Ever since Aesop wrote his fable about the city mouse and country mouse in the 6th century B.C., there has been an urge to divide the world into two kinds of people – those who prefer the country where it’s safe and comfortable, and those who long for the city, where there is more variety but also the perception of greater danger.
In the world of mysteries, you can see a similar sort of dividing line. Cozy mysteries are typically set in a small town or country village, where the murders are less gruesome and a true villain should be easy to spot in a tight-knit community where no one can stay a stranger for long. Thrillers, noirs and more hard-edged mysteries are more often set in the big city, where crime is considered more commonplace and murderers can disappear into the anonymity of a crowded night.
Of course, in reality, the world is not so easily, or cleanly, divided. If there was ever any doubt, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood showed us the country can sometimes be a pretty frightening and gruesome place. And as Cleo Coyle taught us in her long-running Coffeehouse Mysteries series set in New York City’s Greenwich Village, cities are nothing if not a collection of small communities that can still have a decidedly “cozy” feel.
Coyle’s Coffeehouse series was one of the first modern cozy mysteries I read when I discovered the genre in my twenties. As a young reporter living in Arkansas at the time, I devoured the books, as much for their clever mysteries as for their window into life in the big city, and how it was possible, even in one of the most crowded, bustling places on earth, to carve out your own little cozy corner.
Later, after moving to Houston, Texas, when I first sat down to write my own Cocktails and Catering Mystery series, I had embraced the city life, and knew without a doubt I wanted to set my stories in my adopted hometown. As the nation’s fourth-largest city, with its twelve-lane freeways and massive sprawl, Houston may not seem like the most conducive location for a cozy. But I followed the example set by Coyle and dozens of other cozy writers who have brought the genre to the city by focusing on two important elements of a successful cozy – a strong sense of community and a setting that can feel like an escape from the mundane and boring.
Big cities can feel immense and anonymous, which is why a strong community is key to making them work as a setting for a cozy mystery. In the Coffeehouse series, the community is the coffeehouse itself, including the baristas and regular customers who stop by to visit with Clare Cosi, as well as the family members who work there. The secondary characters are unique individuals, each with their own quirks and peccadillos that make them memorable and provide some level of support and community for the amateur sleuth. In Leslie Budewitz’s Spice Shop mysteries, it’s the shopkeepers, friends and visitors to Seattle’s famed Pike Place Market who help build the community. And in Jennifer J. Chow’s L.A. Night Market series, it’s family members and friends in the local restaurant community who help to create a touchstone for Yale Yee, the female protagonist at the heart of the mystery series.
The second key ingredient for a successful city-based cozy is a setting worthy of a mini vacation. I’ve always considered cozies as great escape books – the opportunity to spend a few hours in a place that is interesting, but totally different from, my current reality. While I’ve never minded an armchair visit to a charming seaside town or mountain village, sometimes I’d rather immerse myself in the exciting cuisine and culture to be found in a big city.
In Christin Brecher’s new A Snapshot of NYC Mystery series, the reader gets the fun of seeing New York City through a newcomer’s eyes. From the descriptions of both the high fashion scene to some of the lower-rent parts of the city, the reader experiences everything New York has to offer, right along with Liv and her camera. In Raquel V. Reyes’ Miami-based Caribbean Kitchen Mystery series, the reader gets to explore both the wealthy, old-money suburb of Coral Shores as well as the delicious Caribbean food and drinks of Miriam’s Miami. In my own series, I turn the focus on Houston and its wonderful dining and cocktail scene as well as its many unique neighborhoods.
With the inclusion of a strong community and some big-city sights, the city-based cozy is much like its more provincial counterparts – by the end of the book, the mystery is solved, the community is set to rights and hopefully, the reader has enjoyed a few vicarious hours in a place they’d love to visit, or even live. Here are a few recent city-based cozy mysteries to enjoy.
Photo Finished, A Picture Perfect Cozy Mystery #1, by Christin Brecher
–New York City–
Liv Spyer, an aspiring young photographer, moves to New York City and jumps at the opportunity to snap photos at the city’s most exclusive socialite event of the year. But what started out as a career-making gig ends up in murder, forcing Liv to expose the killer or leave her career on the cutting room floor.
Calypso, Corpses, and Cooking, A Caribbean Kitchen Mystery #2, by Raquel V. Reyes
Cuban-American cooking show star Miriam Quiñones-Smith is planning to spice up the Coral Shores’ Women’s Club’s annual gala with Caribbean food and Calypso music when the country club’s head chef falls to his death, plunging Miriam into another mystery.
Peppermint Barked, A Spice Shop Mystery #6, by Leslie Budewitz
It’s the Christmas season at Seattle’s famed Pike Place Market, and Pepper Reece’s Spice Shop is hosting a staff peppermint bark competition when a woman is assaulted at a neighboring wine shop. Pepper and her friends in the market must uncover long-hidden secrets and solve the mystery, or face a spicy end.
Death by Bubble Tea, L.A. Night Market #1, by Jennifer J. Chow
Two cousins who start a food stall at an L.A. night market get mixed up with murder as one of their first customers is found dead with the remains of their homemade bubble tea. The two must work together to solve the crime, or risk the family business and their reputations.
Bayou Book Thief, A Vintage Cookbook Mystery #1, Ellen Byron
A young widow leaves Los Angeles to start over in New Orleans to help launch a museum gift shop in the Garden District. But her new life gets off to a rocky start when she finds a dead body in a box of donated vintage cookbooks. She must solve the murder or her fresh start could turn sour.
Flight Risk, A Booking Agents Series #2, Cherie Priest
Psychic travel agent Leda Foley is trying to help a man search for his missing sister, when her friend, Seattle detective Grady Merritt, finds his lost dog with a human leg in its mouth. The pair must team up to solve the two intertwined mysteries.