Safe haven: Writing cozy mysteries in a not-so-cozy world

For one mystery author, writing about fictional crime brings solace in a world filled with violence.

Mystery
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The world is harsh. Just last night a young man was murdered in our small town – a town that was recently rated the safest little burg in the state. The community mourns the loss, feeling the emptiness and the stark sense of helplessness that surrounds pointless tragedy. In today’s world, there is no such thing as sanctuary. Even places of worship can no longer guarantee refuge. Reality TV slams us with additional unrest, and even best-selling fiction jars our minds with scenes of alarm. We’re torn between the desire to be courageous and the temptation to give in to debilitating fear.

But while the world grieves, I find myself contemplating murder. Not murder in the physical sense, but murder in a fictional realm. While I, like the rest of my neighbors, deal with grief, confusion, and bare emotion in the face of this genuine sorrow, my mind insists on escaping to a safe, soothing hamlet. A village somewhat akin to St. Mary Meade where I can have tea with Jane Marple. Or perhaps a snug little community in the Cotswolds where the meadows are green and the stones are golden. In the midst of anger, hurt, and confusion, I craft worlds in which murder is present but genteel. Crime is evident, but well-mannered, and delinquency dresses for dinner. I write cozy mysteries.

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During these days of real calamity, devastating news, and horrific happenings, my mind is torn. What right do I have to civilize a crime as hideous as murder? Should I attempt to entertain readers with such dreadful wrongdoings? Am I somehow exploiting the heartbreak of others? Or is there a non-threatening way to talk about misfortune and misery?

And then my literary muse (always practical and quite utilitarian) alights on my shoulder, slightly piercing my skin with the tiny spurs of his boots. In non-too gentle tones, he reminds me that I’m not omnipotent, omniscient, or even influential. I’m a storyteller. No more. No less. My writing provides a temporary getaway – a momentary respite from shocking newspaper headlines and true crime shows. My imaginary world, although not entirely safe, is predictable. Even charming. But he leaves no room for doubt when he assures me that, while my stories might be somewhat entertaining, they do not move or shake the world. With exasperated eye-rolls, he lets me know that I really just need to get over myself and stick to tale-telling. That I’m not a theologian or even a philosopher. I have to agree. The spurs sting. And when I really think about it, even though they often steer far from real life, there are elements of cozy mysteries which offer solace. Perhaps even sanctuary, if only for a short time.

One such comfort comes from the fact that, in the world of cozy mysteries, justice is always served. The sleuth invariably catches the killer, prosecutes the guilty, and restores harmony to the town. Usually within in the span of sixty to eighty thousand words. I think that Dame Agatha Christie sums up this idea of fair play when she quotes the Old Testament prophet, Amos, in her book Nemesis: “Let justice roll down like waters. And righteousness like an everlasting stream.” Both due process of the law and unbiased punishment of the criminal are guaranteed in a timely manner in her books. That is reassuring.

Cozy mysteries also frequently empower the amateur. Often the real sleuths are library volunteers, piano teachers, cleaning ladies, and soccer moms. No one need feel helpless in the face of violent crime. Nor does anyone have to depend on the professionals to keep them safe. These novice, small-town gumshoes travel where trained detectives fear to tread! And they are astute. They observe the minutia. Every dropped handkerchief can be a clue, each sketchy character a suspect. They’re also shrewd. They notice Freudian slips, abnormal behaviors, and irregular conversations. One of their strengths lies in the fact that they are almost always underestimated. Their power of observation and gift of discernment gives courage to the underdog and boldness to the fearful.

Readers can relax knowing there are no random acts of violence in cozy mysteries. Crimes are rarely spontaneous. Usually the murderer has a detailed master plan, complete with several back-up strategies. And the killer always has a specific target and a definite motive. While this point serves no useful purpose for the victim, the townsfolk (and the reader) can take comfort in the fact that, unless they are somehow involved in the murder plot, or get too close to identifying the criminal, they will likely be safe. Perhaps it seems a bit counterintuitive to be “safe” in the midst of a murder story, but I take great care to create a hedge of protection around most of my characters. Cozy mysteries are a place to feel secure, not to fear for one’s life. Even though mystery series, by their very nature, often create the dilemma of multiple killings taking place in a single, tiny town, the characters rarely seem to feel the trauma of death hovering in the offing.

Setting is important to the cozy mystery. Villages and communities lend themselves to pleasant surroundings and quirky characters. I have the pleasure of living in a small town. I enjoy my roles as middle school English teacher, church pianist, library board president, deacon’s wife, and mom to three lovely, artistic children. Some town residents even know I’m a writer! I love to completely immerse myself in the trifles of daily rural life. Tree lighting ceremonies, homecoming parades, Independence Day picnics, and high school football games are all fodder for creating authentic settings. And of course, there must be at least one central meeting place. A diner, bookstore, quilt shop, or even a church can be a spot where folks converge to discuss the latest gossip. Even if the story takes place in modern times, the setting must somehow be frozen in an era when life was less complicated. If not quite Mayberry, at least Mitford.

Small town settings nurture likeable (and not so likeable) characters. Since many of the townsfolks will end up coming back in future books, they need to have endearing personalities. They don’t all have to be created as joyful rays of sunshine, but they have to be engaging and interesting – if only for their curmudgeonly ways. And of course, some have to be engaged in nefarious behavior. After all, even cozy mysteries need a range of suspects. While character behavior can temporarily cause varying shades of grey areas, there is absolutely no question of guilt or innocence by the book’s end. Readers learn that quirky doesn’t always equal disreputable, and even shady guys are not always guilty.

But all of the charm, eccentricity, and peculiarities would be for naught if there were no puzzle to solve. For me, creating the conundrum is by far the most difficult part of cozy mystery writing. Cozy readers are clever, and offering them a simple plot line is patronizing to say the least. Constructing the puzzle, and crafting the clues, red herrings, false trails, and smoke screens can take many hours of plotting and planning. My research takes me down twisted paths, and the search history on my laptop meanders from Belladonna poisoning to stages of rigor mortis. Since many cozy readers like to solve the mystery along with (or even before) the sleuth, all clues must be fair, visible (if camouflaged), and rational. While the pieces must fit, they cannot be forced to conform. Even if the real world is going to Hades in a hamper, the cozy mystery must make sense. Consistency is another way to foster security.

And so, despite the self-confidence of my muse, I grapple with even more enigmas. Am I writing to a formula? Probably. Am I creating unrealistic scenarios? Most certainly. But what is escape if it’s not moving away from the everyday ambiguities of life? There is an undeniable comfort in routine. Irrefutable security in the predictable. When the outside world seems to hover between violent chaos and nuclear destruction, perhaps it’s not cliché to write about a place where there are no patches of grey, only clearly defined areas of black and white. No hidden agendas that won’t eventually be revealed. Perhaps it is perfectly acceptable to envision a place where the maid or the gardener can be the true hero. Maybe it’s okay to set aside a space where puzzles, however perplexing, can be solved.

I still struggle with the unpredictability of true crime. I know that in real life there are no clear-cut solutions, no neatly tied parcels of right answers. What is the writer’s duty to humankind? Many civilizations of the past endured despair by telling stories. From hieroglyphics to print-on-demand, the written word has stirred, consoled, and comforted. Stories connect cultures, peoples, and nations. They are a venue for understanding, commiseration, and empathy.

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Storytelling, whatever the form, is a sort of balm to souls worn by reality. Perchance cozy mysteries can be my offering. My gift to the world. A sliver of sanctuary amidst the chaos of real life.

So, here’s to predictability, eccentricity, and everyday masterminds: May your stories continue to enchant, and may your plots be forever twisted.

 

—Tammy Cullers teaches 7th grade English at J. Frank Hillyard Middle School and is a co-author of the Custer’s Mill Mystery series and the Local Lore of the Shenandoah history series.

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