Good Reads/Book Reviews

Why ‘Cozy’ Mysteries are more Complex than you Think

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This November Murder on the Orient Express, starring Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Judi Dench, is released in cinemas worldwide. Based upon the novel of the same name by the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie, the film tells the story of a murder—and its subsequent investigation—committed on a train (the Orient Express) while its stranded in heavy snow. I’ve read the original book, seen countless film and television adaptations, and even played the PC video game in my time. Nonetheless, I’m intrigued by what Hollywood has to offer in this modern adaptation.


Originally published on January 1st 1934, Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express could be described as being a classic ‘cozy’ mystery. It has an (albeit famous) amateur sleuth—Hercule Poirot—investigating a baffling crime among a community of suspects brought together by their shared journey. Furthermore, the crime is committed away from the readers’ gaze and, at its end, the murderer is exposed and order is restored. Don’t worry; I shan’t give any spoilers here!


While all these elements are found within a ‘cozy’ mystery, I, personally, detest the term. It has the potential to create expectations of a boring plot and cardboard cut-out characters. As a result, these expectations may weaken the perception of a writer’s skill in the reader’s mind. The only point I will concede is the idea of a mystery story being ‘cozy’ due to it reassuring its readers, i.e. all comes right in the end.


For me, a far more accurate description of a story usually termed a ‘cozy’ mystery would be ‘clue-puzzle’, for this is exactly what it is. What HRF Keating termed in his book, Writing Crime Fiction, as the “Classical Blueprint” was perfected by writers, such as Agatha Christie, in the golden age of crime fiction in the 1930s and 1940s. According to Keating, “crime writing is fiction that puts the reader first, not the writer.” In other words, the crime writer puts the readers’ enjoyment above any meaningful message the writer may want to otherwise get across. In the ‘clue-puzzle’ mystery, a reader’s enjoyment comes from the satisfaction of solving the puzzle posed by the mystery.


A puzzle created by the writer and portrayed through several key elements within the story: suspects, clues and red herrings, motives, alibis, and means. The writer’s skill is tested, and demonstrated, in how well they may lead their reader through this maze of deception to the final solution. For a devotee of the ‘clue-puzzle’ mystery, there is no greater sin than the detective, having held back a vital clue, revealing this clue during the final solution. Alternatively, the previously unknown suspect who confesses to the crime when all others—who the reader has been scrutinising throughout the book—have been ruled out. In essence, fair play is at the heart of every good ‘clue-puzzle’ mystery. The reader must be given a sporting chance to solve the mystery themselves. Otherwise, their enjoyment is shattered because, put simply, they feel duped.


The key elements mentioned above are found in the classic ‘cozy’ mystery but not, perhaps, for the reasons you may think. Let’s examine the notion of a closed community of suspects. Many ‘cozy’ mysteries take place within a village (think Miss Marple’s St Mary Mead) where everyone knows one another. This familiarity between characters, and suspects, has been pointed to as evidence of the non-threatening face of ‘cozy’ mysteries. While this is certainly true, there is a more important reason why suspects are known to one another in mystery stories.


That is, the boundaries of the puzzle must be defined within the reader’s mind. There has to be a closed circle of suspects—either due to physical means, e.g. stranded on a train or residents of the same village, or verbal means, e.g. stating only these six people could’ve been present at the time of the murder—because writing about an entire world of suspects is impossible. Again, we’re returning to the notion of fair play. By defining how the circle of suspects is closed and why, the reader is being subtly informed they shouldn’t be looking elsewhere for the murderer. Thus, along with the time and means of the murder, the fundamental boundaries of the puzzle being posed are set.


Many suspects are known to one another as this enables the writer to develop their personalities within the limited space a mystery novel provides. More importantly though, it helps the writer forge—what I like to term—‘clue trails’ between the suspects. Whenever someone asks me how I write/plan my mystery novels/short stories, I always give them this analogy: a mystery story is like leading the reader through a garden. The murder (or crime, as not all mysteries have homicide at their heart) is the gate where the writer and reader enter the story together. The investigation is the writer guiding the reader along the many winding paths through the garden. There may be more than one path, and these paths may lead in many different directions. Ultimately though, the writer barricades these paths—one-by-one—until the last remains. At the end of this path is the exit from the garden, i.e. the solution to the mystery.


Personally, I write my mysteries with the aim of guiding my reader to a point where, just before the solution, they are able to make an educated guess at the murderer’s identity. They may not know why they think it is that particular person but they will have an instinct it is them. Thus, when the reader is proved right at the end, they feel tremendous satisfaction and enjoyment. Like Keating wrote, I am putting my reader first.


I think this game between writer and reader, in the form of the clue-puzzle, may also explain why fans of ‘cozy’ mysteries enjoy following an amateur detective’s investigation over a police officer’s. The reader may put themselves into an amateur detective’s shoes far more easily than a police officer’s because, essentially, the amateur is just like them. They are the kindly, old women and nosey neighbours of this world. Furthermore, due to their normalcy, these amateur detectives have no motive beyond solving the murder to restore order. They have none of the stereotypical restraints or foibles of a police officer, even if their spouse or friend happens to be in law enforcement. Ultimately, they are merely attempting what the reader is: trying to solve the puzzle of the mystery.


So, to come full circle, ‘cozy’ mysteries are non-threatening because they offer reassurances that any and all evil may be exposed and order restored. Yet, these mysteries nonetheless have greater depth than this. They are—literally—literary puzzles; intricately constructed with many a twist and turn and red herring, for the pure entertainment of the reader. Creating such a puzzle that works—without deceiving the reader beyond the sleight of hand of hiding a genuine clue among red herrings—is more difficult than one may suspect. Fair play must be paramount, alongside readability, believability, and relatability. As HRF Keating wrote, “the crime story can, to a small extent or to quite a large extent, do what the pure novel does. It can make a temporary map for its readers out of the chaos of their surroundings. Only it should never let them know.”



Keating, HRF Writing Crime Fiction: Second Edition A & C Black (Publishers (Limited),  (1994, London)

To find out more about my own clue-puzzle mysteries—and where to buy them—please visit my website: If you’d like to read exclusive clue-puzzle short stories, please subscribe to my free, monthly newsletter the Gaslight Gazette here:

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