What is a Cozy?

We are sure the debate over what is a cozy will never end.

FebBooksSherry: Edith and I recently attended Left Coast Crime in Monterey, California. During one of the panels there was a discussion about what defines a cozy mystery and what makes it different than a traditional mystery. I was surprised when one author said the most important thing in a cozy is the setting. Another author said that cozies have a “precious” factor.

I found both of these statements interesting and inaccurate when thinking about my upcoming novel Tagged for Death (coming in December 2014 from Kensington — I know, I know shameless self promotion alert). While I love the setting I created — the fictional town of Ellington, Massachusetts and a fictional Air Force Base, Fitch AFB — without the characters and action no one would give a fig about them. I like to think my characters and storyline are real and plausible. What do you think Wickeds?

IMG_3160Edith: I have a little set piece I bring out when people ask what a cozy mystery is. To summarize: village setting, amateur sleuth, a lighter tone, with sex, violence, and obscenities all off the page. But as Cleo Coyle does so well, a village can be a neighborhood in a big city. And mild swearing sometimes creeps onto the page. And sometimes the romance gets a little hot. Breaking the rules is allowed. But maybe others have different rules. At LCC one panel invented the term “cozy noir.” How’s that for a crossover?

maplemayhemJessie: I think cozies provide a puzzle in a place readers would like to visit over and over, peopled with characters that come to feel like old friends. For me, cozies are about communities a sleuth cares enough about to try to return things to normal after the unthinkable happens

Julie: This is such a great question, and I’ve thought a lot about it. I wrote a post on my other blog (Live to Write/Write to Live) about being a cozy reader/writer. I really love the genre, and look back to the Golden Age of detective fiction (between the world wars) for inspiration for my definition of a modern cozy. A cozy is in a small community/controlled space, has interesting characters, a good puzzle, lacks gore, sex is off screen, and it restores order and/or provides justice. The last is important–cozies help people feel better about the chaos of life. Ironically, it is done via a murder (usually), but that dichotomy is for another post.

Boiled Over front coverBarb: I think about this a lot, too. For me, as others have suggested, in a cozy mystery the world is an orderly and just place and the sleuth’s journey (usually, but not always an amateur) is to restore order and serve justice by solving the crime. In noir, the world is a chaotic and unjust place and the sleuth’s journey only proves how chaotic and unjust the world is and always will be. Which is why I’m not sure about “cozy noir.” I think “cozy” is a bigger tent than people credit it, and cozy readers are similarly more diverse and eclectic than you might expect. (At least the ones I hear from.) Though cozies are often considered to be written by women, for women (and we should talk about the impact of that at some future time), I’ve been astonished by how many men have read and enjoyed Clammed Up.

Readers: What do you think?


25 Thoughts

  1. “Precious” made me cringe, I must admit. I agree with your definitions of a cozy, particularly with the emphasis on restoring order and serving up justice. Would that this would apply to the real world.

  2. I don’t like precious, either. My cozy WIP is far from precious–my character is a brewer, for heavens sake. I think the characters make a book a cozy, even more so than the setting. If you’ve ever gone to the Festival of Mystery, some of those readers talk about certain characters like they’re family members or best friends. The characters are what keep them coming back again and again.

  3. I define cozy mystery by the feelings it gives me. Characters with whom I can identify, a protagonist I like and can root for, a setting and atmosphere where most people are well-intentioned even if they are hugely flawed, no emphasis on gore or sex–although as we all know, a certain amount of that does exist, and a statisfying ending.

    And I love the idea of cozy noir! I think it describes my Jesse Damon series (Steeled for Murder, Fostering Death, Buried Biker, Sendoff for a Snitch) very well. I have described it as a cozy mystery in a noir setting.

  4. More wit than grit! I read once that a cozy is a mystery in which more tea than blood is spilled. Kind of cute. My understanding is that its setting is (usually) a smallish town where the characters know each other, and that there’s no graphic violence or sex or a lot of bad language. An amateur sleuth solves the crime. I think the main character has to be moral and not too conflicted. Of course, like Dame Agatha, you could have a country house where the characters know each other.

  5. For those unfamiliar with mystery genres period, I usually identify a cozy with Agatha Christie or Murder, She Wrote. Of course, MSW had plenty of episodes set in NYC (especially in the second half of the series). And one of Christie’s two best know characters was a PI.

    What do I think of as a cozy? I usually do go with an amateur in a small community who gets involved in a murder and solves it. Obviously, that definition can expand, as I’ve already shown above. What is more important to me is the lack of graphic violence, sex, and language. As others have said, emphasis on the puzzle more than disgusting readers.

    And you’ll notice I’ve said nothing about cats. How is it that cats have come to be part of the cozy definition? Nothing against them, but it is part of the cliche I find funniest. (Which reminds me, if I ever do write that cozy spoof I keep threatening to write, the main character must have a cat.)

    1. The first time I talked to my editor on the phone she asked me if I was thinking about giving my protagonist a pet. When I said I was considering a cat, she said, “Excellent!” So, yes, they like their cats!

  6. I think of the cozy as the comedic form of a story–the world is upset but the sleuth rights all wrongs, finds the culprit and restores order. The noir, on the other hand, is the tragic view of life–it’s all bad and getting worse. I’m an optimist. I prefer the cozy. I like to see things work out.

    1. That’s part of the way I think of it, Susan. And just as funny things happen in tragedies and sad or deadly things happen in comedy, there’s plenty of room for drama in either.

  7. Hey Wickeds! I know I’ve talked about this topic before–right here on this very blog–but I like some romance in my cozies. Which to me ties in with the idea that cozies, despite the presence of death, are fundamentally life-affirming. That the power of love, and domestic activities such as cooking, or knitting, or baking, or quilting provide comfort and continuity in the face of death. More significantly, cozies restore ORDER to the disrupted community. Once the culprit is unmasked and taken from the community, the reader has the sense that “all shall be well,” and the characters are free to go back to their lives. Until the next book in the series, of course. ;>

  8. Precious should be cringe- inducing, but more often than not, books in the current crop of cozies are not just precious, they are twee. Many are romances crossing over…ugh. Agatha Christie, Hazel Holt…not twee!

  9. A friend says the cozy is a mystery in which there’s a murder but no one gets hurt.

  10. To the Wickeds et. al.: As the member of that LCC panel who used the word “precious” to describe the atmosphere of many cozies, please let me say a word in my defense. In the context of that panel, we were talking about settings where a sense of reality has been heightened in some way, made slightly offbeat, comical, or somewhat unrealistic. As always, I have the late great Charlotte MacLeod as my guardian angel when I write my Dickens Junction mysteries. In her case her sense of reality (Balaclava Junction) was heightened in a generous and gentle way, and sometimes with just a hint of archness, a tongue-in-cheekiness that I suspect she was quite proud of. In this sense of “precious,” a highly refined sense of place often characterizes cozies, as does the convention that justice is almost always served, another dimensions in which cozies diverge from many contemporary traditional mysteries (think the Inspector Wexford novels by the greatest of them all, Ruth Rendell).

    I would invite the Wickeds to read The Christmas Carol Murders to see whether I honor that sense of respectful, arch, generous whimsy in creating my little village of Dickens Junction and its characters. Whether you agree or disagree with my definition, I am honored and thrilled to consider myself part of the cozy/traditional mystery writers’ band.

    see my website at http://www.dickensjunction.com

    Christopher Lord

    1. Thanks for clarifying that remark, Christopher. I was at your panel and very much look forward to reading your books. I think the issue might be in various people’s sense of the word precious. I love your phrase, “respectful, arch, generous whimsy.”

    2. Christopher,

      Thank you for commenting/clarifying. And I look forward to reading your series. I am a bit obsessed by A CHRISTMAS CAROL–spent an entire month blogging on different versions a few years ago.

      Just downloaded the first book,


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