cozies I’ve read. I’ve been reading, and enjoying, them recently (have to get back to those), and I think they are more spiritual allegory or commentary than what I think of a true mystery.

      1. In watching the TV versions I felt that the “Father Brown” persona was the “amateur” detective who led the “professionals” to the guilty.
        I haven’t read the books but I’m sure that they are deeper with more to offer.

        1. I’ve read some of the stories & seen some of the TV episodes & they had nothing to do with each other – besides having a character named Father Brown. That explains why IMDB says the TV series is “inspired by the GK Chesterton stories”. TV-speak for saying they borrowed the character & did their own thing. The stories were much more philosophical & some would barely qualify as a bona fide mystery.

        2. Yep. The stories (GKC never wrote a Father Brown novel that I know of) are *quite* different. The BBC series is cozies of varying quality.

          1. I will add that Father Brown came across as the same kind of detective as Miss Marple. Not a detective as much as a deep and wise student of human nature.

  5. The police are masters at the use of Occam’s Razor. Paraphrasing, the simplest most direct explanation is most often the truth. Most crime is for profit, usually drug related. Murder is likely committed by someone the victim knew. But there is tremendous pressure on the police to close cases, so when that razor slips and cuts the wrong way they still go with what they know.
    And therein lies a tale, or a bunch of them.

  6. “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.”

    I am thinking of the conspiracy theory about Angela Lansbury and Karl Malden. Lansbury murdered ’em, Malden stole their traveler’s checks. 🙂

  7. > The police are masters at the use of Occam’s Razor.

    I remember a case where a soon-to-be ex-husband with a large life insurance policy turned up dead.

    For some reason, suspicion immediately fell on the soon-to-be ex-wife beneficiary of said policy (stripper with a drug problem) and her new biker boyfriend (long rap sheet for violent crimes).

    It didn’t exactly require Sherlock Holmes to crack that case.

    1. On the other hand, I had a friend who was found dead is his house from blunt-force trauma. The police declared it a homosexual tryst gone bad, based on what his neighbors told them: Reclusive, no contact with neighbors, large groups of people visiting his house and staying long past midnight, with no party noise, etc.

      One of our friends went to the police and explained a few things. Like how “reclusive” a bachelor architect with no local relatives can appear, especially when he picks a house for its quality-to-price ratio and ignores the neighborhood’s makeup altogether. (His was the palest skin for miles.) Or how marathon D&D sessions can go on for hours without making noise. (Best DM we knew.)

      Our friend was upstanding enough, persistent enough, and polite enough, that the police decided to reorient the Razor slightly. And quickly found the fellow who’d clubbed our friend when he interrupted a break-in.

      It occurs to me something similar, with a slightly more exotic murder and a local PD more inclined to protect their image, would make a fair cozy. You don’t have to be stupid to be wrong…

  8. Favorite Miss Marple story is ‘The Body in the Library’…taking the stereotypical mystery scenario and mixing it up to great effect.

    My favorite thing about the stories is that Miss Marple’s real talent wasn’t so much brilliant deductions as she understood people. Silly, selfish, inconsistent, deeply human PEOPLE on a gut level. It made even the weirder stories seem plausible.

    1. Yup. practically every deduction she made was moral–based on a parallel case she’d seen in the village. Similar evil on a much smaller scale.

  9. Virtually all mysteries are murders. It’s not necessary, and it doesn’t even HAVE to be an indictable offense — but I’ve noticed that most of the exceptions are short stories.

    1. Nancy Atherton’s Aunt Dimity stories are largely murder-free. Of course, they’re closest to cozy mysteries because you’re dealing with the personalities of the people involved, and there is a flipping GHOST for crying out loud, but they are still technically mysteries.

      1. As I say below, you can have a non murder mystery, if the stakes are high enough. In the Dimity series, the substitute for death is usually heartbreak. In a gentle cozy that seems to work.

    2. It can be something else, but it has to be a *big* something else. Theft of something ungodly valuable, high treason and imminent doom–the stakes have to be high.

      Or–in a short story–it can be just a puzzle. But then it’s usually a comedy. Dorothy Sayers dropped Lord Peter into several of those- -in the last Wimsey story he clears his son of the crime of stealing peaches off a neighbor’s tree. And everybody has a nice chuckle.

      1. No, the boy does steal the peaches. That’s why he’s implicated in something else later. Though an even clearer example is the one where he has to track down a will. (One of those “no indictable offense” short stories I mentioned.)

        1. Been a long time. Thanks. But the point stands, I think. The crime Bredon is accused of is only slightly more serious. The story is basically a good-natured comedy with the theft as the centerpiece. As are most of the will-searches and treasure-hunts. A serious story requires a serious McGuffin.

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