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Kittens, Tea Cups and Murder: The Warm Appeal of Cozy Mysteries

Snuggle up and escape into one of these witty, gore-free detective books

Cozy Mysteries
St. Martin's Press / Minotaur Books / St. Martin's Press

Murder mysteries are perennial staples of best-seller lists, but some readers eager for a puzzling plot aren’t fans of their often dark, violent storylines. Enter cozy mysteries, a sunnier alternative to gritty police-detective fiction; you’ll still find a killing at their centers, but bloody crime scenes and spine-tingling suspense are replaced by large helpings of warmth and humor.

Never heard of them? You may nonetheless be familiar with their vibe if you’ve read Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple books or watched the television versions — or seen the show Murder She Wrote. And "the Hulu series Only Murders in the Building is a cozy,” says Mandy Chahal, marketing manager for Poisoned Pen Press, a division of Sourcebooks that publishes a wide range of cozies, including Amanda Flower’s hugely popular Amish-themed mysteries.

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The key markers of a cozy include a small-town setting, an amateur sleuth, likable characters, murder in the background (no gory descriptions), a possible love interest (but no sex scenes), loads of red herrings and a sense of humor — often reflected in the books’ pun-happy titles (think Game of Scones and Up to No Gouda).  

Food themes are popular, as in the new cheese shop series Korina Moss has kicked off with Cheddar Off Dead. And their illustrated covers tend to feature homey scenes of fireplaces, cats, comfy-looking reading chairs, baked goods and teacups.    

Publishers say sales of cozies have been particularly strong in recent years. “It’s a cozy moment,” says Kelley Ragland, associate publisher at Minotaur Books, whose star writers include Vivien Chien, author of the popular Noodle Shop mysteries set in Cleveland, and Ellie Alexander, known for her bakeshop mysteries (the most recent is Donut Disturb) and small-town brewmaster mysteries (The Cure for What Ales You).  

Ragland thinks readers are turning to these warm-and-fuzzy puzzlers in part to escape from the troubling reality of the world around them. “There’s a real appeal in books that wrap up all the loose ends at the end,” she says. “Justice is served, murderers are caught, all is right with the world — at least for now.” 

Plus, they’re fast and easy reads. “People can eat them like candy,” Chahal notes 

A new style of mild-mannered murder mystery is also growing in popularity. It riffs on the cozy genre but has a bit more edge — closer to a Janet Evanovich novel than Murder She Wrote — and printed with more modern-looking covers as higher-quality trade paperbacks rather than as mass-market offerings. Among them are Elle Cosimano’s series featuring Finlay Donovan, a single mom who has been mistaken for a hit woman; and Richard Osman’s Thursday Murder Club series, focusing on four charming septuagenarian sleuths, residents in a luxury retirement village in England who meet once a week to contemplate cold murder cases (read an excerpt from the first book, The Thursday Murder Club).

Ready to give cozy mysteries a try? These 13 popular series are good places to start.   

Fixer-Upper Mysteries by Kate Carlisle

The first book: A High-End Finish (2014)

The premise: If you like HGTV, you’ll love this cozy series set in the cliffside Northern California town of Lighthouse Cove, where contractor Shannon Hammer (get it?) restores Victorian mansions. Murder comes knocking when a real estate agent with whom she went on a bad blind date ends up dead in the next home she’s set to renovate. Like many mysteries before them, Kate Carlisle’s books have been adapted by the Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, channel, this time into a trio of films starring actress-singer Jewel.

More cozy mysteries about home renovation: Kathleen Bridge’s Hamptons Home and Gardens Mysteries (Better Homes and Corpses), Frank Anthony Polito’s upcoming Domestic Partners in Crime Mysteries (Renovated to Death)

The Cat Who… Series by Lilian Jackson Braun

The first book: The Cat Who Could Read Backwards (1966)

The premise: Over the course of four decades and 29 novels, mystery writer Lilian Jackson Braun “repeatedly plumbed the hearts, minds and digestive tracts of her crime-solving feline heroes,” as Margalit Fox put it in the author’s 2011 New York Times obituary. Technically, human newspaper reporter Jim “Qwill” Qwilleran was the protagonist, but readers kept coming back for his two sidekicks, Siamese cats Koko (who has a sixth sense for finding clues) and Yum Yum (who has a habit of stealing things).

More cozy mysteries about cats: Rita Mae Brown’s Mrs. Murphy Mysteries (Puss ’n Cahoots), Sofie Kelly’s Magical Cats Mysteries (A Tale of Two Kitties), Cate Conte’s Cat Café Mysteries (Purrder She Wrote), Jennifer J. Chow’s Sassy Cat Mysteries (Mimi Lee Gets A Clue), Miranda James’ Cat in the Stacks Mysteries (Six Cats a Slayin’), Blaize Clement’s Dixie Hemingway Mysteries (Curiosity Killed the Cat Sitter)

Agatha Raisin Mysteries by M.C. Beaton   

The first book: Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death (1992)

The premise: Writing under the pseudonym M.C. Beaton, Scottish author Marion Chesney penned more than 30 books in this series before her death in 2019. At the age of 53, London PR agent Agatha Raisin sells her firm and takes an early retirement in the Cotswolds. But, as her namesake, Agatha Christie, proved decades before with the Miss Marple series, even quaint English villages can have their fair share of murders. The books were later adapted into a BBC Radio show and a TV series starring Ashley Jensen.

More cozy mysteries set in the British countryside: Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club, T.E. Kinsey’s Lady Hardcastle Mysteries (A Quiet Life in the Country), Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce Series (The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie)

Coffeehouse Mysteries by Cleo Coyle

Cleo Coyle
Berkley Publishing Group

The first book: On What Grounds (2003)

The premise: After a decade out in the suburbs, Clare Cosi returns to Greenwich Village to manage the landmark Village Blend café for her ex-mother-in-law. But the events that take place in this unexpectedly action-packed coffee shop will set your heart racing as quickly as a few cups of strong espresso: Expect poisoned lattes, dead baristas, herbal aphrodisiacs and the attempted murder of a botanist who’s developed the first naturally decaffeinated coffee plant. The series is also filled with recipes for dishes like mocha brownies, coffee-marinated steak and cappuccino muffins.

More cozy mysteries set in coffee shops or teahouses: Tara Lush’s Coffee Lover’s Mysteries (Cold Brew Corpse), Laura Childs’ Tea Shop Mysteries (Death by Darjeeling), Lena Gregory’s All-Day Breakfast Café Mysteries (Whole Latte Murder), Bree Baker’s Seaside Café Mysteries (Live and Let Chai)

The Noodle Shop Mystery Series by Vivien Chien

The first book: Death by Dumpling (2018)

The premise: After losing her job and her partner, Lana Lee starts working at her family’s Chinese restaurant, the Ho-Lee Noodle House, in Cleveland. But when the property manager, who has a deadly shellfish allergy, turns up dead after eating shrimp dumplings, Lana springs into action, solving a series of crimes around Asia Village. The mysteries, written by Chinese American author Vivien Chien, are almost as delicious as the title puns, such as Dim Sum of All Fears and Hot and Sour Suspects.

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More cozy mysteries set in restaurants: Tina Kashian’s Kebab Kitchen Mysteries (Hummus and Homicide), A.L. Herbert’s Mahalia Watkins Soul Food Mysteries (Murder With Fried Chicken and Waffles), Mia P. Manansala’s Tita Rosie’s Kitchen Mysteries (Arsenic and Adobo), Amanda Flower’s Farm to Table Mysteries (Farm to Trouble)

Bewitching Mysteries by Madelyn Alt

Madelyn Alt
Berkley Publishing Group

The first book: The Trouble with Magic (2006)

The premise: Witches are a favorite subject among cozy mystery writers. In Madelyn Alt’s magic-tinged series, Maggie O’Neill begins working at a mystical antique shop in Indiana when she discovers that her boss, Felicity, is a witch, and she has to work to clear her name when she becomes a murder suspect. Soon, Maggie finds herself enchanted by the world of witchcraft, as she learns spells, sniffs out bad spirits and joins up with the N.I.G.H.T.S. team of ghost hunters.

More cozy mysteries about witches: Juliet Blackwell’s Witchcraft Mysteries (Secondhand Spirits), Heather Blake’s Wishcraft Mysteries (The Good, the Bad, and the Witchy), Esme Addison’s Enchanted Bay Mysteries (A Spell for Trouble), Lynn Cahoon Kitchen Witch Mysteries (Chili Cauldron Curse), Auralee Wallace Evenfall Witches B&B Mysteries (In the Company of Witches)

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Series by Alexander McCall Smith

The first book: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (1998)

The premise: British writer Alexander McCall Smith was raised in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and his most famous mystery series — spanning 23 books and counting — is a love letter to Africa, set in Botswana. Following the death of her father, Mma Precious Ramotswe moves to the capital city of Gaborone and decides to open a detective agency, where she investigates cases such as a missing child who may have been killed by witch doctors. (We’re in cozy territory, so don’t get too nervous about the ending.) In 2009, the BBC and HBO coproduced a television adaptation starring R&B singer Jill Scott and Broadway star Anika Noni Rose.

More cozy mysteries set in far-flung locations: Ovidia Yu’s Crown Colony Series (The Frangipani Tree Mystery), Shamini Flint’s Inspector Singh Investigates Series (A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder)

Scottish Bookshop Mysteries by Paige Shelton

Paige Shelton
Minotaur Books

The first book: The Cracked Spine (2017)

The premise: Lovers of kilts and brogues will get a special kick out of this cozy series set in an Edinburgh rare books and manuscripts store called The Cracked Spine, where American expat Delaney Nichols has taken a new job. Surrounded by a sitcom’s worth of eccentric coworkers, Delaney often finds herself having to turn to the shelves for clues. Along the way, she deals with murders and mysteries involving everyone from a Loch Ness monster enthusiast to a pair of Mary Queen of Scots look-alikes as she begins a budding relationship with the cute pub bartender across the street.

More cozy mysteries set in bookshops: Harper Kincaid’s Book Binder Mysteries (To Kill a Mocking Girl), V.M. Burns’ Mystery Bookshop Series (The Plot is Murder), Ellery Adams’ Secret, Book and Scone Society Mysteries (The Whispered Word), Lorna Barrett’s Booktown Mysteries (Murder Is Binding), Lauren Elliott’s Beyond the Page Bookstore Mysteries (Murder by the Book)

The Hannah Swensen Mystery Series by Joanne Fluke

The first book: Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder (2000)

The premise: Dubbed the queen of culinary cozies, Joanne Fluke whipped up a perfect heroine in Hannah Swensen, who owns a bakery and solves murders in her fictional town of Lake Eden, Minnesota. Fluke also spices up her books with recipes that she invents herself, modifies from family cookbooks or borrows from fans — who, as she told The New York Times, she sometimes rewards by naming minor characters after them — and she claims to have baked more than half a million chocolate chip cookies for her readers over the years. Hallmark Movies & Mysteries has also adapted her stories into six Murder, She Baked films, starring Days of Our Lives actress Alison Sweeney as Hannah.

More cozy mysteries about desserts: Abby Collette’s Ice Cream Parlor Mysteries (A Killer Sundae), Jessica Beck’s Donut Mysteries (Donut Disturb), Bailey Cates’ Magical Bakery Mysteries (Brownies and Broomsticks)   

Phryne Fisher Mysteries by Kerry Greenwood

Kerry Greenwood
Allen & Unwin

The first book: Cocaine Blues (2005)

The premise: It’s the Roaring Twenties, and Phryne Fisher is no ordinary aristocrat — she drives race cars, flies planes, wears trousers and carries a handgun in her purse. Bored with polite English high society, she sets out for Australia, where she puts her considerable wit and intelligence toward becoming a private detective in Melbourne. The series was so popular in Australia that it was adapted into a TV series and a feature film, starring Essie Davis, plus a spin-off series set in the 1960s about Miss Fisher’s niece Peregrine.

More cozy mysteries that take place in the 1920s, ’30s or ’40s: Carola Dunn’s Daisy Dalrymple Mysteries (Death at Wentwater Court), Susan Elia MacNeal’s Maggie Hope Mysteries (Mr. Churchill’s Secretary), Rhys Bowen’s Royal Spyness Mysteries (A Royal Pain), Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs Series (Birds of a Feather)

Gethsemane Brown Mysteries by Alexia Gordon  

The first book: Murder in G Major (2016)

The premise: A physician by day and host of the podcast The Cozy Corner, Alexia Gordon is also the author of a quartet of mysteries centered around Gethsemane Brown, an African American classical musician who finds herself living abroad in an Irish village. As she works to whip the local boys’ school orchestra into shape, she accepts a house-sitting gig at a cottage once owned by her favorite composer. The only catch? She soon finds that he’s still haunting the place, and it’s her job to clear him of the murder-suicide of which he’s been accused.

More cozy mysteries about ghosts: Nancy Atherton’s Aunt Dimity Mysteries (Aunt Dimity’s Death), Karen White’s Tradd Street Series (The House on Tradd Street), Victoria Laurie’s Ghost Hunter Mysteries (What’s A Ghoul to Do?), Angie Fox’s Southern Ghost Hunter Mysteries (Southern Spirits)

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Aurora Teagarden Mysteries by Charlaine Harris

Charlaine Harris
Piatkus

The first book: Real Murders (1990)

The premise: Best known for writing the Southern Gothic novels that inspired HBO’s True Blood, Mississippi-born author Charlaine Harris went decidedly lighter in this earlier series about small-town Georgia librarian Aurora “Roe” Teagarden. She’s a member of the Real Murders Club, which gathers to discuss historical killings, but the situation turns scarier when her fellow true-crime buffs start dropping like flies. Candace Cameron Bure stars as Aurora in a series of films for Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, with Marilu Henner appearing as her mom.

More cozy mysteries about librarians: Jenn McKinlay’s Library Lover’s Mysteries (Books Can Be Deceiving), Olivia Matthews’ Peach Coast Library Mysteries (Murder by Page One), Eva Gates’ Lighthouse Library Mysteries (By Book or By Crook)

Magical Dressmaking Mysteries by Melissa Bourbon

The first book: Pleating for Mercy (2011)

The premise: After her great-grandmother dies, Manhattan fashion designer Harlow Jane Cassidy leaves behind the big city and her high-powered job to move back to her hometown of Bliss, Texas. Once there, she inherits an old farmhouse and transforms it into a dressmaking boutique — but she soon finds that she’s sharing her new workplace with an unexplained presence. Guess who?! With the help of her ghostly family member, Harlow begins to solve crimes around the ironically named Bliss — such as a golf pro stabbed to death with dressmaking shears — and she won’t stop until the cases are all sewn up.

More cozy mysteries about fashion: Jenn McKinlay’s Hat Shop Mysteries (Cloche and Dagger), Elizabeth Penney’s Apron Shop Mysteries (Thread and Dead)