Today I’m feeling fall’s first nips. Nighttime temperatures have dipped into the 50s, and the harvest moon is shining on. The autumn equinox is just days away, bringing with it longer, chillier evenings–perfect reading weather. A family member living in the northeast has already declared Apple Cider Season underway. Farther south, I’m getting my sweaters out of storage and cozying up with a good mystery.
Recently I reconnected with an old friend, Mollie Cox Bryan, with whom I hadn’t been in touch for nearly twenty years. When Mollie and I first met, she was already a published poet. A few years later, she edited Unsilenced, an anthology of writing on women’s spirituality. Mollie has since established herself as the author of a wonderful “cozy” mystery series centered around a group of scrapbookers in the fictional Shenandoah Valley town of Cumberland Creek. I delighted in reading Scrapbook of Secrets, the first book in the series and an Agatha Award nominee for Best First Novel of 2012, and I have just begun reading the second, Scrapped. In the opening chapters, the now-familiar main characters are gathered together to enjoy a meal of steaming pumpkin soup and crusty bread, work on their scrapbooks, and as fate would have it, discuss the town’s latest apparent homicide. Mollie’s description of the warmly spiced soup is so deliciously vivid, I want to put on my flannel pajamas and stir up a pot myself. (Mollie has also published two cookbooks featuring the recipes of Virginia restauranteur Mrs. Rowe, one of which is all pies–pie being one of my favorite cozy things. Speaking of cozy things, if you haven’t tried your hand at creating a scrapbook–I haven’t–Mollie provides tips to get started at the end of her mysteries.)
A good mystery calls for a confession: I have never read a mystery novel, cozy or otherwise. I suspect, though, that you may know a good deal more about cozy mysteries, especially if you were lured to this post by the “mystery” tag. If you aren’t familiar with the sub-genre of the cozy, check out Cozy Mystery List for an excellent and comprehensive primer. For the nutshell version, think Miss Marple and her television counterpart Jessica Fletcher. Cozy mysteries typically are set in small towns or rural communities, revolve around a colorful cast of characters, and are, for the most part, bloodless and sexless (Scrapbook of Secrets perhaps has a bit more sex happening off the page than most cozies, not all of it garden-variety, and while it might make Miss Marple tut, it’s still relatively mild). As you’ll learn from Cozy Mystery List, there are cozy mysteries centering on a variety of hobbies (gardening, cooking, birding, golfing), professions (librarians, lawyers, housekeepers, “lady ministers”), and other themes.
I particularly appreciate the bloodlessness and sexlessness of cozy mysteries. Yes, I am aware that in real life people do commit murders and have sex. I can’t open my browser without stumbling onto a certain former Disney star in some state of undress. And scarcely a day goes by when I’m not sickened anew by the violence humans inflict on one another, other creatures, and the planet. I’m not, however, puritanical about literature, and rather than shying away from realism, I usually lean in–years ago I took a graduate-level lit course devoted entirely to Naturalism, so I’m used to kicking it old school with the gruesome detail. (I’m looking at you, Emile Zola.) But generally I tend to avoid fiction that is intemperate in its use of violence, particularly when that violence is sexualized. I don’t think it’s beneficial to our own states of mind to continually expose ourselves to violent images and stories, and I’m a big fan of being selective about news sources and taking regular media fasts.
In a cozy mystery, the violence is tidy and contained. The details are not dwelt upon except to the extent that they offer clues or red herrings. Murder happens, and the characters get on with the business of solving it. The cozy mystery, in my limited experience, provides the fun of puzzling out the crime with minimal gore.
Cozy mysteries are just about my speed these days. After a couple of decades of social activism and volunteering that opened my eyes to all manner of violence, I now compartmentalize grim information on a need-to-know basis. I salve my anxiety about the state of the world by seizing coziness wherever I can find it: in hot beverages, savory stews, well-worn hoodies, overstuffed chairs. It used to be I only wanted to be ensconced in a cozy setting when reading a good book–now that I’ve sampled cozy literature, I realize I’ve been missing the out on the whole gestalt of coziness.
As you can see from the Cozy Mystery List and Goodreads, where to begin in making a reading list can be a bit overwhelming for the cozy newbie, especially given the many voluminous series. What are your favorites? I welcome recommendations in the comments section below (if you don’t see a comment box below, click on the title of this post). Then, let’s put on our jam-jams, cozy up in our favorite reading chair with a nice cuppa tea–or hot cider or mulled wine–and get wrapped up in a cozy mystery.