Not too long ago, I began writing a psychological mystery about an internet-famous dog trainer who does public performances (think Super Collies). Then, at a mystery writers’ conference, an editor begged me to take out the scary stuff and turn it into a cozy. The deal, she said, might include a television spot in which I teach people how to teach their dogs to do tricks, which is what I do on the side). My ego got a stroked, but what’s a cozy, and wouldn’t I be stooping to write one?
I’m an International Baccalaureate English teacher and a writing professor. I’d never read a cozy. When I went book shopping, I saw why — the covers appear to be aimed at children:
A friend persuaded me to give cozies a chance, so I started reading every cozy with a dog in it. Here’s what I learned about cozy mysteries, followed by a few recommendations for dog lovers.
What a Cozy Is
Cozies, I discovered, aren’t mindless fluff for kiddos and simpletons, despite how they may seem when you judge them by their covers. How could they be with Agatha Christie as the matriarch? (For a brief history, click here.)
A good cozy presents a whodunit puzzle and usually teaches a hobby, a skill, a way of life.
Achieving coziness isn’t always easy in daily life. And when you think about it, making you feel like you’re cuddled up in bunny slippers while solving a violent crime is a hell of an artistic stunt. Don’t believe me?
You try writing one.
As a reader, I have standards. Trained professional standards. They have to be competently written and largely free of cliche. I have to learn something new. I have to care about the main characters. I have to laugh. And there must be dogs, credible canine characters–dogs whose behavior someone who’s lived with and trained dogs all her life would recognize.
If the dog talks, I shut the book (sorry fans of Chet and Bernie).
The Formula, or What You Can Expect
Your first-person narrator/amateur sleuth is usually a smart, likable woman who’s down on her luck, at least when the series begins. She’s recently divorced, dumped, or fired from her job, usually through no fault of her own or through some forgivable character flaw. A twist of fate–a health or financial crisis–tosses her into a tiny town for a delicious dose of reader escapism. Her ex was wrong for her anyway, and so was her career, which probably gives her sleuthing skills (she was in accounting, library science, medical research, psychology, journalism, the military, you get the picture). Now, however, she can toss those tired credentials aside and pursue her dream job of opening a bakery, a bookstore, a coffee shop, or a booth that sells handcrafted leashes and collars, anything that will provide a parade of characters for you to care about and kill (two mutually exclusive categories, by the way).
Despite her talents and tenacity, she will be woefully underestimated. The quiet fuel of cozies is female rage.
Maybe that’s why the covers are so easy to dismiss. If someone sees you reading one, you will be underestimated. And that can give you an edge.
Cozies usually play out in a charming small town populated by a cast of quirky characters, most lovable, a few despicable (i.e. the victim, the killer, and the red herrings). Cozies benefit greatly from nostalgia, so you’ll find yourself exploring the amateur sleuth’s hometown or someplace they visited often as a child. The author aims to make you feel at home, so you’ll probably encounter dogs and cats, even in cozies without central kitty and canine sidekicks, which is what I prefer. Cozies conjure a simpler time, friendly shopkeepers, a sense of community, walkable streets, a place that makes it natural for an amateur to do her sleuthing face-to-face. She will solve this crime almost exclusively by showing up, ringing doorbells, and working her formidable interpersonal skills. Remember when it was a character strength to have strong people skills? Remember manners?
A cozy plot will kill someone you dislike or barely know. In the first of the series, the killing will affect your main character or someone she cares about personally, giving her the impetus to risk evolving into an amateur sleuth. As it goes, a few gentle twists and turns will eventually land your narrator alone with the killer. Unfortunately, at that moment she’ll have the ill-advised chutzpah to confront the killer with her hard-won truth. Just when it looks like curtains for your pal and your heart rate ticks up a couple beats, the killer accidentally bites into the poisoned muffin or a runaway golf cart careens into the scene, pinning the antagonist to the turf in the nick of time for the cops to arrive. Did I mention cozies are often witty? Anyway, justice is served, your pulse slows, and all is well–except for the fact that you just finished your book.
You spend your leftover forward propulsion considering the recipes or cross stitch patterns in the back. You know you won’t make them, but it’s fun to think you might. What you do, for sure, is buy the next book.
I read cozies in the middle of the night. To fall back to sleep. The fact that they’re my substitute for clonazepam doesn’t mean they’re boring. They engage me enough to get my mind off my troubles without troubling me. The characters, the settings, and the formula comfort me, and besides, the cozies I read star dogs. What could make me happier? I fall back to sleep because I’m cozy.
Nowadays cozies can get a little edgy, which makes the purists cranky (by the way, you know who’s surprisingly dark and terrifying? Nancy Drew). You’ll recognize darker dog cozies by the cover illustrations, which will show a silhouette of a woman and her dog, often with their backs turned. Lighter cozy covers boast cute dogs getting up to some mischief, such as stealing a cupcake or knocking over a flower pot.
Nowadays in Cozy Town you may encounter credible tension with an ex, an allusion to past trauma, and situations in which women are mistreated, either personally or professionally. But that’s why cozies are so satisfying.
Your girl’s gonna get ‘em good.
Recommended Cozies for Dog Lovers
Davis’ is the only cozy series I’ve read more than once, and I’ll read them again. Sadly there are only seven in the series, but I’ve got the eighth on preorder. Why? I love visiting Wagtail, a resort town in the mountains of Virginia that caters exclusively to people who vacation with their dogs and cats. Krista Davis has dreamed up a town free of automobile traffic, where the shops, the restaurants, and the hotel run by Holly Miller and her grandmother make pets their priority. Intelligent, whimsical, imaginative, fast-paced, they’re in every way a cozy dream come true. I wish I’d written them.
Melanie Travis, a school teacher and long-suffering single mom, learns to solve murders and show standard poodles (you even get to go to Westminster!), all thanks to her unforgettably imperious Aunt Peg. Don’t let the puns and the cute pups on the covers fool you–Berenson doesn’t shy from dark truths, particularly in the early books, but she also doesn’t dwell on them. You’ll learn everything you ever wanted to know about poodles and breed conformations shows. Luckily, there are 28 novels in this series, so you get to dwell in the tony towns of Connecticut and hang out with Aunt Peg for a nice long while. As Aunt Peg says, make yourself useful. Read these books.
Charlie Parker, with her sidekick Rusty, breaks form with cozies in that she is a professional private investigator, but she’s an accountant, not a homicide detective. Of course, that doesn’t stop her from figuring out whodunit. Charlie has Rusty, and besides, she’s sexy, savvy, and smart as a whip. She’s a most appealing companion for sleuthing your way through Albuquerque, New Mexico. Happily, Shelton has added twenty installments to the series so far.
If there’s such thing as a dark cozy, Munier has nailed it. Mercy Carr, a former military police officer, is recovering from PTSD and taking care of the former explosives-sniffing dog, Elvis. Elvis is also suffering PTSD after a bombing killed his handler, who also happened to be Mercy’s fiancé. The two wounded souls, Mercy and Elvis, make an unstoppable crime-fighting pair and take you deep into the wild spaces of Vermont’s Green Mountains for four installments and counting. You’ll find lots of credible dog training behavior and some heart-racing suspense.
Despite their cutesy covers, Kay’s novels may be too-primetime-for-cozy-hour cozies. They’re edgy and sexy and steeped in the dog show world. Military veteran Persephone (“Perri”) is just trying to keep her cool as she and her two canine companions, Keats and Poe, go adventuring with Perri’s rich friend Babette in her state-of-the-art RV. The crew travel to dog shows, Babette to show her dogs, Perri to sell her leatherwork to dog lovers. Luckily, the famous DC journalist and single dad heartthrob Wing Pruett also shows dogs. His unbearable sexiness steams up the page despite his unfortunate name. If you like your dog show murders with a dash of erotica, these three novels are for you.
Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum Mysteries speak to me in the way they treat violence against women with a winning blend of terror, gravity, and plucky good humor. These novels are dark and hilarious and set near my hometown in Jersey, so shut the f*ck up and read them already.
Andrew Mayne’s The Girl Beneath the Sea, from the Underwater Investigation Unit series–no dogs but set in FL waters–manatees and alligators, oh, my!
D.L. Keur’s Jessica Anderson K-9 Mysteries showcases a former CSI trainer and her fearsome dog pack. You’ll only find two so far, but the plot hinges entirely on dogs and dog training and Jessica might as well be the woman who runs with wolves.
Tara Lush’s Coffee Lover’s Mysteries has an adorable dog in it, but these novels are also sexy, set in Florida, and super clever and fun, and anyway Mick and I don’t care what you think.