Cozy mysteries have been around since Agatha Christie started turning them out during the early nineteen hundreds. They’ve changed since then but still retain the same central core. Not too much blood, sex remains firmly behind closed doors, and the thrust of the story is who committed murder and why.
Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple knew everyone in her village, knew their parents and their children. She was a keen observer of human nature and a great listener. She also expected the worst of everyone and was rarely disappointed. The combination of village life and Miss Marple’s assessment of the people in it while she knitted garment after garment was The Hook. I don’t think Agatha used that term, but it was what made us come back, story after story.
Cozies are still grounded in one place, usually in a small town, and always with a small cast of characters who know each other well. Sometimes too well. Publishers want their heroine-it is almost always a heroine- to be an integral part of the community, as was Miss Marple, with the mystery revolving around the part she plays in that community. Only, today we have heroines who run flower shops, bakeries, tea shops, herb shops, catering businesses and quilting stores. They are real estate salespeople, sheriffs or mayors in small towns, have dead end jobs, clean houses, teach fly fishing—maybe not fly fishing. The murders, all the conflict in the story, swirl around their jobs or professions. The combination of that and what happens while they’re doing them pulls us back into their world again and again, wanting to see what happens next.
That is The Hook. But wait, there’s more.
In a cozy mystery the setting is not only worked into the story line but subtly imparts information. Herbs and what they do for, or possibly, to you, quilt patterns and the history behind them, a behind the scenes look at how bakeries turn out those delicious delights, how wineries turn grapes into wine. These are the little added things that make the modern cozy not only fun but interesting on a whole new level. Miss Marple may have knitted a mean sweater and listened to everything everyone in her village had to say but she never gave us a knitting pattern nor took us down the aisle of the local dog show.
I’ve tried to add some of those “behind the scenes” tidbits in the Ellen McKenzie real estate mysteries. I’ve touched on real estate development in a small town, talked about breeding and showing of Arabian horses, murdered a chef by dropping him into a wine fermenting tank, (the wine in that tank didn’t get bottled but you get a pretty good tour of the wine cellar floor while looking for clues) and explored the kitchen and all of its equipment in a small local bakery.
It’s in the fifth book in the Ellen McKenzie series, though, where I have really explored the possibilities of setting.
Murder by Syllabub finds Ellen McKenzie and her aunt, Mary McGill, in Virginia, learning how to bake a cake in a fireplace, roast a stuffed chicken on a spit and how to make Syllabub, while they track down a murdering colonial ghost.
Where else but in a cozy mystery could you learn all these things, have fun, and solve a murder at the same time?
Millie headed through the tables, toward the dressing area, but not with her usual brisk trot. She crouched down, almost slinking, the rumble in her throat audible as she dragged her leash. Mary watched her for a moment, the unease she’d felt before returning and building. She’d never seen Millie act like this. Where was she going? Toward the curtains. There was no uncertainty in the dog’s destination. There was something behind those curtains she didn’t like.
Mary set her tote down once more but held tightly onto her phone. She clicked off the flashlight and set her finger on the red button AARP had so thoughtfully provided for quick access to 911. Surely she wouldn’t need it, but she didn’t like the way Millie was acting. Was there really something behind those curtains? Slowly she threaded her way through the tables, her eyes never leaving the dog.
Millie stopped in front of the faded green bedspread that closed off one end of the dressing area. She looked back over her shoulder at Mary then back at the bedspread, and the rumble in her throat got louder. Something stuck out from under the bedspread. Mary came to a halt and stared. Whatever it was hadn’t been there last night. She stepped closer. Slippers. Pink furry slippers. Had someone come in here last night to try on slippers? Irritation wiped away the unease that had filled her. Of all the idiotic things to do. Why anyone would…how anyone could have...puzzled, but no less irritated, Mary descended on the slippers, intent on putting them back on the correct table before everyone got here. She stopped.
The slippers had feet in them.
Her heart started to beat faster and her breath came out in little puffs. Holding her cell in one hand, she grabbed the bedspread with the other and pulled. They’d done a good job. It slid easily on the makeshift rod to expose the chair Mary had left in the dressing area. A chair that should have been empty but wasn’t. A woman sat sprawled in it. An old woman with wispy gray hair, her feet encased in the pink slippers. The rest of her was covered with a long-sleeved pink nightdress. A blue corduroy robe had come loose from its tie and fell open on each side of her, covering the chair. The tie lay on the floor beside her.
Mary gasped loud and clear in the empty room. It couldn’t be. It was impossible, only she was looking at her. Emilie Plym, poor little Miss Plym who wouldn’t hurt a fly, who most of the time didn’t know where she was or how she got there, but who never seemed to mind. Someone would gather her up and return her home, she was sure. Everyone was her friend, and she had a smile for them all. How had she gotten in here? Why had she? Mary made herself look closer. Miss Plym’s face was an odd gray color, and her eyes were open and bloodshot. Her mouth was slightly open and her tongue…Mary started to blink rapidly in an effort to clear her vision and she staggered a little. Whatever had happened, Miss Plym had not come in, sat down and quietly died.
Breathe deeply. Deep breaths, that’s right. She looked at Millie, who no longer seemed to want to growl. She stared at Miss Plym as if she, too, couldn’t believe what she saw.
Mary sighed and hit the red 911 button. “Hazel? Is that you? Yes, it’s Mary. No, I’m not all right. Hazel, I’m at St. Mark’s, in the church hall. No, no. It’s not on fire. I’m afraid it’s worse than that. Miss Plym is here. No, I can’t take her home and neither can anyone else. Hazel, she’s dead, and I don’t think from natural causes. Can you get Dan over here right away? Thanks.”
Mary hung up and slipped the phone in her jacket pocket before she addressed the dog. “I don’t know what happened, but I know there’ll be no rummage sale today.”
About the books:
Kathleen Delaney’s mysteries have consistently been praised by Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Booklist, and recently, Purebred Dead was named Book of the Day in the Killer Memphis newsletter. Curtains for Miss Plym has already earned a 5 star review and it is yet to be released.
Look for it in the UK in early Jan and in the US in April.
Read the 1st chapter of all the books by clicking www.kathleendelaney.net
Friend her on facebook, or watch for her tweets.