A longtime magazine writer and editor, Chris Well is also the author of several novels. In May 2007, his zany crime-thrillers Forgiving Solomon Long (one of Booklist's Top 10 Christian Novels of 2005), Deliver Us From Evelyn, and Tribulation House were simultaneously ranked the top three "most discussed books on the Web" by blog authority Technorati. He and his wife recently started a comic strip -- "Best Mann For The Job," about a woman with a complicated past who returns home to become a small town sheriff, appears weekly on TitleTrakk.com. Find Chris online at http://chriswellnovelist.blogspot.com.
“There is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; and hid, that shall not be known.”
—Matt. 10:26 (KJV)
For the past year, I’ve been writing my first real-deal whodunits for Barbour’s imprint Heartsong Presents Mysteries.
Those who have been with me a while may wonder if these new books will be something of a departure from the zany blood-and-knuckles hijinks in my Kansas City Blues thrillers. But in those books, even with all the cops and mobsters and hit men running around, astute readers noticed an increasing level of experimentation with the detective form. (In fact, my third novel, Tribulation House, hinges on a reversal of a classic Agatha Christie trick.)
So I thought it was time to try my hand at some actual fair-play mysteries. And as I have been exploring this process, several people have asked how the traditional or “cozy” mystery is differentiated from other kinds of crime fiction.
At its core, a cozy—which could also be referred to as a “fair play mystery” or “whodunit”—is a puzzle combined with a character study. Instead of pulse-pounding thrills or shocking twists, cozies are known for surprising revelations. And while there’s much room for variations, the subgenre does come with certain expectations. A few defining characteristics:
1. A crime needs to come early in the story, which includes a puzzle to be solved. As the sleuth navigates through the clues and gossip, he or she may face a recurring threat or even the fear a second crime might occur (unlike a suspense thriller, where the focus is not on whodunit but on the impending threat to the protagonist).
2. No gratuitous violence, vulgar language, or racy content. As such, the crime usually happens offscreen (so to speak). The cozy also often has a humorous bent.
3. The detective in question has to be an amateur—caterer or gardener, doctor or minister, British Lord or dog walker. Although not paid to solve the crime, the amateur sleuth has some vested interest in solving the case. For example, a friend or loved one is on the hook.
4. It takes place in a confined space. A cozy typically has a small setting—a snowbound train or a house in a storm, a small country village or an apartment building, a retirement party or a wedding.
5. The list of suspects is limited. The main character does not have access to the resources of law enforcement, so the solution requires talking to characters who all know each other. (The murderer is probably one of them.)
6. Play fair. The reader, challenged to solve the mystery ahead of the detective, should have access to all the appropriate clues. Of course, some of the most vital clues need to be examined from a different angle to fit into place.
7. All’s well that ends well. By the end of a cozy mystery, the mystery has been revealed and justice has prevailed.
It has been suggested, in fact, that the amateur sleuth serves as an agent of God, bringing order out of chaos. Poet laureate C. Day Lewis (1904–1972), who penned mysteries under the name Nicholas Blake, noted the parallels between the denouement of the detective novel and the Day of Judgment when “with a flourish of trumpets, the mystery is made plain and the goats are separated from the sheep.”
Classic authors of cozy or traditional mysteries include G.K. Chesterton (The Innocence of Father Brown), Agatha Christie (The Mirror Crack’d), and Dorothy L. Sayers (Strong Poison). Modern practitioners in the CBA sphere include Nancy Mehl (Cozy in Kansas), Candice Miller Speare (Mayhem in Maryland), and Mary Connealy (Nosy in Nebraska). The long-running TV series Murder, She Wrote is also a popular example. (So popular, in fact, that brand-new Murder, She Wrote hardcover mysteries are still published every year. Madison Avenue Shoot comes out in April.)
I, for one, am thrilled to be working in the same genre as so many great authors. Let the games begin.