VJ Books Blog

The traditional cozies-think death by knitting needle – have changed with the times while remaining true their light-hearted spriit.

 “I specialize,” Agatha Christie once said, “in murders of quiet, domestic interest.” Today, almost 90 years after the publication of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, her first novel featuring the fastidious Belgian private detective Hercule Poirot, the traditional mystery still thrives. Readers continue to crave the classic whodunit, a puzzle they try to solve along with the protagonist, who may be a professional like Poirot or an amateur sleuth like Miss Jane Marple, one of Christie’s other creations.(Publisher’s Weekly, May 4, Jordan Foster)

Violence is never absent from these tales—they are, after all, murder mysteries—but there’s a definite lack of gore and gratuitous carnage. Louise Penny, whose award-winning Chief Insp. Armand Gamache series is set in the tiny Quebec village of Three Pines, likens the suspense in her novels to that of famed director Alfred Hitchcock, who “knew that less is more.” Says Penny, “My books aren’t about murder—that’s simply a catalyst to look at human nature. They aren’t about blood but about the marrow, about what happens deep inside, in places we didn’t even know existed.” In October, Minotaur will publish Penny’s fifth Gamache novel, A Brutal Telling.

A quaint village setting isn’t required for a traditional mystery, but whatever world the author creates is paramount. From Holmes’s flat at 221B Baker Street in Victorian London to the tiny English hamlet of St. Mary’s Mead where Miss Marple spent her days, the setting and the surrounding community is integral to the story. Broadening this focus on communities, the genre has seen an upsurge in recent years in theme-based mysteries, often called cozies, geared toward gardeners, knitters and even animal enthusiasts. Judy Clemens, president of Sisters in Crime and author of the Stella Crown series, describes the cozy as having “a ‘softer’ atmosphere, such as the world of quilting, a bed and breakfast or antiques.” As the genre expands, so does the number of hobbies, professions and location-based cozies. Lilian Jackson Braun—whose Cat Who series features journalist Jim Qwilleran and his two cats, Koko and Yum Yum—was one of the first authors in the genre to incorporate talking animals as major characters into her work.

Another long-running feline-centric series is Rita Mae Brown’s—“co-written” by her own cat, Sneaky Pie—which finds cats Mrs. Murphy and Pewter helping their owner, retired postmistress Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen, solve crimes in Virginia. Ballantine will publish her memoir, Animal Magnetism: My Life with Creatures Great and Small, in November. For readers who enjoy a wider range of pets, Blaize Clement’s series stars an ex-sheriff’s deputy turned professional petsitter, Dixie Hemingway, in Sarasota, Fla. Minotaur published the fourth installment, Catsitter on a Hot Tin Roof, in January. As an added bonus in a number of craft-based cozies, authors include recipes (Diane Mott Davidson), knitting patterns (Maggie Sefton) and teatime tips (Laura Childs).

Often, the focus in the cozy is the engaging—and often quirky—hero or heroine and his or her network of friends and enemies, rather than the nitty-gritty details of crime solving. The shift in emphasis from puzzles to characters and atmosphere is a key element in differentiating the cozier offshoots from their more traditional predecessors and contemporaries. Humor is also a cozy staple, helping to provide a counterbalance to the murders, as bloodless as they might be, that propel the stories. Even though cozy mysteries don’t appear on bestseller lists as regularly as thrillers, there are several authors who buck the trend, like Diane Mott Davidson, whose Fatally Flaky, the 15th installment in her series featuring Colorado caterer Goldy Bear, debuted at #5 on the New York Times bestseller list on its release in early April.

While the vast majority of cozy mysteries are written by women and focus on traditionally female pursuits—crafts, gardening, home decorating—the term is sometimes viewed as demeaning by authors who think it denotes a lack of substance. Sisters in Crime president Clemens notes, “It’s hard to be taken seriously when women writers are lumped into one category that’s seen—mostly by people who don’t read widely in the genre—as being light and unimportant.” Shawn Reilly of Malice Domestic, an organization that honors traditional mysteries, observes, “There is some controversy about ‘cozy’ in some circles—it’s not always a label authors like attributed to them because of some real or imagined stigma against ‘cozy writers.’ ”

Alexander McCall Smith—whose No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series featuring Botswana private investigator Precious Ramotswe—is certainly an exception to the female-dominated genre. Though crimes are certainly the catalysts in Smith’s tales, the heart of the series is the engaging Mma Ramotswe and her eccentric friends and neighbors. Pantheon published the 10th installment, Teatime for the Traditionally Built, in April, and HBO is currently airing an adaptation of the series.

For readers who prefer a more traditional read, Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache series exemplifies the classic, Christie-style whodunit updated for the 21st century. Penny describes her work as “not confined to any one sub-genre, since I’ve pretty much stolen from every genre going, including literary fiction and poetry. I use whatever is available and cobble together a story.”

One of the mainstays of the well-crafted contemporary mystery is Margaret Maron, whose long-running series features a North Carolina district judge, Deborah Knott. Bootlegger’s Daughter, the first in the series, won the Edgar, Agatha and Anthony awards for best novel in 1993. Grand Central will publish Maron’s 15th Knott novel, Sand Sharks, in August.

In both the publishing and mystery communities, traditional and cozy mysteries figure prominently. Larger publishing houses—like Penguin’s Berkley Prime Crime and Obsidian imprints—and smaller presses—such as Kensington and Midnight Ink—publish several traditional and theme-based cozies every season. For cozy writers in particular, mass market publication is often a stepping stone to a larger audience. For example, Elaine Viets, whose Dead-End Job series features a woman who abandons her affluent lifestyle for a series of minimum wage jobs, debuted in mass market and is now published in hardcover. Obsidian will publish the eighth installment, Killer Cuts, in May. Berkley Prime Crime’s upcoming cozy and traditional lineup includes Dropped Dead Stitch, the seventh book in Maggie Sefton’s knitting-themed series coming in June.

Kensington publishes Joanne Fluke, whose series revolves around Hannah Swenson, the proprietress of the Cookie Jar bakeshop in Minnesota. In March, Kensington published the 11th installment, Cream Puff Murder. Midnight Ink’s promising new trade paperback series from G.M. Malliet features Cambridge DCI Arthur St. Just. Following Malliet’s Agatha-nominated debut, Death of a Cozy Writer, Midnight Ink published the second installment, Death and the Lit Chick, in April, which found St. Just investigating a murder at an Edinburgh writers’ conference.

When it comes to awards, those given in the mystery community are as varied as the genre itself. The Agatha Awards, which are voted on by attendees of the annual Malice Domestic convention and named in honor of Agatha Christie, specifically recognize traditional mysteries. This year’s winners were announced on Saturday, May 2. As defined by the organization, the traditional mystery is one that “contains no explicit sex, excessive gore or gratuitous violence; usually features an amateur detective; and takes place in a confined setting containing characters who know one another.” Guidelines for Agatha nominees specifically state that while “novels and stories featuring police officers and private detectives may qualify, materials generally classified as ‘hard-boiled’ are not appropriate.”

In contrast to the Agathas and other fan-based awards, such as the Anthony Awards, presented during the annual Bouchercon convention, the Mystery Writers Association’s Edgar Awards are voted on by a small group of industry professionals. Clemens chalks up one reason for a general lack of overlap between Agatha and Edgar nominees to the fact that “the Edgars, which are determined by a small group of a specific organization’s members, usually lean toward books that are more hard-boiled.” Otto Penzler—owner of Manhattan’s Mysterious Bookshop and publisher of the Harcourt imprint Otto Penzler Books—disagrees that the MWA doesn’t recognize traditional or cozy mysteries, citing awards for Aaron Elkins’s Old Bones in 1988, Margaret Maron’s Bootlegger’s Daughter in 1993 and S.J. Rozan‘s Winter and Night in 2003. These types of mysteries, he adds, “also have a pretty good record in the paperback original category, where a disproportionate number of cozies are published.”

Overlaps between the two pools of nominees are not unheard of, and two examples in the last decade demonstrate that both organizations recognize excellence in crime fiction, regardless of subgenre. Laura Lippman’s In Big Trouble (1999) and By a Spider’s Thread (2004), both part of her Tess Monaghan PI series, were nominated for both an Edgar and an Agatha in the same year, as was Jacqueline Winspear’s 2003 debut, Maisie Dobbs, a traditional mystery featuring the titular journalist and psychologist in 1920s and ’30s Britain.

Traditional mysteries have come a long way since the Golden Age of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. But even as our world becomes increasingly modernized, there is always room for another puzzle, another caper to test the deductive skills of Holmes’s descendants and stimulate the little gray cells prized by Poirot.