Art reflects life, none more so than in literature, IMHO. And I’m pleased to report that cozy mysteries are no exception.
Sure, this delightful subgenre still adheres to many of the rules that initially defined it. A plucky amateur sleuth; a hook such as a bookstore, craft shop, or, in my case, winery; a setting with a small-town vibe and close-knit community; and, of course, a puzzling mystery. And longtime readers continue to find a gratifying escape, a warm and fuzzy feeling along with a sense of justice, the subject matter never growing too heavy, with any violence or heated romance happening offscreen.
But modern cozies are very much a capital-T thing.
I talked about the rise of millennial cozy mysteries here, along with a few recommendations for anyone hoping to dip their toe into this clawfoot tub of comforting, frothy bubbles. What I want to discuss now are a few specific factors I’ve noticed in cozies geared toward younger audiences. And highlight a few more books, naturally.
Voice is the first thing that leaps out at me from the opening pages of a book. What is voice? It’s that je ne sais quo an author evokes—the word choice, sentence wizardry, puns (the more puns the better, please and thank you!), and every snippet that gives us a hint as to how our valiant amateur sleuth operates. And I’ll fangirl all over a character who’s authentically vibrant and youthful, through playful twists on idioms, snappy dialogue, and slang. Take that witty yet compelling opening line that immediately gets us on Lila’s side in Arsenic and Adobo by Mia P. Manansala, or how we feel like we know every member of the Thursday Murder Club in Richard Osman’s clever caper.
As someone who grew up in the era of social media, I always press that figurative favorite button when it’s incorporated into stories. For a while, I think authors were hesitant to include Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or TikTok in case they proved to have the shelf-life of a sliced avocado. But social media has proven to be a mainstay in daily life, and has so much potential to inject tension, intrigue, humor, and information into a plot. Especially for cozies, where the amateur sleuth may not have access to law-agency resources. A fantastic example is No Memes of Escape by Olivia Blacke. Not only is there a selfie-obsessed Instagram-influencer as a suspect, there are also faux-posts that serve as both epigraphs and #lifegoals.
I can’t express how much I’ve appreciated watching the cozy mystery genre become more representative, showcasing authors with diverse voices and backgrounds, and casts of characters that encompass a broader range in terms of race, gender identity, and culture. Seriously, it’s so refreshing—and needed! We all deserve to see ourselves reflected in the pages of books, not to mention varying our reading in this way fosters empathy and understanding. I’d especially love to highlight the stellar family dynamics in A Deadly Inside Scoop by Abby Collette and Mimi Lee Gets a Clue by Jennifer J. Chow, which add so much depth and agency to the mysteries themselves. Bonus, you’ll get to enjoy drool-worthy ice cream descriptions and one of my favorite sassy cat sidekicks, Marshmallow, respectively.
While cozies tend to be lighthearted, I respect when they incorporate current events and real-world issues. Whether through the mystery elements, setting details, character backstories, or some combination of all of these. They can be things like renewable energy, land development, mental health, and even the whole panini, which Louise Penny incorporated into her latest. Another great example is Fresh Brewed Murder by Emmeline Duncan, where meatier topics such as runaways are handled with dexterity, never getting too heavy but adding authenticity to the story, and imparting interesting tidbits to boot, like the idea of suspended coffee.
Okay, so this last factor might need a little explaining…but pets! Somewhere in the process of outlining the fourth book in my Colorado Wine series, I realized I’d inadvertently added a new cat in every installment (cat nerd, c’est moi), and my main character is pretty much a heartbeat away from adopting them all and embracing her role of crazy cat lady, which I would 100% support, BTW. It got me thinking about the fur babes that grace the pages of cozies and how this trend started.
Reader, it goes all the way back to the beginning with the proverbial mother of the genre, Dame Agatha Christie. While Ms. Marple and Hercule Poirot didn’t have regular animal companions, there was the fox terrier Bob in Dumb Witness, who inspired the title of the book and was responsible for tickling those little gray cells into suspecting an accident might have been something more malicious.
Fast forward to The Cat Who series by Lilian Jackson Braun, wherein we’re introduced to the down-and-out newspaper reporter Qwill who begrudgingly takes in a purr-snickety and completely lovable siamese cat named Koko. Good thing he did, too, because Koko is instrumental in solving their many cases together, along with another adorable kitty, Yum Yum.
In 1990, we were gifted the Mrs. Murphy Mystery series by Rita Mae Brown, featuring a clever—and rather superior—cat and corgi duo, Mrs. Murphy and Tee Tucker. These two not only provide humor throughout, and offer constant support to their owner, Harry, they also embark on investigations themselves.
Then, with the dawning of the millennium, came the tomcat Moishe in Joanne Fluke’s Hannah Swensen series. He makes a statement from the very beginning, and, while not lending a paw directly in the detecting, makes his presence known. Usually in the area of vittles, or in helping his human dodge unsolicited motherly advice.
There are countless cute and cuddly examples, their purposes varying from lightening the tone to giving us insights into characters to paw-ticipating (I couldn’t help myself, sorry-not-sorry) in the actual reveal.
During the revision process for my debut novel, Killer Chardonnay, I received a note from my brilliant editor along the lines of: more cats! Which remains one of my favorite editorial comments to date. Because cozy readers love their pets. Now more than ever.
We’re living in an era where everyone is connected, yet isolated. The dumpster fire that was 2020 led to us being home more often, time and again relegated to virtual gatherings, which, let’s be honest, leave something to be desired. We were already cleansing our virtual timelines with accounts devoted to adorable animal pictures (@Bodegacats_, anyone?), so it should come as no surprise that many turned to the real thing, too, even coining the phrase “pandemic puppy.”
These pure, sweet souls offer comfort, companionship, and levity. Which are arguably some of the reasons we read cozies to begin with. And these days, animal sidekicks are basically cozy law. We crave and soak up their fictional snuggles as much as we do those from our IRL pets.
It’s an exciting time in the cozy-verse and I can’t wait to see how the genre continues adapting, broadening in scope, and welcoming new readers. Come on in, the water’s fine!