Why hello there, and welcome back to today’s special feature, the Cozy Crime spree, which is what this post has ALWAYS BEEN NAMED. I’m your surprisingly soft-spoken and thickly-sweatered host, Jon O’Guin. Let us sit in this plump armchair next to a small fire in this spacious but intimate study, rich with dark woods and leather-bound books, and dig into a nice little mystery, shall we? Because today, we’re not going to talk about food much at all. Instead, we’re discussing Cozies. Specifically, Culinary cozies. And we’ll see if we can answer the burning questions that drive any good mystery: Who, where, why, and, well, you know.
Comfily Covered Crimes
Cozies are a relatively new and relatively niche sub-genre of mystery novels. The easiest touchstone most of you, my intelligent and oh so clever readers will probably have to relate to them is not actually a novel at all, but a television show.
Buh duh du-du-duh, duh-DUH-duh Duh duh du-
Wait, fuck, that’s the Mattlock theme. I always get those themes confused.
“Murder, She Wrote” is a classic example of a cozy mystery, despite my constant musical mis-memorizing. The basic outline of the genre consists of numerous aspects, which we’ll take a moment here to outline, like chalk around a fallen body. I’m sorry if that was a little too dark for you, I don’t know what came over me.
The Protagonist, Personally
The protagonist of a cozy mystery is typically a woman, so I’ll use “she” for the rest of these general points. There are male cozy characters (one which we will discuss more deeply later), but in general, the genre is actually written by women about women. She is typically an amateur detective, having no official authority or jurisdiction, solving cases more as a hobby or incidental calling to her real work. And she typically DOES have real work, or at least DID: most cozy protagonists have community-focused, somewhat creative jobs that are still generally considered ‘feminine’, such as reporters, caterers, gardeners, writers, innkeepers, librarians, teachers, etc. They’re typically ‘discerning’ in some way, whether ‘intuitive’, ‘empathic’, ‘well-read’, etc.
They are, in short, a non-challenging portrayal of an intelligent career woman. While Sherlock Holmes may be a short-tempered prima donna basking in his own cleverness, a Cozy mystery protagonist is more likely to be humble, and constantly worried that she’s going to upset someone or screw something up. They live humbly enough, or comfortably middle class. They would never have, say, an expansive Palm Beach estate like this one
Heavily remodeled, I must congratulate the host on his taste in decor, at least.
They’re going to do their best to solve this crime, which is strangely almost always a murder. But not just ANY murder…
The Murders, Mercifully
Murder in a Cozy story tends to be rather…clean. The murder itself is not commonly very violent: suffocations, poisonings, single gunshots delivered to the heart, these are the weapons of the cozy killer. Nothing random or too destructive. Those kinds of crimes are for…other works. Darker works.
Further, the murderers themselves are rather ‘clean’: they tend to be fairly intelligent and erudite people, who have been pushed by some venial sin or personal slight right over the edge, or are themselves revenging some long-held slight or grudge that was recently revisited. A rather classic example would be something like “When I was young, I trusted them, and they stole my art, and won all this fame and fortune for it, while I struggled, waiting for my share of the recognition, of the accolades! I came here to tell them I was suing them, and they laughed at me. LAUGHED, after stealing my ideas and making millions! I just…snapped.”
A little musical theatre reference for you all there.
The murderer can’t simply be a psychotic monster, or a cold-hearted contract killer, because it would clash terribly with the TONE of the series…
The Tone, To Wrap Up
Cozy Mysteries are, as the name implies, intended to be somewhat cozy. Which is why I’m now sitting in a large leather couch, by a somewhat larger fire than before. Ah, April. Spring may have sprung, but these first days, they can be a little nippy, can’t they? That’s why, in addition to my woolen sweater, I always have these woolen gloves. The perfect thing for a night like tonight.
The murders, as I mentioned, are clean, the murderers rational and often somewhat justified, and the protagonist isn’t put into direct physical peril very often. Instead, they mostly walk around talking to ‘interesting’ people, learning the facts of a case, and uncovering the various long-standing grudges, partnerships, affairs, and so on that almost always riddle these sort of groups for narrative tension.
Basically everyone in this pictures knows at least half the other people in it, and has been involved in some kind of sketchy shit.
The characters themselves tend to be rather colorful, but rarely too intricate or surprising. A character might be, for instance, a Gay former-Pro-NFL player turned private detective, but he will not have any real flaws beyond “doesn’t like the protagonist” and “swears more often than the protagonist likes”. The only real question one runs into with most characters is if the character is meant to be a red-herring, typically with the admonishment of ‘not judging a book by its cover’: If the mystery presents two bakers, one kind, hard-working, and helpful, and the other bad-tempered, slothful, and frazzled, more often than not, it will be the former who ends up having the affair, while it turns out the latter is just having a bad cold this week. Or, surprise, the bad person was just a straight-up bad person, and the good one purely good.
Finally, a Focus
Now, these are the points of all cozies, broadly. And, as you might guess, they’ve been around for a while, but not TOO long. The term was coined back in the 1960’s, though Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple was in many ways a forerunner of the genre back in the late 1920’s. However, in the last couple decades, a subset of the genre has unfolded: the Culinary cozy.
My limited research on the matter suggests that the earliest version of this genre appeared around 1990. It distinguishes itself from a normal cozy in two distinct ways: firstly, the protagonist is ALWAYS somehow connected to food. A baker, a food columnist, running a bed-and-breakfast, etc. This is important, because it ties into the second distinguishing feature: the recipes.
I’m not a big fan of catfish, but I love Cajun seasoning, and blackening is an underrated form of presentation.
Yes, a culinary cozy almost ALWAYS includes recipes of the food described in the novel, sometimes in an appendix in the back, or sandwiched between chapters. The book thus provides its readers with both a caper and a cookbook, in one.
And while no one I have ever mentioned the genre to has recognized the name, cozies are a quietly expansive genre. They have their own shelves at Barnes and Noble, or used bookstores. The more accomplished authors of the genre can have bibliographies in the high twenties.
I became interested in the genre when I learned my mother was reading them, and was motivated to tackle the topic when I saw THIS at the local Costco.
Sorry the shot is so dark, the lighting here isn’t great. Beyond the fire, there’s no lights on.
That is a pseudo-cozy by James Patterson, and if you don’t know who that is, let me tell you, someone you know does.
The Patterson Point
I’m not going to dwell too long here. For one thing, the fire is growing rather warm through my gloves, ski mask, and sweater, and for another, the history of Patteron himself is not really the point of this piece, as time grows ever more pressing before I must go.
But a quick overview: James Patterson started writing books around 1976, and since then his books account for 6% of all hardbound books sold in America. He’s authored or co-authored over 110 New York Times bestsellers in the last 40 years, and hold the Guinness World Record for most #1 NYT Best-Sellers. Some people don’t like his habit of frequent co-authoring, accusing him of basically hiring ghost-writers, but on the other hand, he does give most co-authors credit, and I hope a cut of the profits.
That sweet, sweet, print publishing money.
So when I saw that he had a thriller titled “The Chef”, and that it had an appendix of recipes in the back, I had to get it, and check it out. Because I’ve been considering covering cozies for a while, and if they’d reached the popularity of being covered by James Patterson, now seemed a fine time to tackle them!
And I read the entire book. And I have some…complaints. Which is why I’m now hustling out of James Patterson’s house, to avoid the fire I started in his study. What? You didn’t think this was MY Palm Beach estate, did you? And why would a man need woolen gloves in Florida? My dear, oh-so-clever readers, I told you at the start: we were here to answer the BURNING questions: who, where, and why. I do so hope you caught my hints on the way. Now, I hear the sirens coming, so I must leave you now.
Remarkable response time they have here.
I would normally say we shall cover this in depth next week, but I’m afraid next week is full of another literary titan’s work. April may now be upon us, but of course, as the Starks remind us all: Winter is always Coming. So who knows when I’ll strike again! Until then, at least we’ve solved a couple mysteries, no? Au revoir, mes amis!
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MONDAY: JON MAKES A FEAST FIT FOR A KING. A KING IN THE NORTH! IN HONOR OF GAME OF THRONE’S FINAL SEASON, AND ENTIRE MEAL STRAIGHT FROM THE PAGES OF WESTEROS!
THURSDAY: WE CONSULT THE ANCIENT TEXTS, AND DISCUSS A FEAST OF ICE AND FIRE, THE OFFICIAL COOKBOOK OF GAME OF THRONES.