I like mysteries. I like to read mysteries. In fact, I give mysteries credit for starting me down the writing road since I picked up pen to write my own mystery at age ten after reading some Hardy Boy mystery books. So, it’s a little surprising that I published twenty-eight books before any of those books were labeled mysteries.
But I did keep my love of mysteries. The truth is, I often sneaked a mystery thread into my stories through the years. I even included a suspicious death and a murder in my recent Shaker book, The Innocent. It’s good to make readers wonder a bit. But I had never written a full-fledged, murder-in-the-title, and mystery-on-the-cover book until Murder at the Courthouse, my first Hidden Springs mystery published last year. Now Murder Comes by Mail follows it up with more murder and mayhem in my little town of Hidden Springs.
Murder in the title is a sure indication the book is a mystery. Then readers can spot another clue on the cover to let them know what kind of mystery. Those lovely cats. The same as other fiction books, mysteries come in different flavors. You have police procedurals, detective stories, and suspense filled dramas, but when you see a cat or dog on the cover you can be pretty sure you are looking at a cozy mystery.
What makes a cozy mystery? Cozies are usually gentle mysteries. Oh, people die and not from natural causes, but the violent deaths rarely take place on stage. Bodies are discovered. Clues are uncovered. Murderers caught. Usually the amateur sleuth main character is an intuitive, intelligent woman who just happens to stumble across those dead bodies. Consider Murder, She Wrote. Think of how many murder victims just happened to show up in Jessica Fletcher’s little town.
So we come to another thing that makes a cozy a cozy. Nearly all cozy mysteries are set in small towns, the more picturesque the better. The main character nearly always has some sort of business. A book store, a tea shop or perhaps an antique store or a knitting and yarn shop. The main character may have some sort of relationship with someone in the law enforcement business that enables her to get inside information regarding the crime. And don’t forget those cats and dogs. Those furry friends can play major roles in the story.
The victims in cozy mysteries rarely get much sympathy since they are often unlikeable characters nobody is going to miss and to whom the reader has not formed any emotional attachment. Readers of cozy mysteries want an easy, entertaining read and not something that will make them sad or nervous about being alone on a dark and stormy night. They read to relax and have fun trying to come up with the whodunit answer before the amateur sleuth unmasks the perpetrator at the end of the story.
At the same time, they can be disappointed if they figure out the answers too easily or too soon. Whether they guess the bad guy or not, they expect the clues to be there to point to the killer. They want to be able to look back and say, “Yes, I should have seen that.” Of course, the author throws in a few red herrings to try to lead the reader astray while the amateur sleuth character manages to sort through and figure out the real clues.
Cozy mysteries are often series books with the same main characters. Think of Sue Grafton’s alphabet series. She introduced Kinsey Millhone to readers in A is for Alibi and now is near the end of the alphabet with a new book titled X. Grafton’s mysteries are detective fiction and not cozies, but you can find plenty of cozy series too. Lillian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who… series are definitely cozies with that cat in the midst of every mystery. Most mystery series have continuing characters but can also be read as stand-alone books.
With all that said, I confess I must not have read the rules before I began writing my own cozy mysteries because my books break many of the rules I’ve just noted. I do have the cats. That may have been my saving grace. But my main character is a man, and if that isn’t bad enough, he’s a policeman. Admittedly, he’s a deputy sheriff in a small town that while not particularly picturesque, does have that friendly everybody knows everybody feel. Throw in some quirky, hometown characters readers can picture walking down Main Street and at least the setting works for a cozy mystery. My victims aren’t all unsympathetic characters either, but they are characters the reader doesn’t really know well. My main characters do run into danger and sometimes end up in dramatic will-there-be-a-way-out-of-this situations.
Recently I sent out a newsletter with a giveaway contest, and for fun, I asked readers if they thought they would like to live in a small town like Hidden Springs. Far and away, the majority loved the idea of living in a small town. Many did either live in that similar small town now or had grown up in one. But one reader was right on the money when she sent this comment. “As far as living in the fictional town of Hidden Springs, well to be honest, the crime rate is sky high in comparison to the population. So, I don’t think I’d feel safe living there.”
That’s another thing about the cute little towns where cozy mystery series are set. They have an amazingly high crime rate, but since it’s all in fun and only fictional people are victims of the crimes, cozy mystery lovers are okay with this. They are also happy the stories have no profanity or explicit sex (especially true with the inspirational cozy mysteries). Often there is no mention of romance at all, but I do have a thread of romance running through my Hidden Springs mysteries.
So if you stroll down Main Street and stop in at the Grill for a cup of coffee and hear that somebody just met an untimely end, then you could be in Hidden Springs or some other small town cozy story. You might as well settle down to stay a while, pet the cat or dog, and try to figure out who did the dastardly deed.
How important is setting in a story? Have you ever decided to read or write a story solely because of the setting? Do you think setting sometimes dictates what sort of characters can come to life in a story?
Ann H. Gabhart is the bestselling author of many novels, including Angel Sister, Small Town Girl, and Love Comes Home, the 2015 Selah Book of Year winner. She’s also known for her Shaker novels and Heart of Hollyhill books. Now, as A.H. Gabhart, she is writing the Hidden Springs Mysteries set in a small town much like the Kentucky town where she grew up. Ann and her husband have three children and nine grandchildren and still enjoy country life on a farm near that small town. To find out more about Ann’s books or to follow her blog, visit www.annhgabhart.com. You can also join the conversation on her Facebook page, www.facebook.com/anngabhart.
Deputy Sheriff Michael Keane doesn't particularly enjoy being touted as the hero of Hidden Springs after pulling a suicidal man back from the edge of the Eagle River bridge in front of dozens of witnesses--a few of whom caught the breathtaking moments with their cameras. But the media hype doesn't last long as a new story pushes its way into the public consciousness of Hidden Springs' concerned citizens.
Photos of a dead girl arrive in the mail, and Michael becomes convinced she was murdered by the man he saved. With a killer one step ahead, things in Hidden Springs begin to unravel. Now Michael must protect the people he loves--because the killer could be targeting one of them next.
Ann is generously offering a copy of Murder Comes by Mail to one commenter. Leave a comment to get your name in the cat dish. Winner announced in the Weekend Edition.