Mystery writer Julie Hennrikus lives in Somerville, but she has written her “cozy mysteries,” each set in pastoral small-town New England, under three pen names. Her most recent, “The Plot Thickets,” is the fifth “Garden Squad Mystery” and was published in October under the pseudonym Julia Henry. It takes place in the fictional Massachusetts town of Goosebush, where Lilly Jayne and the Beautification Committee leap into action after stumbling on a murder committed in the local cemetery. It’s Hennrikus’s 10th published mystery, and she’s already plotting her next one.
Cozy lovers may recognize Hennrikus from the Wicked Cozy Authors, local writers who scribe stories that, in a 2016 Boston Globe profile, writer Kara Baskin described as “the literary equivalent of eating chicken noodle soup in sweatpants.” While some Bostonians may know Hennrikus for her decades as a leader in arts administration, including seven years heading up StageSource, an alliance for actors and theatrical organizations in New England.
Last year, she was named the full-time executive director of Sisters in Crime, the national association that advocates for women writers of crime novels. Hennrikus also hosts the weekly Sisters in Crime Writers’ Podcast, focusing on an individual crime writer’s writing and publishing process. She’ll be hosting a free, public webinar for Sisters in Crime on Feb. 7, on writing an artist statement.
Q. Can you define a “cozy mystery?”
A. Cozies are only a few decades old. They sprang up in reaction to the gritty, dark crime fiction of the mid-20th century. Harking back to the “golden age” of mysteries in the 1920s-30s—Agatha Christie, for instance—cozies contain puzzles to be solved and feature a likable cast of characters in a community, including one or more amateur sleuths, no cops or PIs. The murders typically happen off-stage without a lot of blood, gore, gratuitous sex or violence, if any.
Cozies build a community of characters that readers can revisit. The “Murder, She Wrote” TV series of the ‘80s and ‘90s starring Angela Lansbury is a great example of the ethos of the cozy mystery. Cozies promise their readers that the world will remain right and there will be a happily ever after; romance novels make the same sort of promise. During difficult times, like the pandemic, that sort of fiction brings comfort.
Q. What drew you to writing mysteries, especially cozies?
A. I was always an avid reader of all sorts of fiction. A health crisis in my mid-30s became the catalyst for me to pursue my dream of becoming a writer. After a few false starts, I found my true vocation as a writer of mysteries, and I’ve never looked back. I enjoy writing cozies but I’ve written more traditional mysteries, as well.
Q. What is your writing process? Would you characterize yourself as a “plotter” or a “pantser (someone who writes by the seat of their pants)?”
A. Oh, I’m clearly a plotter. And a detailed outliner. By the time I write my first draft, it’s quite solid because I’ve done so much planning. I can’t imagine working any other way.
Q. You’ve mentioned to me before that cozies don’t get the respect they deserve. Why is that?
A. Despite their immense and loyal fan base of voracious readers, and the number of fine writers in the field, cozies have generally been regarded by the literary establishment as fluffy, lighter fare and not taken seriously. As a result, they get less critical attention, less shelf space in bookstores, fewer MFA courses. This has been true for a long time for genre fiction of all kinds, though it’s getting a bit better now.
Q. How do you find the time to write novels and head up a national advocacy organization?
A. Making the time, not finding the time, is how I make it work. During the week it may be an hour or so but over the weekend I write in longer blocks. I write best at night. Writing is a muscle, and you need to exercise it. That said, plotting, researching, noodling, taking notes — that’s all part of writing. One important thing for aspiring writers to remember is that there’s not one right way to write. What works for you is the right way. But don’t not write.
Q. How are you feeling about the future of crime fiction?
A. We are living in a time where crime fiction is being written from many different lived experiences, and that makes the genre stronger. People being able to see themselves in a character or story is critical, and the crime genre is helping fill that need. It’s not perfect, and there’s lots of room for growth. But I’m optimistic that books like “The Savage Kind” by John Copenhaver, “Like a Sister” by Kellye Garrett, “Anywhere You Run” by Wanda M. Morris, “In the Dark We Forget” by Sandra SG Wong, and “Arsenic and Adobo” by Mia P. Manansala are the future, not a fad. I think it’s a wonderful time to be in crime fiction and I feel fortunate and grateful to be part of it.
Betsy Groban is a regular columnist for Publishers Weekly Children’s Bookshelf and has worked in book publishing, public broadcasting, and arts advocacy.