Why is it so hard to write a good cozy mystery?

Posted by on Sep 8, 2014

Why is it so hard to write a good cozy mystery? I asked this first out of frustration – it seems that every new series I try is just not that good – and then out of genuine curiosity. Cozies are one of my favorite genres, and I feel like I’m running out of new authors to try. I recently read a trio of cozies: Just Desserts by Mary Daheim, Murder on the Rocks by Karen MacInerney (both of which are the first in their respective series, and set in bed and breakfasts), and Deadly Valentine by Carolyn G. Hart. For all three of these, I kept getting pulled out of the story as I was constantly noticing things that could have been done better.

Deadly Valentine was probably technically the best of the bunch, but was so littered with references to other mysteries, detectives, and their authors that I kept getting distracted. I love mysteries (obviously) and it’s always fun to see books you love referenced in other books, but keep it down to a few per chapter, not a few per paragraph! In places it was almost unreadable. Also (mild spoiler alert) I found it hard to believe the sheer percentage of married couples who were cheating on each other, which I guess was necessary to provide possible motives for the suspect pool, but seriously, we are talking upwards of maybe 85% of the couples you are introduced to are cheaters.

Murder on the Rocks was maybe a little less well constructed than Deadly Valentine, but I enjoyed it the most of this bunch. It was just…pleasant, which a cozy by definition should be. The only thing I found to really annoy me (and this is by no means unique to this story or author) was the main character’s attraction to her neighbor has to be mentioned every time he comes up. We get it. She thinks he’s cute. I don’t need to hear about his striking green (or whatever colour they were) eyes every. single. time. Or hear about how well he fills out his jeans with every step he takes (or every move he maaaaaakes). If I were suspected of a brutal murder and was looking at the loss of my freedom and livelihood, I’m not going to be spending my time staring dreamily at my neighbour’s butt. That being said, I would probably read more in this series. It was interesting, and pleasant, and not terribly stressful.

Just Desserts I was very disappointed by. I’ve heard Mary Daheim recommended a number of times, and she has about a billion books out, so I was expecting great things. Not only did it suffer from the “we get it, she thinks he’s cute” syndrome mentioned above, but there were a number of other problems I had with it. First and foremost was the info dump in the first few pages. Character names, backstories, all are dumped immediately into our laps without context. I have a hard enough time remembering the names of people I know, much less fictional ones. If they’re all thrown at me in a few paragraphs, I’m just not going to be able to keep up, and then I spend the rest of the book trying to remember who was who’s sister, or cheating ex-boyfriend, or uncle’s roomate’s cousin’s dog sitter. I didn’t find the main character compelling or sympathetic, nor did I find the supporting characters to be so. In short, as I said, disappointing.

So why is it so hard to write a cozy? I think it has a lot to do with finding the right balance in many different dimensions.

  1. The right amount of suspense and violence: it’s a bit strange that we relax by reading about fictional people being murdered, but there it is. It should have enough tension to keep us hooked and want to know whodunnit, but not so much gore that we have trouble sleeping at night.
  2. Characters who are interesting and quirky without being caricatures.
  3. Enough characters to provide a reasonable suspect pool without overwhelming readers.
  4. A realistic reason why this amateur sleuth is a) investigating at all (instead of the police) and b) has the skill set or information base to do so.
  5. Providing enough clues so that the reader has all the information to solve the case while making it hard to do so. There is nothing more annoying than solving the case on page 30, and then watching the heroine flounder about for the next 300 pages.
  6. Love interest: this could be a list in and of itself, but the author has to create conflict or tension between them, create reasons for them to be thrown together, reasons why they’re not together, balance developing the romance with solving the mystery, etc.
  7. Follow what is essentially a very rigid plot structure while coming up with a unique twist to entertain readers. I think this is part of why so many cozies have a “quirk” to try and differentiate them from other series. A bed and breakfast setting, or a talking animal (I can’t quite bring myself to read those, but maybe I’m missing out), a friendly ghost who helps solve mysteries, etc.
  8. Provide an exciting ending where the heroine ends up in danger before unmasking the perpetrator while not making her do something really stupid and out of character (“Sure! This timid librarian is going to sneak into the mafia’s underground fortress in the middle of the night to try and get the last piece of evidence needed to convict.” or “Sure! I think you might have killed someone a few days ago, but I’d LOVE to meet for coffee by your abandoned coal mine! What’s that? Don’t tell anyone where I’m going? But of course not!”)

So that’s my list of why I think it’s hard to write a good cozy mystery. I’ll try to keep it in mind the next time I find myself frustrated with my reading material.

Do you read cozies? Who are you favorite authors?