Note: This is a repost from a literature/film analysis blog I ran for a college class in 2020. The original post was published on January 1, 2021.
When I think of murder, I don’t typically think of warm, fuzzy feelings. If you’ve been following my blog, you know I’m a fan of all things gritty and gory, so a lot of the books I read fall into the thriller/suspense subgenre. But not everyone likes their mystery novels with an extra helping of blood and guts — in fact, there’s an entire subgenre of mysteries designed to make readers feel good.
According to Wikipedia, “Cozy mysteries, also referred to as ‘cozies’, are a subgenre of crime fiction in which sex and violence occur off stage, the detective is an amateur sleuth, and the crime and detection take place in a small, socially intimate community.” Think Angela Lansbury a la Murder, She Wrote. It’s a very PG approach to a genre that is usually a hard R.
Like romance, the cozy mystery is a subgenre mostly read by women. According to cozy-mystery.com, a website dedicated to this type of book, “Many cozy mystery readers are intelligent women looking for a ‘fun read’ that engages the mind, as well as provides entertainment.”
Any time a genre is marketed to one gender over others, I automatically wonder why. Is it because women are seen as less likely to enjoy “hardboiled” detective fiction than men? Is it because women “have weaker stomachs” or “can’t handle violence”? Is it because everything made for women needs to be cutesy and fluffy?
To try to answer these questions, I read three different cozies to see if I could determine why they’re so popular and why they’re marketed to women. Here’s what I found.
And Then There Were Crumbs by Eve Calder
Quirky settings seem to be a recurring theme in cozies, with more than a few of the subgenre’s beloved heroines doing double duty as amateur detectives and small business owners. In And Then There Were Crumbs, the small business in question is a bakery nestled in a ridiculously beautiful beachside town.
The mystery is not the main focus of this book. Really, it’s about Kate recovering from a messy breakup and trying to save a small-town bakery from going under. The murder is just icing on the cake, so to speak.
Unfortunately, the mystery was the weakest part for me. It’s not bad, by any means, but it does feel a little too clean. I’m the type of reader who likes to try to figure out the mystery alongside the characters, and this story didn’t really let me do that. There aren’t any compelling suspects to speculate about, and the solution is only possible after Kate stumbles onto a missing clue that brings everything together. This is a device used a lot by shows like Murder, She Wrote, and it’s always been a little bit of a pet peeve of mine.
The rest of the plot is well-written and full of warm fuzzies, but as someone who was mainly interested in the whodunnit I was a little disappointed.
One thing I will say for And Then There Were Crumbs is that it made me crave cookies so badly I had to bake a batch of snickerdoodles after finishing it. That’s gotta count for something.
Final Rating: 3/5
Sinfully Delicious by Amanda M. Lee
Like in And Then There Were Crumbs, the mystery is not the main focus of this book. Sinfully Delicious is, at its heart, a second chance romance about a down-on-her-luck author who moves back to her hometown and reconnects with her high school sweetheart. That she happens to discover a dead body on her first day back, and that the previously mentioned high school sweetheart happens to be the police officer investigating the case, is incidental.
As I was reading this book, I noticed another running theme in the cozy subgenre. Both And Then There Were Crumbs and Sinfully Delicious go out of their way to establish that the murder victims were very, very bad people. Of course no one deserves to be poisoned or stabbed in a back alley, but if anyone did, it would be these guys. In a way, this makes the murders less disturbing since they almost feel justified.
Sinfully Delicious spends even less time on the mystery than And Then There Were Crumbs — at times, it almost doesn’t feel like a mystery novel. The romance really is the main focus here, and I had serious issues with it. Stormy’s ex-boyfriend/love interest has a girlfriend, and there is definitely some emotional infidelity. To make us feel better about this (and to keep Stormy a sympathetic protagonist), the author makes the girlfriend so unbelievably bitchy and unlikable that we can’t help but hate her. I’m very tired of girl-on-girl hate being used as a plot device in romance novels, and this book is one of the worst offenders I’ve encountered in a while.
The murder subplot was pretty standard, and once again I am reminded of Murder, She Wrote. The last minute reveal that pulls the whole mystery together appears once again in this book, followed by a conclusion so outlandish, it actually made up for some of the lackluster buildup.
I did enjoy the fantasy elements in Sinfully Delicious. Stormy discovers that she is a witch and possesses magical powers, but like a lot of other cool things in this story, the witch stuff gets pushed aside to make more room for the romance.
Final Rating: 2/5
Agatha Raisin and The Quiche of Death by M. C. Beaton
The Agatha Raisin series is a staple of the cozy subgenre. With 30 books and counting, the series has been going strong since the early 1990s. Because this book (the first in the series) is quite a bit older than the other two I read, it isn’t quite as formulaic. It’s definitely heavy on the Agatha Christie inspiration (in case the protagonist’s name didn’t make it obvious), and it’s all very, very British.
Once again, the mystery isn’t the only thing going on here. This book is about Agatha, a fifty-something-year-old business woman who sells her PR firm, goes into an early retirement, and buys a cottage in the Cotswolds, only to realize that village life will be a harder adjustment than she thought. She feels torn between her new village, which isn’t at all like she imagined, and her old life in London, which is quickly moving on without her. Oh, and one of her new neighbors dies of poisoning after eating a quiche Agatha entered in a local baking competition.
I really liked Agatha as a character. It’s nice to see a single, middle aged woman who enjoys being single, and it’s interesting to read a story that deals with themes of getting older and planning for retirement. Agatha is also kind of a bad bitch, and I enjoyed reading about her aggressive, take-no-prisoners attitude.
The story really reminded me of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple series, which I’m sure is intentional. I can just imagine the author thinking, “But what if sweet Miss Marple was replaced by a London businesswoman?” and then writing this book. The supporting characters are all quirky and eccentric in some way, and some moments are genuinely humorous.
The murder mystery plays a more central role in this book than the first two I read, with Agatha doing lots of good, old fashioned snooping, breaking and entering, and harassing suspects. The conclusion was a little bit of a letdown for me — I think the author could have gone in a lot of different directions, but chose the most boring one.
Final Rating: 3/5
I really can see the appeal of this type of mystery. These books are perfect for readers who want a fun mystery that they can try to solve alongside the protagonist, but who don’t want to read graphic descriptions of violence. I really do think there’s a place in the larger mystery genre for stories like this.
These books are also great for when you aren’t sure what genre you want to read. There’s a little bit of murder, a little bit of women’s fiction, a little bit of humor, and sometimes even a little bit of romance. It’s a grab bag of some of the most popular genres of fiction, and it speaks to readers with eclectic tastes.
Since I discovered the existence of the “cozy mystery” label, I’ve been using it to find books to read when I’m not feeling anything super intense. I read a lot of horror and thrillers, but sometimes I can get burned out on that type of intensely emotional (and often disturbing) story. When I want just a taste of intrigue without the blood and guts, cozies are a good option.
If you’re an avid reader of more intense mysteries, I recommend checking out this more lighthearted side to the genre. Who says a book about murder can’t be uplifting?
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