Every family has someone who likes to create drama. You know, the cousin who disrupts Thanksgiving dinner with an embarrassing revelation. The tippling aunt who causes a stir at your sister's wedding. These are the people and the situations we roll our eyes at. And yet, what would our unremarkable lives be without such incidents? We love to remember the outrageous amid the everyday.
That is exactly what the mysteries known as "cozies" do: upend your expectations of relaxation and, in the process, make for something memorable.
The cozy mystery has had a long life, starting perhaps with Agatha Christie's Miss Marple novels. If you re-read them, they're actually much darker than what most people consider to be a cozy mystery today (the television adaptations are more like today's cozies). Yet the elements of what would become the cozy were there beginning back in 1930 and Christie's first Marple book, The Murder at the Vicarage: a small community, a grisly crime (usually committed off-page), and an amateur detective with a talent for human nature or noticing the important little details that the professionals miss (much to their annoyance).
Cozies have "a strong set of characters, a sense of community and you can relax," says Carolyn Haines, Author of the celebrated Sarah Booth Delaney mystery series. "They don't have the 'dread' factor, where you're afraid to turn the page," she says. Many mystery writers - who don't write cozies - "deal honestly with murder; and with people who are very flawed," which aren't what cozies are about. The settings for these cozy mysteries - often small towns - are places where "you become very comfortable," Haines says. "If it's not a place you've lived, it's a place you might want to vacation."
And, of course, a place where there are murders.
In Haines's newest novel, Bone Appetit, Sarah Booth and her friend and fellow PI, Tinkie Bellecase Richmond, take cooking classes at a resort, then get involved with a beauty competition going on there in which contestants are killed. Events both comic and suspenseful ensue as Sarah - and her ghost companion Jitty - work to solve the mystery.
As you can see from Bone Appetit, the presence of a ghost, or perhaps an animal, also marks the cozy. Consider Dog Park Club
, a debut mystery by Cynthia Robinson. It centers on a collection of dog owners who frequent a dog park in Berkeley, Calif., which is a remarkably natural way of introducing quirky characters (and their quirky pets). In Dog Park Club, Max Bravo, an opera singer gets drawn into the circle of local dog-owners while pet-sitting for a friend. When a young pregnant woman, and dog-owner, disappears, he helps to solve the mystery.
Campuses are small-towns with even more drama than regular small towns, with their hosts of egocentric academics, eccentric townies and nervous students. For instance, Donna Andrews sets her Meg Langslow mysteries in and around the campus of fictional Caerphilly College. In Stork Raving Mad, Andrews's 12th Meg Langslow mystery, Meg Langslow who, with her professor husband is expecting a new baby, are dealing with a surge of student guests after a heating plant mishap, but their house becomes a crime scene after the murder in their library (shades of Miss Marple) of a cranky member of the English department.
What unites these very different mysteries is the strong sense of place, the sense of belonging - and the sense that someone is doing something to disrupt the cherished calm of a community.
Of course, cozies wouldn't have remained as popular as they are if the mysteries weren't compelling. "A good cozy, almost any good book, it comes down to characters. And just because you use humor, it doesn't mean you can throw away the plot," says Haines.
And just because they're fanciful, it doesn't mean that cozies ignore the real world. And the real world is sometimes more unbelievable than the fictional one. "I did a book signing one time," Haines says, "and everybody there had a found a body somewhere, or knew someone who had. One of the ladies was telling us about a woman who had severed her husband's head with garden shears and who'd been sent to state penitentiary. They let her out to attend her daughter's debutante debut on her eighteenth birthday. That's perfect cozy fare," Haines says. "But it was real life."
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