Blog – Posted on Friday, Dec 21
A Guide to Cozy Mysteries
Cozy mysteries are a subgenre of mystery novels that depict crimes “lightly.” This means that the stories don’t involve graphic depictions of sex or violence, and they typically play out in small communities — often British villages.
Apart from acting as a counterpart to more “gritty” crime novels, here are a few more distinctions:
- They offer readers a puzzle to solve — the narrative should always keep the reader in the loop by presenting them with clues.
- At the end of the novel, the crime is explained in plain detail — there are no loose ends left untied.
- The crime should not be “senseless” — readers need to at least kind of be able to grasp why someone would commit such a crime.
- The protagonist solves the crime via common sense and logic.
The term “cozy mystery” (or sometimes just “cozies”) was first coined in the late 20th century as a way to categorize certain novels that harked back to the “Golden Age of Detective Fiction.” Agatha Christie is typically seen as the forerunner of the cozy mystery, and her amateur sleuth Miss Marple is an emblem of the genre’s classic protagonist.
While cozy mysteries find their roots in the classic detective novel (which existed long before the 1920s), they have their own set of distinct standards. Grab your magnifying glass and let’s take a closer look.
Elements of cozy mysteries
Where else to begin than with the main star? Let’s start with the sleuth.
Usually an upstanding citizen who doesn’t have any formal investigative experience. The protagonists of cozy mysteries are typically well-educated and have jobs that entail frequent interaction with other people in their community. This is key to their involvement in the mystery, as they usually find themselves driven to investigate because they 1) find the body, 2) someone close to them is a suspect, or 3) the victim is someone that they know. Not to mention their innate curiosity (though most would call them busybodies) that makes it impossible for them not to search for clues.
Finally, they have to get their insider information from somewhere, right? Which is why these crime solvers usually have a contact in the police force who gives them the scoop — perhaps a friend, a sibling, or a spouse.
The majority of cozy mystery protagonists are women (the most famous of which is Miss Marple!). However, there are exceptions, such as Jim Qwilleran from The Cat Who… series.
In the Fixer Upper series, Shannon Hammer conducts her investigations in Lighthouse Cove, California. In Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Flavia de Luce sleuths in Bishop's Lacey, England. Miss Marple does her eavesdropping in St. Mary Mead.
What do all of these popular cozy mysteries have in common? They are set in small, idyllic villages, communities, or hamlets — and most books in this genre follow suit. The towns are small enough that everyone knows their neighbors, and it’s not easy to hide dirty laundry or skeletons in closets. (Or not for long, anyway.)
The Supporting Characters
No detective is an island (isn’t that how the saying goes?) — and amateur ones certainly wouldn’t get very far without other people to bounce their theories off.
Cozy mystery protagonists need reliable soundboards. The supporting cast therefore often manifests in the form of a best friend, but other staples include a family member, a spouse, or regulars at their business. Not to mention ghosts (check out the Sarah Booth Delaney Series) and pets (see the Mrs. Murphy series). While the protagonist might be developing tunnel vision as they strive to bring about justice, this supporting character will ground them and provide additional insight.
Beyond the best friend, the setting of the mystery should be populated with a cast of memorable characters that provide the protagonist with both support and challenges.
As mentioned earlier, cozy mysteries are meant to be “light” and do not involve graphic or gory descriptions — relatively speaking, anyway. This doesn’t mean someone can’t be stabbed to death, but it shouldn’t be depicted in graphic or gory detail. Poison is a popular form of murder in cozy mysteries because it’s “bloodless” — while a more “twisted” type of homicide, like a beheading, wouldn’t be welcome.
There’s also a distinction when it comes to the motive of the murderer: Batman’s Joker-esque serial killer who murders for the sake of it, for example, would not inhabit this genre. Instead, antagonists are motivated by human emotion: greed, humiliation, pride, heartbreak, and so on. For instance, a man might kill his sister when he finds out that their dying father plans to leave all of his fortune to her. Or a woman might find out her husband is leaving her for another woman and kill him in the heat of the moment. Accidental murders also feature frequently — for instance, one character pushes another in the middle of an argument, resulting in a lights-out bump to the head.
Now you know some of the staples that frequently crop up in cozy mysteries! If they’ve convinced you of the genre’s intrigue, here are a few books to get you started on your career as an armchair detective (a name often given to fans of cozies).
9 of the best cozy mysteries
Few subgenres do series (and long ones, at that) better than the cozy mystery. And while you might not be tempted to move into any of the small towns where they take place (why would people live in a village that witnesses murder on such a frequent basis!?), what tends to keep readers coming back are the iconic and intuitive main characters.
If you’ve been a longtime fan, this list will hopefully remind you of a few of your favorite cozy mysteries. If you’re a new reader looking to break into the genre, the following nine series will give you a good place to start. (Plus LOTS of reading material!)
1. The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Series by Alexander McCall Smith
Mma Precious Ramotswe is Botswana’s #1 (and only) female detective. She’s only just moved to Gaborone and set up a small office to “help people with problems in their lives” when, well, people with problems come knocking. In the series’ first installment (which bears the same name as the series), Precious investigates a missing husband, follows a wayward daughter, tails a con man, and looks into the disappearance of an eleven year-old boy.
Precious uses her wit and good humor to her investigative advantage, and — like all good cozy mystery heroes — always makes time for an occasional cup of tea with her right-hand woman, Grace Makutsi.
In 2008, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency was adapted into a tv series by the BBC. Check out the trailer here.
For readers who: Want a cozy mystery that’s not set in the typical British countryside.
2. The Hannah Swensen Series by Joanne Fluke
Hannah Swensen runs The Cookie Jar, the most popular bakery in Lake Eden, Minnesota — and her Chocolate Chip Crunchie cookie is the stuff of town legend! And while we’ve all heard the saying that “there’s no such thing as bad PR,” when the town’s beloved milkman is murdered behind her bakery (and her famous chocolate chip cookies are scattered around the crime scene), Hannah decides she needs to help bring about justice: both for the poor milkman and the reputation of her cookies.
Thus, Hannah’s career as an amateaur sleuth is born — and the case of the Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder (adapted for film as Murder, She Baked) is only the first of the 24 cases (and counting) that Hannah solves. Helped along by her knack for following the cookie crumbs, as it were.
For readers who: Want to combine their love of baking cozy goods with reading cozy books.
3. The Flavia De Luce Series by Alan Bradley
“I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn’t. Quite the contrary. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life,” says 11-year old crime-solver (and budding chemist) Flavia De Luce. This thought occurs to her when she finds a dying man in her family’s cucumber patch in the village of Bishop's Lacey — only hours after finding a dead bird on the front doors with a postage stamp pinned to its beak.
In typical cozy mystery style, these bizarre events rock the foundation of a seemingly peaceful English countryside life — and Flavia finds herself unable to resist investigating when the death is ruled a homicide, and her father is one of the suspects.
Flavia doesn’t shy from the strange and mysterious, and if you don’t either, you might just want to follow her through the series’ ten cozy books.
For readers who: Like a little chemistry thrown in with their murder mysteries.
4. The Agatha Raisin Series by M.C. Beaton
When London PR agent Agatha Raisin retires and moves to Carsley, a village in the Cotswolds, she discovers her skill for solving murders. (Although local police and even her friends would insist this is less “skill” and more “dumb luck.”) But lightning doesn’t strike twice — much less 30 times, which is about how many murders Agatha has solved so far in this series.
In the first book, Agatha joins a local baking contest looking to ingratiate herself with her new neighbors. But when her entry — a store-bought quiche — ends up poisoning and killing one of the judges, her attempt at making new friends actually results in a mass of threatening notes. Now the clock is ticking for Agatha to come up with a recipe for getting herself out of a sticky situation.
For readers who: Want to read cozies with extra helpings of comedy.
5. The Booktown Mystery Series by Lorna Barrett
As the Amazon description so eloquently puts it: The streets of Stoneham, New Hampshire, are lined with bookstores and paved with murder. Sounds pretty nice, except for the tiny murder detail.
And when former big city dweller Tricia Miles moves to Stoneham, it does seem pretty nice — at first. Her neighbours seem friendly, and even fellow bookstore owners — now business competition — are cordial when Tricia opens her own bookstore. But when she finds Doris Gleason murdered with a carving knife in her own cookbook store, that good-natured, safe, small-town feel shatters. Especially when Tricia finds out that she’s become the #1 suspect.
If Tricia wants to clear her name, she’ll need to start emulating the detectives from her favorite mystery novels fast, and uncover the real culprit.
For readers who: Love reading cozies with small-town settings.
6. The Singaporean Mystery Series by Ovidia Yu
Not all cozy mysteries take place in an English hamlet. If you’re looking to branch out and to get to know amteur crime-solvers from other parts of the world, start with Rosie “Aunty” Lee: a feisty widow and owner of Singapore’s favorite restaurant.
Passing up the chance to become a “tai tai” — a woman who lives a life of leisurely luxury — when her husband passes away, Aunty Lee instead decides to devote herself to building a culinary empire.
But even the most focused of businesspeople can be sidetracked: when a body is found at one of the city’s tourist attractions at the same time that a wealthy guest is MIA from one of her dinner parties, Aunty Lee can’t help but get suspicious. And when a rookie police commissioner turns to Aunty Lee, asking her to use her social connections to help him solve the case, her double career as culinary superstar and rockstar detective kicks off.
For readers who: Like their cozies peppered with mouth-watering chillies.
7. The Cat Who… Series by Lilian Jackson Bruan
It’s not often that books require a distinction when it comes to the main human character and the main animal character. But The Cat Who… series is one of those books: Jim Qwilleran is a reporter and the two-legged protagonist of the series, and Koko and Yum Yum are his Siamese cats (the other four-legged protagonists). Together, this trio solves a wealth of various crimes over the span of 29 novels. Koko helps Jim with his apparent “sixth sense” and Yum Yum is exceptional for her dexterity.
The first novel of the series, The Cat Who Could Read Backwards, sees Jim entering the world of art journalism. What he thinks will simply be another assignment turns sinister when the gallery he’s covering turns out to be the location of a stabbing, vandalized paintings, and a fatal fall from a scaffolding. Can Jim and his trusty feline sidekicks get to the bottom of it, or will more blood (and not paint) be splattered?
For readers who: Enjoy animal- or pet-themed cozies (and yes, there are plenty more!).
8. The Tea Shop Mystery Series by Laura Childs
Can you even talk about southern hospitality without mentioning tea? Theodosia Browning sure can’t, which is why she runs one of Charleston’s favorite tea shops. She gives visitors and locals alike a taste of warm southern comfort (and we’re not talking the whisky here). But — you knew there was a “but” coming — when a guest is found dead with a teacup in his hand at a big event Theodosia is catering, her tea starts to leave a sour taste in the townspeople’s mouths.
Like so many cozy mystery protagonists before her, Theodosia must now hastily uncover the real murderer before her business, her reputation, and her life are all thrown in hot water.
For readers who: Think murder is a tea best served hot.
9. The Miss Marple Series by Agatha Christie
You didn’t think we’d write a list of the best cozy mysteries and not mention the queen of small-town-sleuthing herself, did you? New and long-time fans of the subgenre alike will already be familiar with Miss Marple, which is why we’ve left her for last.
In case you need a brushing up on exactly who she is, here’s a quick character sketch of Jane Marple: she’s an elderly woman and longtime resident of the village St. Mary Mead. She is a spinster — an important detail to note, as one of Christie’s goals with Marple was to give old maids a voice. Christie described one of her most loved and famous characters as "the sort of old lady who would have been rather like some of my step grandmother's Ealing cronies – old ladies whom I have met in so many villages where I have gone to stay as a girl.” In this way, Miss Marple was meant to be a familiar character to readers — and she does indeed seem to have resonated with many.
While Miss Marple was first featured in a 1927 short story, her debut appearance in a full-length novel occurred 3 years later in The Murder at the Vicarage. Colonel Lucius Protheroe is the most disliked man in St. Mary Mead — to the point where it’s not really a huge surprise when he’s found murdered. What is a surprise is the fact that he’s found in the local vicar’s office, that there are seven total suspects (including the vicar himself), and two very different people have already confessed to the murder. Sounds like a case for the Metropolitan Police, right? Absolutely not. Miss Marple and her intuitive gifts are bound the crack the case — and crack it she does.
For readers who: Enjoy the “classic cozies.”
Alright, armchair detectives, we hope you’re ready to pull out your magnifying glass — so you can better read all of these cozy mysteries, of course.