Reading a cozy mystery requires a certain suspension of belief by the reader. Certain common elements are accepted in this popular subgenre and some are not. Let’s examine each one and see what we writers can do about them. Readers, feel free to chime in with your opinions!
Dead bodies all over town
Ever since Murder, She Wrote aired on TV, the “Cabot Cove Sydrome” has been well known. Set in a small town, this series of murder mysteries had a new dead body—or more—per week. Move these over to a book series, and you have a new murder show up in each installment. Some would say that the town or the sleuth is cursed. Our hapless heroine may be the unlucky person to stumble across the corpse. At other times, she’ll be informed by someone else and is stunned by the news. As the series progresses, she develops a sort of ennui when discovering dead bodies. It’s not that death is disrespected. She still shudders and shakes and feels compassion for the dead person’s family, but then she forges ahead to solve the crime. After all, no one can find peace until the criminal is caught.
A personal connection to the deceased
The sleuth must have a reason for getting involved in solving the crime. Either she knew the dead guy or she has a friend or relative who asks for her help. Even when our gal resolves to mind her own business, a mystery presents itself and only her unique talents can root out the truth. This personal connection is essential to the cozy genre. Finding the crook isn’t an assignment or a job. It’s her calling, and others recognize it even if she denies the role.
Not leaving it all to the police
If the heroine were smart, she’d dust her hands off and leave the crime solving to the cops. But no, that’s not possible in a cozy. The homicide detectives are too clueless, or too intent on the wrong suspect, or too busy with more important cases to follow through. Or they lack the heroine’s skill to get townspeople to talk because she’s one of them. Perhaps she’s better than the gruff police detective in coaxing people to spill the beans. Whatever her reasons for thinking she could do a better job, she still should consult the authorities and share relevant information with them. In some stories, the police may serve as an obstacle to her goal. In others, the handsome detective may turn into a potential love interest. Either way, she can’t just charge ahead on her own and ignore the cops unless she has a good reason.
Too Stupid to Live (TSTL) moments
This is where the plucky amateur sleuth goes to meet the killer on her own. She has no backup and oops, she left her cell phone in the car. As my editor would say, this is a no-no. We don’t want our heroine to appear dumb. She’s a smart woman, and she knows enough to at least text the detective where she’s going or to take a friend with her. She can have the best of intentions, and they may get sidetracked, but make her appear to be smart. Then things can go awry.
Time and energy for sleuthing
Does your protagonist have a job or a family? If so, how does she squeeze in the time to investigate a crime? Is she eating properly, feeding the pets, taking the kids to school, doing laundry, and fulfilling all the dozens of chores that capture our time? Making her life seem real includes all these daily activities. If she’s single and has her own business, it’s easier to free her schedule. But if she has inflexible job hours and family obligations, make sure she takes some down time and fits in her crime solving with everything else.
This is a big reason why I had a gap in my series books between when Marla, my hairstylist sleuth, had a baby and then the series resumed a year later. After seeing what our daughter went through with a newborn and a steady job, there’s no way my sleep-deprived heroine would have been able to think clearly enough or have had the energy to track down killers. Yes, Marla could have hired a nanny, but she was also nursing the child and not getting enough sleep. Would you have the energy under those circumstances to solve crimes? I couldn’t accept this for her reality, and so I skipped an interval in her life. Maybe I’ll fill this gap in later with a milder mystery that she can solve from home or between pediatrician visits.
A happy ending
In the real world, an amateur investigating a murder may very well end up dead. Or she’d be smart and run in the opposite direction when a crime is committed. We have better things to do than chase down murderers. But not so in a cozy. The sleuth investigates. Nobody gets badly hurt. Animals and children are safe. And the bad guy is caught. All’s well that ends well, which isn’t very realistic. Even if the crook gets caught, he might slip through the bars of justice, or his lawyer will find a loophole in the case. Nothing is guaranteed, except in a cozy which ends up like a gift package with all the plot threads neatly tied into a bow. Our heroine lives to see another day and another installment in the series.
What would you add to this list?