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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
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)