Cozies—A Mystery Fiction Genre Analysis


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The term “cozy” was first used to describe a particular type of mystery fiction in 1958, when it appeared in a review in the Observer, Great Britain’s oldest Sunday newspaper. Since then, the word has proven to be useful to both readers and critics. However, it has acquired several slightly different meanings, so care must be taken in its use and interpretation. For example, some critics equate “cozy” works with those that are considered “traditional” within the genre, thereby emphasizing the fact that this kind of fiction developed during the early days of mystery fiction and flourished in what has come to be known as the Golden Age. Other critics quite appropriately describe such fiction as “cozy/domestic,” for usually much of the action takes place within homes, whether they be great country houses, modest vicarages, or temporary abodes, such as the train in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (1934). Moreover, although there may be serious consequences at the national or even the international level when persons of high standing in society are accused of criminal behavior, at their core novels about such cases typically involve personal sins and private enmities.

Like comedies of manners, which in many ways they resemble, cozy mysteries are traditional in that they are light in tone. Their appeal is intellectual rather than emotional. They are filled with the kind of wit and humor, even satire, that one...

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Amateur Crime-Solvers vs. Professional Criminals

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Crimes and criminals began to appear in novels and in short stories as soon as those genres were invented. The original picaresque novel, written by an unknown Spanish author, La vida de Lazarillo de Tormes (1554; The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes: His Fortunes and Adversities, 2005) is the story of an amoral trickster living by his wits. Transplanted to England, the form was used by Daniel Defoe for novels such as Moll Flanders (1722). That picaresque novel’s title character is a thief and occasional prostitute who is caught, imprisoned, and transported to Virginia but nevertheless ends up so wealthy that she can afford to repent of her sins.

The early nineteenth century American writer Edgar Allan Poe is usually credited with inventing modern detective fiction, and it is generally agreed that Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin, who first appeared in the short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in 1841, was the first important amateur sleuth in English literature. Significantly, both Dupin and the anonymous narrator of Poe’s story lodge in a large, gloomy Parisian mansion, the same kind of setting that would later be used in countless mysteries called cozies. It is also significant that most detectives in early cozy mysteries were amateurs, like Dupin. In Poe’s other Dupin stories, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” (1842) and “The Purloined Letter” (1844), he has professional policemen turn to the amateur for assistance. This pattern would become a staple of the cozy mystery form. Whenever Agatha Christie’s amateur detective, Miss Jane Marple, turns up in the vicinity of a dead body, sooner or later a police inspector will appear, hat in hand, begging for her help.

Police Detectives

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In later cozy novels, it is often professional policemen who track down murderers. The first important police detective in English fiction is generally believed to have been Inspector Bucket, who appeared in Bleak House (1852-1853), by the British novelist Charles Dickens. Bucket was evidently modeled on a real-life London police inspector whom Dickens admired. However, though there were crimes and criminals in all of Dickens’s novels, it was his friend and fellow novelist Wilkie Collins who wrote the first true, full-length detective novel.

Although the plot of Collins’s The Woman in White (1860) involves an identity switch, a false imprisonment, an attempt to change birth records, and an Italian secret society bent on revenge, most critics classify it as a gothic novel, rather than a true mystery in which readers are given all the clues that the sleuth uncovers so they can participate in the solution of the crime. It is Collins’s novel The Moonstone (1868) that the British poet and critic T. S. Eliot called the first true detective novel. In that novel, Sergeant Cuff is called in to solve a mystery, the disappearance of a huge diamond, which only a few hours earlier was presented to an English girl on her eighteenth birthday. Its country-house setting, closed world, and limited number of suspects all anticipate the cozy form of the mystery novel, while the intellectual rigor that Sergeant Cuff applies to solving the crime is typical of that of all the great detectives that follow, both amateurs and professionals.

Philip Trent and a New Kind of Fiction

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

By the turn of the twentieth century, all the ingredients of cozy mysteries were present in one work or another, with the exception of lightness of tone. The American writer Mary Roberts Rinehart displays humor in works such as The Circular Staircase (1908), but her works lack other aspects of the cozy subgenre that was developing. Rinehart’s stories are realistic, often even graphic; however, detectives do not occupy central places in her narratives, and the stories lack clue-by-clue plot development.

The novel that defined the cozy mystery subgenre and at the same time launched the Golden Age of mystery fiction was Trent’s Last Case (1913), published in America as The Woman in Black. Its author, E. C. (Edmund Clerihew) Bentley, was known in his native England as a journalist and the author of light verse, including many satirical biographies written in a four-line verse form called clerihews that he invented himself. In 1910, Bentley decided to write a humorous novel that would satirize the detective novel, specifically the kind produced by Arthur Conan Doyle. Although he admired Doyle’s stories about Sherlock Holmes, Bentley found the detective too serious, too much impressed by himself and his powers, in essence too perfect to qualify as a convincing character. By contrast, Bentley’s book would be light in tone, and his detective hero would be a real human being, complete with emotions, foibles, and the capacity for errors in reasoning. Bentley’s approach is evident in the fact that while he was writing the book, he gave his hero a...

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Lord Peter Wimsey

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Despite the character’s vow, Trent did reappear in several short stories and in the novel Trent’s Own Case (1936). Meanwhile, the British critic and scholar Dorothy L. Sayershas admitted that the character of Trent influenced her in the creation of her own famous detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, the tall, blond, and elegant character whom she introduced in Whose Body? (1923). Like Trent, Wimsey is well read, witty, and given to expressing literary allusions. However, his habit of chattering inanely at serious moments, especially in the early books, gives others the impression that he is a mere dilettante. To the reader, it is evident that this disguise is intended to disarm other characters so that they will talk more freely in his presence, thus making it easier for him to ferret out the truth. Unlike Trent, Wimsey always does so. However, like Trent, Wimsey falls desperately in love with a suspect.

Like Dorothy L. Sayers herself, the object of Wimsey’s affections is a writer of detective novels, an intellectual, and a feminist. When Wimsey first sees her in Strong Poison (1930), Harriet Vane is on trial for murdering her lover. Wimsey manages to get the trial postponed, giving him enough time to solve the crime, thereby winning Vane’s freedom. However, Vane is so traumatized by the experience that she is not capable of feeling anything more than gratitude toward her rescuer. Nevertheless, she thinks of Wimsey as a trusted friend, and when she next appears, in Have His Carcase (1932), the two friends team up to discover whether a dead body Vane found on a deserted beach was a suicide or a murder. In Gaudy Night (1935), Vane finally accepts Wimsey’s proposal of marriage; in Busman’s Holiday (1937), the two are honeymooners; and in later short stories, they are the parents of three children. Altogether, Lord Peter Wimsey appeared in eleven novels and twenty-one stories before his creator abandoned the mystery form in 1940 in order to devote her energies to religious writing.

Agatha Christie’s Gifted Amateurs

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Agatha Christie’s 1920 novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles introduced another eminent fictional detective, Hercule Poirot, to the world. After retiring from the police force in his native Belgium, during the early years of World War I, Poirot was smuggled out of the country and settled in England, where after successfully solving the mystery at Styles, he launches into a second career as a private investigator. Poirot does not have the upper-class affectations of Wimsey but does have eccentricities of his own, including his passion for order, his loathing of being identified as French, and his inability to conceal his pride in his own brilliance. Poirot is as courteous and as chivalrous as any of the aristocrats he...

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Christie’s Professional Detectives

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

In most of Christie’s novels brilliant amateurs solve the crimes, as policemen bumble about in confusion or shamefacedly seek their help. Nevertheless, Christie occasionally introduced professional detectives who are as effective as her amateurs. For example, Colonel Johnny Race, a member of His Majesty’s secret foreign service, is both a suspect and a sleuth in The Man in the Brown Suit (1924). Superintendent Battle of Scotland Yard is the hero in four Christie books issued over two decades. Race sometimes finds it useful to pose as a pompous, upper-class fool, but Battle is a solidly middle-class character unlike any of Christie’s other detectives. Like Miss Marple, he observes people closely but lacks her intuitive qualities. Although he is intelligent, he is not as brilliant as Poirot, but because he is stolid in his behavior, his adversaries can easily dismiss him as unimaginative. Battle simply refuses to take anything at face value. Moreover, because he has no connections to society, he does not feel it necessary to pretend to believe anyone’s story or to be captivated by anyone’s charm. He simply files away information and soldiers on toward solutions. Tenacious as a bulldog, he never fails.

One of Christie’s most interesting novels, Cards on the Table (1936), has a London socialite, Dr. Shaitana, invite Hercule Poirot, Ariadne Oliver, Superintendent Battle, and Colonel Race to a dinner party, along with four other guests, all of whom have good reasons to wish their host dead. At the end of the evening, Colonel Race discovers Shaitana has been stabbed to death while sitting in his chair. The sleuths immediately set about to identify the murderer. Each sleuth has a different approach to detection, but by pooling their information and their insights, eventually they are successful.

Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

One of the minor characters in Margery Allingham’s 1929 mystery The Crime at Black Dudley is a well-mannered but seemingly obtuse man-about-town named Albert Campion who is eventually shown not only to be up to no good but also to have a criminal record. Allingham’s next book, Mystery Mile (1930), expunged Campion’s record and transformed him into a virtuous detective of noble lineage. Over the next forty years, Allingham wrote about Campion’s adventures, featuring him in novels, novellas, and short stories. In his early appearances, Campion masks his intelligence with a practiced, vacant look and flippant comments. Later, however, he abandons that pose, while retaining his modest demeanor throughout all his triumphs as a sleuth. The changes in Campion may be attributable in part to his involvement with Lady Amanda Fitton, whom Allingham introduced in Sweet Danger (1933). Fitton’s amazing mechanical skills and knowledge of electricity help Campion to succeed in tracking down murderers. More important, their growing love for each other and their eventual marriage bring Campion both joy and a new seriousness about life.

Although Campion always remains an amateur detective, he sometimes seeks help from two policemen, Stanislaus Oates and Charlie Luke. More often, however, he calls upon another kind of professional for help—Magersfontein Lugg, a former cat burglar who has become Campion’s manservant. Lugg is as much at home in the underworld as Campion is at a house party in the country. Lugg has a dual role in the novels. Not only does he help Campion in his detective work, but as an eccentric from the lower orders of society he also provides valuable comic relief in stories that are essentially intellectual exercises. Mystery writers generally utilize villagers or servants in such roles, but few lower-class characters in cozy mysteries are as memorable as Lugg, with his Cockney speech, pervasive pessimism, and the unique perspective derived from his colorful past.

Ngaio Marsh’s Aristocratic Policeman

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The New Zealand writer Ngaio Marsh joins Sayers, Christie, and Allingham as the fourth of the great woman mystery writers of the formative period of the cozy era who have collectively come to be known as the “Queens of Crime.” Marsh’s background was solidly of the middle class, but during her youth in Christchurch, New Zealand, she was befriended by an aristocratic family and included in their social life. As a result, she felt very much at home at country house parties and other society functions. She knew how members of the upper classes talked, how they behaved, and how their mental processes worked. It was only appropriate that the British sleuth whom Marsh introduced in her first novel, A Man Lay Dead (1942), is...

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Social Class and Settings

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The primary sleuths that appear in cozy mysteries by the four “Queens” credited with establishing the form vary as to background, age, and gender. Most, but not all, are brilliant amateurs. Some are aristocrats, others are not. Some are reserved, others deliberately affected. However, all of them are recognizable as ladies and gentleman, who can appropriately be invited to take tea in elegant drawing rooms or to sit down to dinner with aristocratic guests at country-house weekends. Class is thus not a barrier to their investigations. By contrast, in early twentieth century mysteries professional police officers would be expected to enter great houses through servant entrances, as if they were tradesmen. In Marsh’s writings,...

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Closed Settings Redefined

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Although Agatha Christie ordinarily limited her settings spatially, her contemporaries often had their characters occupy the same “world” of professional interests, though they are not necessarily together inside single buildings. Thus Dorothy L. Sayers’s Murder Must Advertise (1933) is set in an advertising agency, which does have a central location, while her Gaudy Night (1935) deals with dons, students, and servants spread out across an Oxford University college. The focus of her The Nine Tailors (1934) is a set of bells in a village church and the men who ring changes on them. Margery Allingham’s Death of a Ghost (1934) deals with painters and painting, while The Fashion in...

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Realism and the Resurgence of Cozies

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Although hard-boiled detectives began appearing in American mysteries as early as the 1920’s, the realistic school of fiction did not become dominant until the 1940’s in the United States and the 1950’s in Great Britain. Cozy mysteries were still published, but they were not as popular as they had been earlier. During the 1960’s, however, some readers tired of realism, with its brutal details and consistent pessimism. They reread the older writers in the cozy subgenre and looked for new ones.

The revival of the cozy domestic was recognized by the establishment in 1989 of Malice Domestic, which meets annually in Washington, D.C., for the purpose of paying tribute to the types of traditional mysteries typified by...

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The New Detectives

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Detective novels set in the present reflect more recent social changes. Even Anne George’s Southern Sisters mysteries, set in traditionally conservative Alabama, show how barriers of race, class, and gender have been eliminated. George’s primary sleuth, Patricia Anne Hollowell, is a retired schoolteacher. However, her women friends, several of whom are African Americans, work in a wide variety of occupations, ranging from police work to genealogical research to playing Mrs. Santa Claus in retail stores during the Christmas season. While seeing members of their extended family, the sisters are as likely to visit a trailer park as one of the mountain-top mansions of Birmingham. Their range of friends and acquaintances is as wide...

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(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Even a cursory examination of the partial list of Agatha Award winners reveals how various writers have adapted the cozy mystery subgenre to changes in society and readers’ interests. For example, Kate Ross’s novels, which are set in the Regency period of early nineteenth century England, are conventional in that their detective is a London dandy, and his assistant and valet is a former pickpocket. However, her books do not limit their scope to country-house murders; they are just as likely to be found in London’s ill-famed Haymarket district. Similarly, the American writer Elizabeth George is known for her adherence to the conventional pattern of the cozy mystery. Her Inspector Thomas Lynley is an English earl, and his...

(The entire section is 455 words.)


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Ashley, Mike, comp. The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Modern Crime Fiction. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2002. Contains hundreds of entries on books and authors of the post-World War II era. Also includes lists of authors in each subgenre; titles of television series and films; appendices listing award winners, magazines, and Web sites; an index to key characters and series; and a bibliography.

Delamater, Jerome H., and Ruth Prigozy, eds. Theory and Practice of Classic Detective Fiction. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997. Although a number of the essays in this collection touch on the traditional mystery, the four essays on Agatha...

(The entire section is 592 words.)