Critical Essays on Cozy Mysteries

I’m so pleased to have Phyllis Betz as our guest today. I met Phyllis at the Popular Culture Association conference in Washington DC a couple of years ago when I was on a panel. It was thrilling to find out that there would be a scholarly study of cozy mysteries.

Phyllis: My name is Phyllis Betz, an associate professor of English at La Salle University in Philadelphia, PA.  I am the editor of an anthology of critical articles on the cozy mystery called Reading the Cozy Mystery: Critical Essays on an Underappreciated Subgenre, published by McFarland & Company.

As the subtitle states, the contributors to this volume take the cozy mystery very seriously; they have brought sharp critical attention to a type of mystery that is often discounted as not being seen as serious and, therefore, not worthy of critical study.  While it has taken many years for all popular forms to receive this kind of valuable analysis, the cozy, like the popular romance, is often shunted aside so that the hard-boiled detective or the police procedural gets the lion’s share of attention.

The idea for an anthology on the cozy came out of mine and others’ presentations at the Popular Culture Association over the course of two years. The majority of the essays in the anthology began as papers at those panels. Clearly, we all thought, and still believe, that the cozy offers a rich field for exploring genre, representation, themes, and cultural commentary.

While this anthology only scratches the surface of the cozy, its writers and readers, the essays provide in-depth examinations of the form. Four of the authors engage with the question of what exactly a cozy mystery is.  Some of you may be surprised to discover that Marty Knepper doesn’t see Agatha Christie as a cozy writer.  Four essays examine the impact of setting on the development of the cozy narrative and characters and consider how those places expand and contract over a series. The last set of four essays looks closely at some of the characters who appear in the cozy. These authors may offer the most surprising views as Stephen Cloutier makes the case for Lt. Colombo as a cozy detective as does Sally Beresford-Sheridan for Nero Wolfe.

Reading the Cozy Mystery is the first text, but I hope not the last, to consider the cozy as a subject deserving of close critical attention. I feel confident critics will continue, as the contributors to this work have done, to find that cozy mysteries, beside telling a good story, offer insights into the way popular literature provides entry into the wider world.

Readers: My question is a broad one to the readers of this blog: what do you read cozies for—the mystery, the characters, or the setting?

Biography: Phyllis M. Betz teaches English literature and composition. She also words in the field of popular culture and literature and has written three books on lesbian popular fiction.

31 Thoughts

  1. I am stunned, Phyllis. I had no idea there were scholarly studies of my genre. Thank you for bringing this collection to our attention.

    I write them for all three reasons. I love going back to the small town that I made up and visiting with the characters as I write about them, making up new ways for them to get into trouble.

    I am not alone among the wicked bloggers in bringing real life issues into our stories. Cozies may be considered light, but they’re not puffy.

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  2. I read cozy mysteries mostly for the mystery, but I continue a series for the characters. I want to see them again in another mystery. And, the setting does matter to me. I find myself drawn to places I have not been and to coastal locations.

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  3. I read cozy mysteries for a combination of all three reasons. I like the mysteries. I like the familiarity of the characters that grows with each successive book in the series and I like the places the books I read are set.

    Tell me a good story with characters I can come to love and make the general setting interesting and you have a pretty good shot at getting me to be a fan of the series.

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  4. The mystery, the characters, and the setting are all important when reading a cozy.

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  5. Definitely all three! If I can’t “get into” the characters, I won’t continue a series, so that’s most important to me. I like a little humor, too, to keep things fun. An intriguing mystery and a nice setting – mountains or seaside is what I like best – makes it complete.

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  6. What a wonderful book. I’m right there with Marty Knepper. I don’t believe Agatha Christie was really “cozy” either.

    With any mystery, all three factors are important, but it’s characters that bring me back to a long-running series.

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  7. Phyllis, thank you for joining us today and finding cozy mysteries worthy of study. I was thrilled to see some of my books mentioned. The essays are really fascinating.

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  8. Love cozies! They are wonderful mysteries where the amateur sleuth, although may be very well educated, doesn’t come off as smarter or better than her counterparts but rather have habits and flaws just as we all do. They are people we can relate to making it clear that if examined clues with an open mind that we can all see and do things thought of as out of bounds. I love that we can walk beside them, see and hear the same clues and try to come to the right conclusion before the reveal. There are usually people in the story we can all relate to – a friend, relative or even that annoying gossip or know it all person. Love when its a cozy series and we can imagine living in the town and knowing the townsfolk like old friends for more than one story. It shows how different situations show how it affects and is centered around different people with the one person being the center to hold it all together.

    To me cozies are comforting to read because unlike the news in the here and now, crimes are solved, the guilty caught and punished and the good guy always wins. It’s a breathe of fresh air after listen to the evening news or reading the daily newspaper.
    2clowns at arkansas dot net

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  9. I’m fascinated by this take on cozies. I see Marty Knepper’s point, but I think cozy seeds were planted by Christie, especially in Miss Marple as the underestimated female sleuth. I look forward to reading this. Thanks, Sherry and Phyllis.

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  10. Wow! This was wonderful for me to find in my inbox today! I’m definitely hunting down this anthology! Yes, I also see that Agatha as Shari put, “planted the seeds” for her successors. I read Cozies because of the mystery, the romance, the humor, the settings, the people (characters), the real-life situations, and struggles that are relatable real, and not overplayed. They used to call New York City (and on a larger scale, America) The Melding Pot. That’s a cozy to me, and that’s why it’s 99% of what I read. Phyllis, I’ll be looking out for your other books too, as I’m a “sister” of yours! Glad to stumble across your name.

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  11. Welcome to the blog, and thank you for your work! I write and read cozies for the combination, but I do think that characters are a huge driver for a series. Also, I agree that Agatha Christie isn’t cozy, but she is the grand dame of traditional, and cozy is a subgenre of that. My own protagonist owes a great deal to Miss Marple. Looking forward to reading the book!

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  12. All three are important to me as a writer, if one is missing the tales fall a bit flat. As a reader, it’s comfort that brings me back to the cozy. Both new and old series are like encountering old friends with a shared history.

    As for Dame Agatha – it’s a maybe from me. The Miss Marple books my idea of cozies, the balance of her work, nope.

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  13. Welcome to the blog, Phyllis. It it so great to have you here. We all know why cozies and romance are dismissed as subjects for critical study. Because they are, in the main, written by women for women.

    As for Dame Agatha, I agree she has many situations and characters that would result in her not being classified as cozy today (at least in American cozies) but she is the mother of us all. I will have to read the essay!

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  14. Thanks so much for visiting the Wickeds, Phyllis! I have to agree with Barb Ross about the reasons the subgenre is so thoroughly dismissed.

    I like the opportunity that cozies provide to watch characters grow themselves by making use of extraordinary situations that crop up in otherwise ordinary lives.

    I also think that they highlight a great deal of unacknowledged labor. These cases are solved, by and large, by the knowledge of relationships, personalities and context that has been acquired by the sleuth by dint of actively participating in her life. Every volunteer effort she has made, shoulder she has offered or oil she has poured on troubled waters of interpersonal exchange have distilled into a deep repository of knowledge with which to solve the case. To dismiss the cozy is to dismiss all the efforts that make up the daily lives of so many humans. Thanks for pointing a scholarly lens at this neglected subject!

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  15. Glad to see something like this. Not sure if I want to read it or not, however. I want what I read to be fun, and I’m afraid I would analyze it more if I read these essays. Make sense?

    For the record, Agatha Christie is most definitely cozy. And horror. While many of her books are cozies, I consider AND THEN THERE WERE NONE to be the first slasher story.

    I also argue that Monk was a cozy TV show, so I am open to a broad definition of what a cozy is. Columbo and Wolf fit right in as far as I am concerned.

    Then again, I am more about the feeling than the strict definition. So I read for character and mystery and setting. Somethings one more than the others, and sometimes all three. It depends on the book and series.

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  16. I read cozies, among other genres, for a combination of the three. They are however, in this order. First, for the mystery. It’s the storyline that first attracts me to a cozy. Second, for the characters. The characters are what make me want to come back for more. Third the setting. If the setting doesn’t make sense for the storyline, I’m done.
    Now, that being said, the best way to hook me, reel me in and make me a true blue fan of your series is to make a good storyline. Don’t make it too simple and easy to figure out or one where I see everything coming before it happens. Don’t be predictable. Develop characters that I truly like and by the end of the first book I have become invested in and I want to know what happens next in their lives. Make the place they live or the places they are visiting ones I can visualize and one I would like to see myself. Do those things and I will buy every book you write and tell everyone to read your books. You will definitely get a good written review from me.

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  17. I’m so pleased to read about this, Phyllis. I write and read cozies first for the mystery-or puzzle, as my mom put it- and then for characters and setting. I think gerri g to know characters over time deepens the enjoyment of reading a series.
    I’m also really enjoying the comments here discussing whether Dame Agatha was a cozy mystery author. My vote is sometimes. LOL. The Miss Marple stories set in St. Mary Mead check all the boxes for the cozy genre. The rest of her stories may fall outside the traditional cozy definition, but they’re fabulous tales, regardless of how they’re defined. So, that’s my take. 🙂

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  18. I’m thrilled to see this! I write cozies because I’m more interested in the characters, setting, and puzzle aspects to the story than the details of the murder. That’s the same reason I write them, too!

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  19. We are working to have a presentation by Phyllis and some of the contributors of this collection at MORE THAN MALICE. (I’m not in charge of that, but I believe all is still on track for that.)

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  20. Phyllis, thank you SO much for showing the cozy genre the respect it reserves. Many of us have been shouting into the wind about this for a long time. Here’s hoping some mystery organizations and cons will follow your lead and recognize the cozy mystery’s value. I can’t wait to read the book, and I love the title!

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  21. Thank you for this interesting article, Phyllis. I’m off to buy the book right now. And as for your question: I read the cozies i read for the world (setting + characters + tone) more than for the puzzle plot.

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  22. When I first pick up a cozy, I read it for the stories, the mystery, the plot and the satisfaction that the killer will be brought to justice. The second book in a series is about the characters. I also read to escape the world that we are in. Despite the number of murders within cozies, they are still a bunch of friendly people.

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  23. Wow. Critical essays on the cozy mystery! I feel like I’m circling back to academic life. I’m going to have to read it. Thanks, Phyllis.

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  24. I’m with many others: all three aspects are important for me to enjoy a cozy. I would add a fourth: something to bite into – something other than the formulaic, fill-in-the-blanks story. I love when I learn things because the author had put a lot of research into the writing.

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  25. Definitely all three for me! I love the mystery, getting to know the characters along the way and the setting of the town the me is set. Love a good cozy mystery any day!!!

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  26. I take serious exception to the phrase “mine and others’ presentations”! I’ve noticed this awkward phase two or three times now and wonder what became of “my and others'” which is what one would hear in normal speech unless one normally speaks Elizabethan (as in Elizabeth I) English. May you have a blessed day. Barbara

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  27. I read cozies for the characters, but I wish to discuss the phrase “mine and others’ presentations” used in the blog. It grates on the eye and the inner ear and I think this is the third or fourth time I have come across it. Unless one is writing an Elizabethan (as in Elizabeth I) historical, one would not say “mine presentation” but use “my”. So why toss in such a weird phrase in what is intended for a general audience? Normally I would contact an author directly if I had their email address, but I don’t have hers and she is not the only one using the phrase. Back to the whelming tide of unread emails…

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  28. First, I want to thank all of you for your positive reactions to our work. I will look forward to contributing to the discussion provoked not only by the essay in the anthology but to other topics on the blog.
    I just want to respond very briefly to a couple statements made by others: Barbara Ross is right on target with how the gender of authors impacts their critical and even popular receptions. Think of the male readers and commentators who reacted with horror when Paretsky, Grafton, and McCone presented the female hard-boiled detective. Today the hard-boiled female private eye has become a standard mystery character. Women writers, especially in genres considered male territory, face multiple negative reactions for their “intrusion.” This is a debate still worth having.
    Mark’s fear of criticism ruining his enjoyment of the original work is a valid one. As a critic and reader of criticism, I have come across terrible work that makes me doubt my own enjoyment and interest in a work or author. However, I have also read critics who have opened a work to me in amazing ways, increasing my enjoyment and making me re-read and rethink the author. Good critical comment should not destroy one’s reading experience.
    Marty Knepper, Mary Freier, and I are definitely presenting on the anthology at More Than Malice. We are scheduled for Thursday July 15, I don’t know what time yet, but we are hoping to save most of it for discussion. I hope you will consider joining us.
    Lastly, I sent Marty an email about the many comments on Christie, and she looks forward to continuing discussing Christies’ place and influence in the history of traditional/cozy mysteries. She has given me her email to share for anyone who would like to contact her: knepper@morningside.edu

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