September 19, 2014

Cozying Up to Murder

By Leslie Budewitz

When I say I write cozy mysteries, some readers light up. “My favorite kind,” they say. Others squint and tilt their heads, asking, “What’s that?”

You all know the traditional mystery—think Agatha Christie, whose mysteries feature a Belgian detective, a sharp-eyed spinster, and a dashing couple of spy-catchers. One modern incarnation is the cozy. It’s the comfort food of the mystery world, the mac & cheese. And who doesn’t love that now and again? (Or carbonara if you’re Italian, like my protagonist’s mother.) No graphic sex or violence; lots of graphic food.

Okay, so they don’t all involve food. Some involve knitting. Or librarians or booksellers, psychics or museum directors. Or the owners of haunted houses and hotels.

But no FBI agents or bomb squads—at least, not as protagonists, unless he or she is retired and running a fudge shop. (In Sheila Connolly’s Museum Mysteries, her protagonist dates an FBI agent named James Morrison. Cozy writers love to play with names.)

The setting is typically a small town—my Jewel Bay, Montana, Janet Bolin’s Elderberry Bay, Pennsylvania, or Barbara Ross’s Busman’s Harbor, Maine. (Bodies of water are not required, but they do set a certain tone.) A cozy can also be set in an urban neighborhood or community: the capital environs in Julie Hyzy’s White House Chef Mysteries, Greenwich Village in Cleo Coyle’s Coffeehouse Mysteries, or the museum world Sheila Connolly’s characters inhabit.

Regardless of the rural or urban setting, the murder is a shock that disturbs the natural order. An amateur sleuth—typically female—is drawn in by the personal nature of the crime, and uses her skills and connections to solve it.

Not everyone likes the term. Carolyn Hart, a goddess in the mystery world (and a past president of Sisters in Crime, which calls former leaders goddesses), 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?” Not cozy at all—downright terrifying—but in my opinion, the term is cheekily ironic for exactly that reason.

There is an official investigation, of course, run by law enforcement. But our amateur sleuth hears and sees things the police can’t. She knows the community—she and her shop, cafĂ©, or gallery are often at its center. As a result, she may be convinced that the police are focused on the wrong person—maybe her, or someone she’s close to. She may fear they will act too quickly or fail to take seriously the clues she uncovers. They may find her helpful—or try to stop her from interfering.

Ultimately, in the cozy, both professional and amateur detectives are essential, because they serve different functions. The professionals’ job is to restore external order, through the legal system. They can’t succeed without her, despite their initial reluctance. By giving her help, she demonstrates the triumph of the individual over evil. Her involvement in righting a wrong restores balance to the community. She restores social order.

That’s what a cozy is about: community. How it’s formed, how it’s damaged, how it’s restored.

And of course, how it eats.
Leslie Budewitz is the national best-selling author of Death al Dente, first in the Food Lovers' Village Mysteries set in northwest Montana, and winner of the 2013 Agatha Award for Best First Novel. Crime Rib, the second in the series, was published by Berkley Prime Crime on July 1, 2014. Assault and Pepper, her Seattle Spice Shop Mysteries will debut in March 2015. Also a lawyer, Leslie won the 2011 Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction for Books, Crooks &Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law & Courtroom Procedure (Quill Driver Books), making her the first author to win Agatha Awards for both fiction and nonfiction. For more tales of life in the wilds of northwest Montana, and bonus recipes, visit her website and subscribe to her newsletter. Website:   
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