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Cozy Up To A Good Mystery – Agatha Christie Style

By Sharon Reily, Reference Department

It’s a chilly Sunday afternoon and the rest of your family is parked in front of the large screen watching a football game. You, however, are nestled into your favorite comfy chair in front of a glowing fireplace, steaming cup of tea in hand, a soft throw over your knees. You sigh happily as you open another installment of your favorite “Miss Marple” mystery series. This singular pleasure was brought to you courtesy of Agatha Christie, one of the creators and the chief purveyor of the mystery genre known as the “Cozy.” Forty-one years after her death in 1976, Agatha Christie is still one of the top-selling authors of all time, with novel sales in the billions. This September marks the 127th anniversary of Agatha’s birth. So in Agatha’s honor, we’ll look at this traditional mystery genre closely associated with her novels, and explore ways to find works by other authors that will appeal to Cozy fans.

The heroine of Charlaine Harris’ Aurora Teagarden series is a librarian.

Mystery fiction is divided into several major categories. Hard and Soft Boiled Mysteries generally feature a seasoned professional detective who often must contend with personal demons while investigating a crime. Procedurals offer blow-by-blow analysis of how a crime is solved, either by detailed detective legwork or scientific investigation. Thrillers and Suspense novels don’t always hinge on solving a crime or murder that occurs at the start of a novel, but instead focus on some ever-intensifying threat to the protagonist and feature lots of plot twists. There are also countless mystery sub-genres – Capers, Domestic, Historic, Noir, Romantic Suspense and True Crime, to name a few.

And then there are the Cozies. Sometimes called Traditional Mysteries, the Cozies are distinguished from the darker, grittier mystery genres by several crucial characteristics:

  • Instead of a hard-boiled detective, the Cozy crime solver is an amateur sleuth who is almost always a woman. Agatha’s Miss Marple is a prime example. The amateur sleuth usually has some other vocation – caterer, chef, cat fancier, bed and breakfast owner, or librarian.
  • In a Cozy, the setting is key!

    The setting of a Cozy mystery is critical and helps provide the novel its “cozy” character. It is often set in a small rural town or charming village, or in some cases a closed environment such as an isolated estate or even a train. The intimate nature of the setting allows most of the suspects to know each other. Bishop’s Lacey, the quintessential English village featured in Alan Bradley’s delightful Flavia de Luce series, and Cabot Cove, the location of Donald Bain’s “Murder, She Wrote” novels, both illustrate the perfect Cozy setting.

  • Cozies are lighter in tone than other mystery genres. They are considered “gentle” mysteries with little or no graphic violence or explicit sex. The murder almost always happens “off stage” and the victim is sometimes a less-than-sterling character who may have had it coming. Any sex occurs strictly “behind closed doors.” [Quick note: some current Cozies tend to be edgier than earlier examples of the genre.]
  • The amateur sleuth is not a police officer or forensics expert, but almost always has a friend or significant other who is one. Through this friend, our sleuth gains access to information, such as an autopsy report, not usually available to your average person.
  • The local law enforcement tends to underestimate and dismiss the amateur sleuth, allowing her to “casually overhear” key details at a crime scene.
  • Many Cozy Mysteries are parts of series.

    A Cozy usually features a “red herring” – a clue that steers the reader away from the actual criminal or suggests an inaccurate conclusion.

  • The victim and possibly some of the suspects are often known to the amateur sleuth. They could be old college friends or coworkers.
  • Cozies usually boast a cast of colorful, likeable, eccentric secondary characters who are often as important to the reader as the amateur sleuth.
  • Cozy mysteries are often written as parts of a series. Readers become emotionally involved with the amateur sleuth and other recurring characters and feel they’re “coming home” to a familiar place and old friends when they begin their next Cozy. There are MANY series to choose from, but a few notable ones include Agatha’s Miss Marple series, M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin series, Nancy Atherton’s Aunt Dimity series, Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series, and the previously mentioned Flavia de Luce series by Alan Bradley (my personal favorite).

    Two intrepid Siamese, Koko and Yum Yum, help their human solve crimes in the “Cat Who” series.

  • Cozies sometimes center around a hobby or theme – everything from cats and the culinary arts to knitting and holidays to tea shops and libraries. A link to a great list of Cozy mysteries arranged by theme is included in “Further Reading” at the end of this article.
  • The good guys usually win and the evil-doers get their comeuppance.

Once you’ve devoured all of Agatha’s Miss Marple mysteries, what’s next?  The list of possibilities is literally endless. To help narrow the field, check out three of Agatha’s contemporaries who helped establish and refine the Traditional Mystery formula and, along with Agatha, comprised the four great “Queens of Crime”:  Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957), famous for her Lord Peter Wimsey series, Margery Allingham (1904-1966), known for her Albert Campion series and Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982), creator of the Inspector Roderick Alleyn series. WCPL has a good selection of works by each of these writers.

For contemporary Cozy novels, there’s no better place to look than the list of winners and finalists of the annual Agatha Awards. Since 1988, Malice Domestic, an organization celebrating the Traditional Mystery, has honored mysteries that best typify Agatha Christie’s works, defined as mysteries that contain no explicit sex, no excessive gore or gratuitous violence, and can’t be classified as “Hard-Boiled.” The 2015 and 2016 Agatha Awards winners and finalists are listed below with titles available at WCPL noted in bold. A link to the complete list of winners and finalists since the Awards’ inception in 1988 is included below under “Further Reading.”

2016

2015

If you’re already a fan of Cozies or just ready to try them, one thing is certain — you won’t run out of reading material any time soon. See below for lists of works that will keep you reading for years to come. Enjoy…and stay Cozy!

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