The perfect setting for cozy murder mysteries
Small-town Maine makes the perfect setting for cozy murder mysteries
There's no gore in this growing sub-genre of good, clean killings among quaint surroundings.
How can a murder story be considered cozy?
Start by setting the tale in a quaint Maine coastal town, make the sleuth the owner of the local inn and loved by all, add a cast of small-town folks and make sure there’s no sex, profanity or explicitly gory details of the murder in question. Do all that, and you have yourself a so-called cozy mystery (also referred to simply as a cozy), one of the fastest-growing mystery fiction segments and one that seems perfectly suited to Maine.
“The best settings are places you love or want to visit or live in, with interesting people,” said Barbara Ross, a Portland author who sets her Maine Clambake mysteries in fictional Busman’s Harbor, Maine, based on Boothbay Harbor. “They are books where, at the end, order is restored. They are books that are soothing, something that takes the reader away from their everyday concerns.”
Because Maine has long been a fantasy destination for vacationers and people who like the idea of living in a small-town utopia on the coast or in the woods, more than two dozen cozy mystery series are set in the state. And about a dozen Maine authors have penned a cozy in the last decade or two.
Authors and people in the publishing industry say the cozy mystery has been around for years – as traditional mysteries that don’t have the gore, sex, corruption or self-destructive protagonist. But in the past 10 to 20 years, publishers have been aggressively branding and marketing cozy mysteries to readers who want a good puzzle to solve, in a wholesome and inviting destination, with a promise of justice being served.
The cozy mystery sub-genre probably accounts for 10 percent of all mysteries sold, from hard-boiled detective stories to thrillers, said Larissa Ackerman, communications director for Kensington Publishing Corp., which publishes more than 100 cozy authors, including a half dozen who either live in Maine or set books here. The number of mysteries being marketed as cozies has likely doubled in the last 20 years and increased by about 50 percent over the past 10 years, said John Talbot, a New York-based agent who represents about 20 cozy authors, including Ross.
Talbot says that the marketing label “cozy mystery” started to become much more abundant on books in the 1990s, when several imprints of publishing companies were launched to focus on cozies. There is a feeling in publishing that, in the last 15 years, the number of romance stories with more sex has increased, which turned some romance readers toward cozies, Talbot said.
Most importantly for cozy authors and publishers, the books sell well because cozy readers, like the readers of romance series, read constantly.
“It’s an enduring readership who reward the consistently good storytellers with great loyalty,” said Talbot.
A COZY MURDER IN MAINE
The popularity of cozy mysteries is evident in the frequency with which they’re invited to local libraries to talk with their fans. In September, author Mary Feliz gave a talk about cozies at the Curtis Memorial Library in Brunswick. Although she lives and sets her Maggie McDonald Mystery series in California, she comes to Maine often to visit family and has several friends here who write cozies. She defines a cozy mystery as a book where “someone dies but nobody gets hurt.” The characters are as important as the plot, and the story includes a strong community where people work together and support each other.
“In a noir mystery, things are grim, and after the crime is solved, they’ll still be grim going forward. The message is people are bad and bad guys will always exist,” said Feliz.
Several Maine cozy authors say they didn’t set out to write cozies, they just like traditional mysteries in the Agatha Christie style, without sex or gore or a lot of moral ambiguity. Ross says she was encouraged to write a cozy series by her agent, Talbot, who saw the market for it growing in leaps and bounds a decade ago. She and her husband had owned a bed and breakfast in Boothbay Harbor, and she thought the town and a small business owner in the town would appeal to cozy readers. So the Maine Clambake series was born. The series has eight books in it so far.
One can learn a lot about what makes a cozy just by reading the ones penned by Maine authors. First, the solver of the crime (the crime is always solved and order is always restored) is usually some local business owner who is well-connected in town. The occupations of the amateur sleuths in cozies are also home-spun and relatable, no private detectives or people who work on the seedy side of town. In fact, the towns don’t have a seedy side. Ross’s Maine Clambake Mysteries center on a woman who runs her family’s clambake business, catering weddings and parties and such. Kathy Lynn Emerson of Wilton, writing under the name Kaitlyn Dunnett, sets her Liss MacCrimmon series in the fictional Western Maine town of Moosetookalook, where she owns a Scottish gift shop.
In the Home Repair is Homicide series by Sarah Graves of Eastport, the heroine is busy fixing up an old house in a Maine seaport while not solving murders. In the Hayley Powell Food & Cocktail mystery series, set in Bar Harbor, the heroine is a single mother who writes a food column for the local paper. The series appears with the author name Lee Hollis but is actually written by brother and sister Rick Copp and Holly Simason, who grew up in Bar Harbor and now live in other parts of the country.
Linda Hall lives in Fredericton, New Brunswick, but sets her Em Ridge series in Maine because it’s a coastal destination people want to read about and go to. Ridge is a boat captain who delivers boats to various ports and is constantly finding dead bodies on them, Hall said. The character lives in Portland, but Hall’s fictional Portland is more like a small Maine town.
Katherine Hall Page, a part-time Deer Isle resident, has written 25 books in her Faith Fairchild series, about a caterer who has a summer cottage on Penobscot Bay. Her titles are less cozy than some, with the word body often used. Her latest, “The Body in the Wake,” came out in May. Page said she and other cozy authors were “in the right place at the right time” in the 1990s when the success of women authors like Sue Grafton prompted publishers to find more. Most cozies are written by women and read by women, authors and others in the publishing industry say.
“I think there was a time when the term cozy was derogatory, that the books had more spilled tea than blood,” said Page. “But then publishers started saying ‘Maybe we should have more female mystery writers.’ ”
Like a lot of cozy writers, Page stays away from things that would make her books less cozy, mostly out of personal preference. She does not want to write about serial killers, for instance, and would never have a child or animal hurt in her books. But the biggest thing that makes her books different from, say, a noir mystery is that order is always restored at the end, and there is always hope for a bright future.
Adding to the warm and fuzziness of the genre, cozy titles often include puns or word play. Emerson’s latest Liss MacCrimmon book is called “Overkilt.” Others are “X Marks the Scot” and the upcoming “A View to a Kilt.” Ross’s Maine Clambake titles include “Clammed Up,” “Boiled Over” and “Steamed Open.”
Most covers of cozies are usually filled with pastel or bright colors, and show inviting interior or exterior scenes. There is not a dead or bleeding body anywhere to be found.
At least part of the appeal of cozy mysteries is what they are not.
“I don’t like too much reality in fiction, or nasty things in my books, there’s enough of that in the real world,” said Marilyn Nulman, an avid reader of cozy mysteries from Brunswick. “I like books that have family in them, or people who act like family, and I like secrets. But I like closed endings, where the crime is solved and the damage repaired.”