What, exactly, is “cozy” about being stabbed in the neck with a carving knife? Or being bludgeoned in the kitchen with a sturdy rolling pin? Or having your bedtime cocoa laced with a deadly dose of cyanide?
When you think about it, the idea of a “cozy” murder is something of an oxymoron. Especially for the victim. Yet there is no denying the massive worldwide popularity of cozy crime fiction.
Agatha Christie, that mistress of the genre, has sold more than one billion books. And you don’t get to flog that many without knowing what readers want.
But just what are the elements that make a successful cozy crime mystery? (Incidentally, spelling cozy with a “z” has effectively become the genre’s trademark.)
It is a question I had to answer when I set out to write the first of my Crampton of the Chronicle series of crime mysteries. The tenth in the series – The Mother’s Day Mystery – is just published. The starting point, I discovered, is that you need to keep the blood and gore to a minimum.
You may have your victim bludgeoned in the kitchen with a rolling pin. But you don’t want to spend the next three paragraphs describing how his brains splattered on the tiled floor like a rancid oyster. (Sorry about that – I’ve just gone and broken the golden rule.)
Generally, the killing takes place off-camera, in cinematic terms. Like a Greek chorus you explain what’s happened – you don’t show it in graphic detail.
In particular, you need to keep the blood count to a minimum. Your victim may get the carving knife in the neck, but you don’t want to hear that the blood fountained like a geyser from a busted fire hydrant. (Whoops! I’ve done it again.)
The Crime Readers’ Association – the client end of the UK’s Crime Writers’ Association – has devised a tongue-in-cheek “platelet counter” to help readers judge whether a crime mystery will match their own appetite for gore. The four-stage counter runs from “spotless” (not a drop is shed) to “whoah” (you’ll need a raincoat to read this).
Generally by Crampton of the Chronicle crime mysteries score an “eek” (nothing a plaster couldn’t fix).
The CRA also has a “profano-meter” to measure bad language – the absence of which is another key feature of the cozy murder mystery. Traditionally, the language will not do more than a make a bishop feel a slight reddening of his cheeks. The profano-meter runs from “harmless” (as clean as a nun’s conscience) to “profane” (Oh! This’ll make a fish-wife blush).
My books come in at “mild” (the odd naughty word here and there). Although I must confess, for the first time there’s a four-letter word in The Mother’s Day Mystery. But you’ll understand why I had to use it when you read the book.
One of the key features of cozy murder mysteries is that they often, but not always, feature an “amateur” sleuth as their key protagonist. Examples from classics of the genre include Lord Peter Wimsey and Miss Marple.
I decided to make my protagonist, Colin Crampton, a crime reporter on an evening newspaper in Brighton, UK. There was a good reason for that – I’ve been a journalist all my working life and understood the kind of milieu that Colin would inhabit. Colin is a journalist with a passion for exposing the truth – but he doesn’t care how many scams and tricks he has to pull in order to do it.
This contradiction in his character, I felt, would offer plenty of opportunity for humour. In any kind of fiction, if your hero is going to be a rogue, he (or she) also needs to be likeable and introducing humour is a good way to do that. So Colin has a dry line in wisecracks. When he gets into trouble, he can talk his way out of it.
From a writer’s point of view, I’ve found that the key to pulling all this off lies in the voice of the narrator. The Crampton of the Chronicle novels and short stories are all told in the first person. Colin is the narrator. So it’s his voice that sets the tone of the books.
The voice of the narrator essentially reveals not only aspects of their own character but how they view the world around them. So I’ve found that making the narrator see the world through a slightly different prism to everyone else creates many of the humorous moments.
But, of course, there is plenty more a writer can throw into the mix to make a cozy come to life in a humorous way – the setting, the other characters, and the events. One technique I find particularly useful when writing a scene is to think about what difficulty I could throw in Colin’s way as he seeks to solve the next clue in the mystery. This approach seems to add extra dynamism to the narrative because it creates a series of smaller mysteries which Colin has to unravel on his way to cracking the big case.
So there is a lot to think about when you’re writing a cozy murder mystery – especially a humorous one. But there is one rule that I’ve found is sacrosanct when you’re writing a humorous cozy crime mystery.
The hero must always have the last laugh.
(c) Peter Bartram
About The Mother’s Day Mystery:
The Mother of all murder mysteries…
There are just four days to Mother’s Day and crime reporter Colin Crampton is under pressure to find a front-page story to fit the theme.
Then Colin and his feisty girlfriend Shirley Goldsmith stumble across a body late at night on a lonely country road. Colin scents a story when the cops dismiss the idea of murder.
Colin and Shirley flirt with danger as they investigate the killing. They take on a crazy hippie commune, an eccentric group of church bell-ringers, and a chemistry teacher with an unusual late-night hobby.
And that’s before they tangle with the mothers… Colin’s landlady has been thrown out of the Mothers’ Union. And Shirley’s mum has gone missing – in a town where a serial killer is on the prowl.
Join Colin and Shirley for a madcap Mother’s Day mystery in Swinging Sixties England, where the laughs are never far from the action.
The Mother’s Day Mystery is a Crampton of the Chronicle adventure. Order your copy online here.