Nefarious Plots

Mysteries are, by definition about nefarious plots: creating them, writing them, and yeah, your characters both creating them and solving them.

How much importance you give to the puzzle itself varies, according to the type of cozy mystery you’re writing.

Even given that most cozy mysteries aren’t terribly realistic as to the details of the crime (usually but not always a death) there are still degrees of hardness.If you picture in your mind a line turning from the most blushing pink to dark brown, at the extreme pink end, you have what I call “soft cozies” which are more often than not mostly romance.  The murder is used as an excuse for the girl to meet the boy, which in the last dozen of those I read a few months ago is usually the policeman. (This is not a rule, though.)

At the extreme brown end, you have a serious puzzle.  The characters are less important than the solution, and often the detective exists only to gather the clues and try to obfuscate you, so that in the back of your mind you’re racing him to the solution.  (Him because this type of book almost always — though there’s no rule about it — has a male detective.)

For some reason cozies of this type these days are almost always historical.

Most mysteries hang out somewhere in the middle, though the last decade has produced a massive amount of the pink ones.  (Possibly because the establishment is convinced only women read, more likely because they’re lighter than air and very escapist, which has been helpful to many the last decade.)

Okay, so now, how do you plot a cozy?

I’m going to give you some rules. Keep in mind that these rules are not unbreakable. Dave Freer broke ALMOST all of them in  Joy Cometh With The Mourning: A Reverend Joy Mystery (a book you really should read) but he did it in the full awareness of what his reader expected. Because part of the cozy is playing with your reader (at least when it comes to the puzzle) and to do that, you need to know what the reader expects/will see/will read into your words.

Later — probably next week — I’ll give you a sample plot. And sure, you could take that sample plot and plug-and-play your way to a full mystery.  I swear a lot of people do just that, and you know what? I don’t even resent them. Particularly if they’re in the pinkish end of it. As long as they give me interesting characters and SOMETHING I want to read about (this applies to things like specialized knowledge. I might have no intention, ever, of opening a bakery or cafe, baking the perfect beignet, have a backyard forge, create papier mache sculptures, but they are interesting to read about. Particularly if wrapped in fun characters.), I’ll read it.  Because it’s the journey, not the destination.

HOWEVER if you take the “sample plot” and move things around and play with it, it will be more individual and probably more enjoyable.

Anyway, we’re not there yet. Today it’s sort of one of those games you played as a kid.  You know, there’s a picture of a bunch of stuff and you circle all the things that belong in, oh, your closet, or your school bag.

In the same way we’ll have things that belong (or don’t) in your mystery.  Some of them probably will surprise you.

Things that belong in your cozy mystery:

There must be a serious crime or the appearance of one.

There must be an amateur who gets drafted to solve the crime, for whatever reason.  Since in the normal way it is policemen who solve crimes (if they need solving) you must secondarily:
Have a reason your amateur is involved at all. (Often the first mystery involves someone the character cares about)
Have a reason he/she (most often she) has an inside edge. (In craft mysteries, but also in others, this is often specialized knowledge.  — Miss Marple’s “I know a lot about wickedness because I live in a village” type of thing — which allows him/her to see more than the police does.)

There must be suspects.

There must be a quest for information. This can me more or less adventurous, but it often involves searching places, and/or interviewing people.  I was very happy in the Musketeer mysteries to throw random sword fights into it.  Having action is not a bad idea, though, even if it’s just your character hearing a noise and running through the woods, either from or after someone.

There must be a limited number of suspects.  For whatever reason (either because of a clue found, or the setting for the murder, or its timing) the suspects should be a limited group, usually less than a dozen people. If you have much more than that, following your clues and interviews will become a muddle. Also you might end up writing the world’s longest cozy.

There must be an emotional impact.  Your character can’t simply go “Oh, aunt Pipin murdered the mailman. Good, now I know.”  Remember at their heard mysteries are mystery-plays about good and evil. You have to make us feel something: pity or scorn, or empathy or joy at the denouement.

This means THERE MUST BE A MOTIVE.  Nothing will get you thrown against a metaphorical wall harder and faster than your coming to the end and saying “this person killed this person, and no one ever knew why.”  No, just no.

Another name for cozy mysteries used to be “Malice domestic” (which is still a sub-variety, I think.) and that should give you a clue as to what they are: beyond everything else, cozy mysteries are the exploration of feelings leading to murder within a finite and known group of people.

The murderer must be part of the cast of suspects.  If you run us through all the suspects, and then it was some outside person who swooped in and killed the postman (I assure you that my postal delivery worker is perfectly safe!) I, as the reader, will be most seriously displeased. Yes, Miss Silver did it in some of her books. Not all her books, though, or I’d have stopped reading her at the second and never picked her up again.

Another thing that MUST — must — be in your cozy is some knowledge of how police work and what their procedure is.

It wasn’t always like that.  Both Murder She Wrote and Columbo, not to mention a ton of written fiction from the same era trample the rules for the collection of evidence or even AWARENESS of forensics to the four winds.

You can’t get away with it now. There have been too many shows on TV where we see policemen collect and bag the evidence, making sure it’s in the presence of witnesses, etc.  So, no, you can’t have your character say find a curious button, pick it up and put it in her pocket to confront the murderer at the climax.  Not unless your character for whatever reason doesn’t call the police and is doing it all solo. Because that button now means nothing, no matter what it shows her.

You can have your character take a picture of the curious button, or the seashell before calling the police and using THAT to confront the murderer, and hold it over his/her head at the climax. Because the police still has it safely in their possession, tagged and bagged before witnesses.

There are a million places on line to learn police procedure, including several guides on Amazon (pay attention to the reviews.) Look up writers and police procedure.

You should have motivations that don’t include Organized Crime or “she went crazy” or any other cop out. It shouldn’t be that difficult. Surely you can think of good reasons why anyone of your acquaintance might decide to kill anyone else.  We are humans. We do that.

So, in lieu of a reading list this week, go figure out three motives for murder amid your intimate acquaintance (yes, this can include positing things that your friends probably never thought of.) And do some reading on police procedure.

See you next week for the cheat-sheet.





  1. Hmm. On rules of evidence (and I am looking at someone over the top of my glasses here) – there are apparently two exceptions: a) the perpetrator never reaches court, they suicide or are killed by a vengeful third party in some fashion or other at the denouement; or b) the piece of evidence in question is not the smoking gun piece, but leads to finding the smoking gun.

    Although, either way, it can set up an interesting scene where the exasperated pro berates the over-eager amateur. Either for potentially ruining the case, or for endangering him/herself, or both.

  2. *Glances at her “Little List”* I have no earthly idea why anyone would desire the permanent absence of another member of the human race. Really. For reals. Cat’s honor. *holds up left front paw*

  3. “For some reason cozies of this type these days are almost always historical.”

    Perhaps, because it’s hard to keep a modern setting of this type from turning into a police-procedural.

  4. In G.K. Chesterton’s day, mysteries were also known as “shockers” and he complained that many writers as long as they produced the solution didn’t care that whether it shocked the reader.

  5. So if the murderer kills the first time in an effort not to be identified as connected with Organized Crime (or at least a drug ring somewhere) and the second time in order to keep the first murder covered up is that breaking the rule you just posted?

    1. Yeah, most likely.

      You have a tight group of people, and you know them, and either nobody could have done it, or they all could have done it.

      The reason for the killing is personal and emotional. I think that means that the emotion has to be related to something known originally about the character.

      A conventional criminal motivation would be a hidden personality aspect, and probably cheating.

      If your tightly knit circle is criminal, you probably need to establish that there is some honor code which the current crime transgresses in an unthinkable way. Which probably means one book tops. Previous go rounds of mystery/cozy theory discussion have argued that the critical emotional arc is that a) the crime is a transgression, a profound violation of the civilized order b) solving the crime is a partial restoration of the order. Criminals are generally not credible as holding to such a code, and some readers might prefer dousing them all in gasoline and igniting to giving a fig about their codes.

      I think a mystery where the cast are cartel members, and the ‘criminal’ is a police informant is an interesting mental exercise.

      1. A school is or can be a tight knit community but it can also be very diverse. So you can have a parent who is a doctor in the local hospital treating drug cases suddenly realizing that a teacher is a criminal he met in a different state by a hideous coincidence. So the teacher kills the parent by a method that is not instantly recognized as murder. Then he kills the principal who discovers him trying to destroy a piece of evidence. But many people dislike the principal so there are lots of suspects on a certain level. And all the ones who are well known to be mad at the principal have alibis.

  6. My crazy question for this go round: nuclear weapons design as the craft? Or, fancy physics simulation, something related, like that.

    Science is academia, so lots of possible motivations.

    The practical issue is that if one is equipped to write such books well, they probably aren’t books one should write.

    1. Part of the fun of Craft Mysteries, is the insight into the craft that the reader gets. And while we all would love to learn about nuclear weapons design, the more typical cozy reader might not be interested.

      Only one way to find out . . .

    2. nuclear weapons design

      Superscience as a craft? Imagine if Doc Smith has written a cozie! Seaton and Crane solve a murder aboard the Skylark 26.

    3. Having seen the inside of academia, I’m surprised that there aren’t more murders. It’s one of the few places where I could buy a murder-a-week type drama like Murder, She Wrote.

      1. I always assumed that the Inspector Morse series was a documentary. Look at all the tenure-track positions it opened up at Oxford!

        (I had a classics prof who swore up and down that _Death in a Tenured Position_ should have been a series all to itself. She had a List.)

    4. Re: superscience. Not so much. We don’t have perfect tools for modeling the fluid flows you see in nuclear explosions. So, open sources tell us that certain government labs are doing quite a bit of work on improving those tools, for use in better designs. From that we know a lot of the relevant specialties, and can learn a lot from the open literature.

      Issue is being interested, being good enough to write the technical details plausibly, and not being tied up with classified information rules despite those two. Also, smart enough to put stuff together from open sources, and stupid enough to save our adversaries the effort of putting it together themselves. Or, really, really, really smart, enough to build a plausible alternate universe of scholarship that would not save anyone any learning time, and would at the same time ring true.

      The series characters define themselves. You’ve got the very focused nerd lady who learned this stuff at a very young age, and the hunky security officer with the clearance to look at the various documents left at the scenes of the crimes.

      On pro super-science side, my instinct is that one explanation for the heroine’s background is that her parents were a two-fisted scientist astronaut and the space princess he married.

      1. While not the least bit “cozy”, The White Plague by Frank Hurbert did something like that with a genetically engineered plague (only killed women, iirc).

  7. One of the typical ways to avoid police is murder in an isolated place. Cut off the phone, the Internet, and the road, and you get elements of mystery and horror.

    This happened all the time in The Kindaichi Casefiles manga/anime. He was worse than Jessica Fletcher, and he was a teen detective! Detective Conan/Case Closed also used this trope a lot, because it permits some really gory murders (Japanese mystery is highly into Grand Guignol stuff).

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