Mystery fiction can be categorized in many different ways, but one of the most frequently used distinctions has to do with the tone of the book. Using tone as the deciding factor, the three major mystery categories (or subgenres) are hard-boiled, cozy and traditional.
The hard-boiled novel typically includes on-stage violence, graphic sex, and street language. Tough, gritty, and brutal are favorite adjectives. The “hero” may be a criminal or someone trying to solve crimes. Justice does not necessarily prevail, and morality may not be an issue; cynicism and chaos reign. The crimes are not solved by treating them as intellectual problems; hard-boiled protagonists do not believe reason alone can arrive at a solution. The hard-boiled mystery is typically written in the first person from the point of view of the detective. This U.S. subgenre is thought to have originated with a short story by Carroll John Daly (1889-1958), “The False Burton Combs” (Black Mask, December 1922). It is believed that hard-boiled fiction came into being as a rebellion against the British “cozy,” which was considered unrealistic by some U.S. writers.
In a soft-boiled or cozy novel, the crime usually occurs off-stage. The murder is typically planned. The cozy contains little description of violence and few gory details, and little or no explicit sexual content. Language and deportment are generally educated and refined. Right and wrong are clearly defined and widely accepted. The society in a cozy is highly moral and the word “genteel” may be used as a descriptive term. The protagonist may be either an amateur or a professional, and is often a woman. Plots are intricate and intellectual, and the author provides numerous clues. The criminal is caught and punished.
The traditional novel contains elements of both the cozy and the hard-boiled, although it is closer to the cozy than to the hard-boiled. As G.W. Niebuhr wrote, in a traditional novel “the action uses violence to establish the seriousness of the crime without trivializing or glorifying its horrific effects” (Make Mine a Mystery, 8). Violence may take place on stage, but the details are not described. Obscene language is rare, as is explicit sexual content. The intent of the protagonist is to seek justice and to punish wrongdoers. The plot is intricate, and layered. As in a cozy, the guilty person is caught and punished.
Of the three types of mysteries, the oldest and the most enduring is the cozy. The term “cozy” as a descriptive term for a mystery is believed to have been used for the first time in a 25 May 1958 review in the Observer (London) of the novel Long Shadows, by Carol Carnac, in which the reviewer described the book as a “Cosy little murder mystery about a super-luxury country nursing home.” But the subgenre existed long before May 1958. It became popular in the Golden Age of mysteries (1920-47), and is thought to have originated with Agatha Christie (1890 – 1976), whose first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was published in 1920. This book was the first of the 34 mystery novels and five collections of short stories, featuring Hercule Poirot.
The books were immensely popular. Christie’s plot-driven mysteries, crammed with puzzles and misdirection, fascinated her readers, even if many of them disliked Poirot. He was pompous, vain, and physically unattractive. He was one of many arrogant and egocentric male detectives perhaps patterned after Sherlock Holmes.
It was not until 1930, when Christie introduced Miss Marple in Murder at the Vicarage that she captured the female audience who became her greatest fans. According to Rosemary Herbert, Miss Marple was the “quintessential” detective in cozy mysteries (The Oxford Companion to Crime & Mystery Writing, 278). The other Golden Age female authors never wrote about a female detective: Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982) wrote about Inspector Roderick Alleyn; Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957) wrote about Lord Peter Wimsey, who was constantly bailing out Harriet Vane; and Margery Allingham (1904-1966) wrote about Albert Campion. Meanwhile, Jane Marple, who was between 65 and 70 when Christie introduced her, was not only a woman, but an old woman (at least by the standards of the thirties), who ended the necessity for the stereotypical male detective in a cozy mystery. Since Miss Marple’s debut, most cozy mystery detectives, as well as their writers and readers, have been women.
Agatha Christie is one of the world’s best known and most read writers. Her work has been the inspiration for hundreds of writers. Many critics have marveled at Christie’s enduring ability to captivate readers, criticizing her for underdeveloped characters, inadequate and unrealistic settings, and a host of other faults. But those same critics all agree that she had a genius for plotting, and that her ability to trick the reader, to keep the reader in the dark as to “whodunit,” is nothing short of phenomenal.
Robert Barnard, a successful mystery writer, wrote A Talent to Deceive: An Appreciation of Agatha Christie, in which he analyzes her works and identifies many of her “strategies of deception.” He provides the reader (or student of mystery writing techniques) with a guide to them. His list, gleaned from her books, is shown below:
- The narrator is the murderer.
- The assumed victim or the presumed pursuer or the initiator of the investigation is the murderer.
- The investigator or the sidekick (“Watson”) is the murderer.
- The domestic triangle. In Christie’s books, the intruder/other woman is typically deceived and/or the victim. Christie usually keeps the marriage intact.
- The conspiracy. Christie frequently utilized conspiracies between two unlikely people, both of whom may appear to have alibis, and/or may appear to lack a motive. The relationship between the two may be kept from the reader until the end of the book, and may be the key to solving the mystery.
- The extended conspiracy. One or more of the people is an imposter, and more closely connected to the victim than he/she pretends to be. (For example, when we are about to scream “preposterous” because in Murder on the Orient Express we learn that all of the people on the train are connected to the victim—we’re right! It’s not coincidence, it’s conspiracy.)
- Reversing typical responses to certain situations. Example: an international conspiracy to murder a banker prevents the reader from noticing the banker’s suspicious behavior. Another example: In a situation where a bitchy wife is faced with a seemingly loving husband, the reader forgets the most likely killer of a wife is the husband.
- The stereotype. Stereotypes are typically discounted by the reader. Frail old ladies, bluff male bores, children, all seem harmless. Any could kill, but are hardly ever suspected by the reader.
- The smokescreen trick, where the reader is distracted from important matters because Christie has persuaded the reader to focus on something else. For example, the reader focuses his attention on the wrong murder, or what appears to be an attempted murder, which, in fact, is a fake.
Barnard’s list, although a great beginning, does not contain all of the strategies used in the Miss Marple books. I have put together an additional list of “Strategies of deception,” in List II, from Miss Marple books:
- Switching dead bodies. In at least one case, a second person is murdered in order to procure a body killed at a time when the murderers have an alibi. In another case, the body of a person who has died of natural causes is used to make it appear that the murdered person has died much earlier than he/she in fact has. Again, this gives the murderer an alibi.
- Switching lives. This involves making it appear that the person who died is someone else, so that another person can assume the dead person’s identity, usually to steal the dead person’s money.
- The “accident.” Example: a woman leaves poisoned pills in an aspirin bottle on her own bedside table. She then hides the aspirin belonging to another in the household, and tells the person she wants to kill to feel free to borrow hers. The assumption is made that the woman whose bedroom the aspirin was in was the intended victim, and the other person took it by accident.
- The “look over the shoulder” strategy, in which an observer interprets/misinterprets what a character/victim sees, and the reader excepts the misinterpretations.
Even the two lists combined are probably incomplete, but give us an understanding of Christie’s originality and cleverness. Readers of later mysteries will see Christie’s strategies used again and again. Some contemporary writers apparently plunder Dame Agatha’s books for ideas.
Christie died in 1976. In the years since her death, the number of cozies published and the number of women writing them has expanded enormously. Cozies today almost always appear in a series. Their scope has widened, although the essentials described on page two remain in place. Certain trends have emerged, notably the “interesting occupation” of the protagonists, sometimes described as themes. Listed below are some of the occupations of the cozy investigator:
- Book, seller of, and librarians
- Cooking and catering
- Dogs (breeding)
- Inns, Bed & Breakfasts
- Museums or other art-related occupations
There are undoubtedly many more, and these themes or occupations will continue to proliferate, as new novelists enter the market, which, inspired by their own liking for the cozy and its popularity, they will surely do.
When queried as to why they prefer them, readers answer with words like “comforting,” “happy endings,” “justice done,” and “order restored.” In other words, they are cozy.
Barnard, Robert. A Talent to Deceive: An Appreciation of Agatha Christie. London: William Collins & Son, 1979.
Herbert, Rosemary. The Oxford Companion to Crime & Mystery Writing. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Niebuhr, Gary Warren. Make Mine a Mystery. Westport: Libraries Unlimited, 2003.