Getting Cozy

Mystery creates wonder and wonder is the basis of man’s desire to understand.” – Neil Armstrong

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What is a cozy mystery? And how has this popular sub-genre evolved over time? Since fellow TKZ contributor Dale Ivan Smith and I both write cozies, we thought it would be fun to co-write a post on the subject.


These are the basic “rules” as I understand them:

  1. No explicit violence.
  2. No explicit sexual content.
  3. Usually, no profanity. But if there is any, it’s mild.

Although there are many variations, a cozy mystery often involves a murder that has taken place “off stage” before the story begins. The mystery is usually presented as a puzzle where the reader tries to figure out the solution along with the protagonist.

This quote from an article on sums it up nicely:

“Overall, cozy mysteries are the perfect mix of smart, thoughtful stories that challenge you to think as you read while also being a relaxing escape from everyday life.“


Mysteries have been around for a long time. The first mystery novel is usually identified as The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, published in 1859. But Agatha Christie changed the landscape in 20th century.

According to an article on the website of the Mansfield/Richland County Public Library in Mansfield, Ohio:

“Agatha Christie is usually credited with being the (unintentional) mother of the cozy mystery genre with her Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple series. The term “cozy” was first coined in the late 20th century when various writers produced work in an attempt to re-create the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.”

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Since its inception, the cozy mystery genre has evolved, and a few new trends have grown up around it. For example, many of today’s cozies have paranormal elements you wouldn’t have found in the mid-20th century. It also isn’t unusual for stories to center around food or pets.

Book covers have also morphed to reflect a more playful approach, and many titles have become something of a pun contest. To the best of my knowledge, the images shown below were the first edition covers. Consider how things have changed from the 20th century …

… to the 21st century:

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Over to Dale to give us background on the cozy narrative:

We’re so often advised to begin with action. However, cozies tend to call for the grounding of the reader in the character’s background and setting right at the start, to help give that cozy feel and connect the reader with our heroine. The heroine is often introduced in a summary of who-the-character is fashion, rather than an in-media-res opening that other mysteries might.

Often we also learn how she arrived at this point in her life—perhaps she just went through a divorce, or lost a job, and moved to the small community, possibly inheriting a business and meeting a character who will be significant in their life. If they are already established, like in Jenn McKinlay’s Books Can Be Deceiving, the first of her Library Lovers series which opens with the Thursday “Crafternoon” group meeting at the library.

The murder can occur in the opening, but often occurs later, and serves as the gateway to Act II. While the opening of a cozy often establishes the world before the murder, the discovery of a body puts the sleuth on a quest to restore order to her little world. The heroine will follow an “arc of suspicion” where she uncovers secrets that may lead to the actual crime, or may be a red herring, and she will be looking for the motive.

The police are on the wrong trail when it comes to finding the murderer, so it is up to the amateur sleuth to find the true culprit. Often a friend, relative or other innocent is arrested. A police arrest of an innocent may occur at the midpoint, and/or the person the sleuth believed was the murderer themselves is killed, or something else that sends our heroine’s investigation on a new course.

She sifts through competing ideas (theories) about what was behind the murder, until she finds a crucial clue or insight which leads her to the revelation and confrontation with the killer. Just before this climax of the book, circumstances and/or choices she makes isolate her from her friends and allies.

As the investigation continues, it is counterbalanced with a cozy subplot, such a baking competition, parade, event at the library etc. which the main character is involved with, until the isolating nature of the investigation pushes her away from that cozy storyline.

There is often also a slow-burn romance. In H.Y. Hanna’s English Cottage Garden series Poppy has a slow-burn mutual attraction, alternating with frustration, for her neighbor, a crime writer, who also helps her at times in solving the mystery. Each book features a moment where the two draw together in attraction other, but another moment or moments were they are pushed apart by a disagreement or other conflict.

Humor in a cozy mystery serves to lighten the mood and up the fun quotient of the story, often surprising the reader right after a plot turn or a revelation, though things get serious as we head into Act III and the confrontation with the murderer. But often comedy returns at the end, when we have a scene or even a short sequence of scenes validating the restoration of order to the community.

So, TKZers: Do you read cozy mysteries? Tell us about your favorite books and authors.



37 thoughts on “Getting Cozy

  1. An occasional cozy is like plant based protein, a delightful break from my diet of raw-meat thrillers. There are so many excellent cozies, it’s hard to name one. I’d err on the side of those that aren’t so silly and work to develop the characters beyond the quirky surface traits and behaviors.

    • Good morning, Grant!

      I love the analogy “plant based protein.” 🙂

      I also prefer cozies that have a strong plot and interesting characters. As long as the story obeys the three “rules” of a cozy, it can still have very serious content.

      Have a good day.

    • I love that analogy, Grant. I agree that there are many excellent cozies out there. They range from nearly traditional-style mystery cozies to full-on “cutesy”, providing something for every cozy reader.

  2. Hey, that’s MY cozy! I’m thrilled you two included my cover in your list of contemporary cozy covers.:-)

    Yes, I read cozies. It’s a given if I write them, and I’ve enjoyed both your library cozy, Dale, and your Watch mystery series, Kay.

    Some of my favorite cozy authors (beyond TKZ, of course) are Debbie Young for her sophisticated cozies, Laura Levine because her books are hilarious, Jackie Zack because she seamlessly weaves Christian content into her Katy Russell cozies, and Nikki Knight because her main character is a suburban hit man, uh, hit mom.

  3. Thank you for covering this topic. I need to do reading research on this topic and will look at some of the titles mentioned in this post and in the comment above (I just started The Watch Mysteries a few days ago). I have read Agatha Christie but it’s been ages.

    I’m wrestling with the mystery I am working on now and how to classify it. Above, it is noted that cozies don’t have explicit violence, language, sex. I don’t think of my current manuscript as a cozy, but it doesn’t contain explicit sex or language. The one difference based on the description of the murder in this post, is that in my manuscript, the murder happens real time, not off screen. But not dwelling on the gruesome. So I’m leaning toward thinking of it simply as a traditional mystery. Somewhere between cozy and dark and gruesome.

    The other thing I wrestle with is book covers. I have noted that cozies tend to have, as described above, ‘playful’ covers. Obviously they are very popular but for me personally, I tend to shy away from books with covers like that. Another reason I don’t tend to think of my mystery as a cozy.

    It can be tricky figuring out where your book fits in the market. (That’s why I’d rather just write than think about marketing. LOL!)

    • Good morning, BK!

      First, thank you for reading the books in The Watch Mystery series. I’d love to get your feedback.

      You and I have similar views on the mysteries we write. My books are much more on the traditional mystery end of the scale. Also, the covers of my books would not be considered playful. I’ve gone back and forth about whether to call my books simply mysteries, or stick with the cozy label. Since they fit the three “rules,” I’ll continue to call them cozies, but I wish there was another category between cozy and traditional.

    • FWIW, cozies to me have a fairly broad range, within the three rules, and even those can be bent. The narrator of the Corgi Case Files does do some “light” swearing, something I avoid in my Meg Booker series, but otherwise the books fit within the cozy mode. Some covers are less cutesy than others, but brightly colored cartoon style covers are certainly popular right now. My series is a cozy, but it’s also historical, and the mysteries is a bit more along the lines of traditional (meaning intricate) than some cozies.

    • Good morning, M.C.!

      One thing I like about mysteries is they come in so many flavors. (Thanks to Grant for bending my thoughts in that direction.)

      Didn’t somebody say “Variety is the spice of life”? (I’m afraid I’m going to be stuck on food analogies in this post.)

  4. Kay and Dale, excellent breakdown of the cozy mystery.

    Although a reviewer described one of my books as a “cozy thriller”, my style is grittier and more graphic.

    However, I often beta-read for Leslie Budewitz, Agatha-winning author of the Food Lovers Village mysteries and the Spice Shop series. That has given me a fascinating, insider’s glimpse into the architecture of the cozy. They are often much more complicated than the “playful” covers indicate and address contemporary social issues.

    • Morning, Debbie.

      I love the “cozy thriller” label! Maybe your friend has invented a new category.

      Yes, there is not a “one-size-fits-all” cozy definition. They range from simply fun to seriously thought-provoking.

      Enjoy your day!

    • Thanks, Debbie! I loved Leslie Budewitz’s first Spice Shop series novel. It’s an excellent example of a terrific cozy that is not a “cutesy”, and had a terrific mystery. I’m looking forward to reading more of her books. How cool that you beta read for her!

  5. Thanks, Kay and Dale, for that information on the cozy.

    I haven’t read much in that genre, but I see it’s time to start. My favorite cozies (from my limited reading) are Lawrence Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr series, because of Block’s delightful use of humor.

    I’ve enjoyed your books, Kay, and those of others here at TKZ. It’s time for me to get started on your books, Dale.

    Great post!

    • Good morning, Steve.

      I haven’t read any of Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr series, but I’ve seen those books mentioned here a few times. I’m putting them on my list.

      Thank you for reading my books and for giving me pre-publication feedback! Your comments are always insightful.

    • Thanks, Steve! I love Bernie Rhodenbarr–I need to read more of those books. A very different series from his equally excellent but dark Scudder novels.

  6. I’ve read The Watch Mysteries and Vera’s When Did We Lose Sylvia and loved them! I have Dale’s A Shush Before Dying on my Kindle and plan to start it tonight.

    Cozies are character driven and the main characters are usually so interesting. And while the pace is slower, there is still tension and the mystery keeps me turning pages to see if I guessed who-did-it. 🙂

    • Morning, Patricia!

      Thank you for reading our books!

      I also love the puzzle nature of cozies. I recently read Crocodile on the Sandbank and loved trying to figure out the villain before the reveal.

  7. What a fun post, Kay and Dale! Thanks for putting this together-a very succinct summary of the cozy definition.

    I cut my reading teeth on Agatha Christie. I think I’ve read, over several decades, most of the novels she penned.

    I don’t read much in that genre now, although I have read Kay’s, and really liked them. I tend toward more action, like Mr. Gilstrap’s and JSB’s novels. It’s a quirk, I know, but I love that quirk.

    I might have to branch out a bit to Dale’s and Vera’s…

    • Glad you enjoyed it, Deb! Working on it with Kay was a real pleasure. Embrace your “quirk” and follow your passion–something I endeavor to do as well.

    • Hi Deb.

      Thanks for the kind words about my books. Dale and Vera both have created great first books in their series. I’m looking forward to the next ones.

      Although cozies may not be your standard fare, I loved Grant’s comment that they’re like “plant-based protein,” a break from raw-meat thrillers. Don’t forget to eat your vegetables. 🙂

  8. My introduction to mystery were Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, and Hercule Poirot. My Mapleton series was hard to place with a traditional publisher because the editors couldn’t decide if it was a police procedural or a cozy. Since for them, it’s all about which shelf the book belongs on, they turned it down despite praising my writing.
    I went indie with the series and market the books as a blend of police procedural and cozy. The cozy comes, I think, because I spend time developing my protagonist’s “off duty” life, including his growing relationship with his first-girlfriend-now-wife.
    I’m not a big cozy reader, but I have a stack of them I brought home from Left Coast Crime, and I’ll get around to reading them.

    • One of the issues I see with the cozy label is that the genre is so wide, readers may make an incorrect assumption about the content of a particular book. (e.g., they may think all cozies have animal heroes or ghosts that solve crimes.) That’s where I think the cover and blurb are especially important — to set the reader’s expectations so they aren’t disappointed with the gist of the story.

  9. I love cozies and, in past years, have read dozens of them. Agatha Christie’s later works are quite good. I was especially fond of “And Then There Were None” in both of its incarnations. I’m also fond of M C Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth series, and a few odds and ends by others. I think the Midsomer Murders TV series was excellent, until they changed the main character. Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey made several stellar TV series quite a while ago.
    I started to write a cozy a long time ago, featuring a very wicked victim, but life intervened.

    • You and I have similar tastes, JG. And Then There Were None is my favorite Agatha Christie work. Although the ending in the book was very clever, I like the old movie version better.

      I’m also a fan of the Midsomer Murders TV series and M.C. Beaton’s and Dorothy Sayers’s works. However, I haven’t seen any of the Lord Peter Wimsey TV series.

  10. This is a great article. Thank you for discussing this genre. I enjoy cozies and would like to write one. Right now, I’m writing romance with a dash mystery. Some of my favorite cozies are Jackie Layton’s Low Country Dog Walker Mysteries and her new series, A Texas Flower Farmer.

  11. I rarely read cozies. I like my murder with a side of grit. 😉 That said, the ones I have read I’ve enjoyed. They provided the perfect palate cleanser in between pulse-pounding thrillers.

    • A palate cleanser is a great description of a reading change of pace, Sue! I’m the opposite, and tend to prefer a lighter treatment of murder (ironic, given the subject 😉 but do enjoy my own reading palate cleansers of grittier murder mysteries.

    • A “palate cleanser in between pulse-pounding thrillers.” I love it, and it keeps the dining analogies going.

      Personally, I’m attracted to the puzzle nature of true mysteries. Whether they are heavy or light, I love a diet of intrigue.

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