On the surface, the six women seem like feisty middle-age pals. They swap e-mails every day. They meet in Maine each summer for a beach weekend of cooking and wine. They even finish one another’s sentences. Must be old college roommates, right?
You can’t judge a book by its cover. In fact, they’re mystery writers, united by a passion for cold-blooded murder.
Meet the Wicked Cozy Authors: Jessie Crockett, Sherry Harris, J.A. Hennrikus, Edith Maxwell, Liz Mugavero, and Barbara Ross. These New England scribes, who blog daily at WickedCozyAuthors.com, specialize in pun-spiked tales like “The Longest Yard Sale” (about a murder at a garage sale) and “Musseled Out” (a death involving seafood, though let’s not spoil the plot). If Agatha Christie were a cozy authoress her masterpiece, “And Then There Were None,” might have been “And Then There Were Nun” and involved a serial killer at a church picnic.
The “cozy” term was coined in the late-20th century, said Harris, as an attempt to emulate those Christie-style mysteries. They’re especially necessary in today’s stressful climate, the authors say. In an era rife with terrorism and uncertainty, cozies are a marketable antidote to what Crockett calls “a sense of peril in the world,” featuring amateur detectives and small-town scandal. Which would you rather do? Watch CNN or tuck into Mugavero’s “Pawsitively Organic” series, featuring strangely soothing titles like “A Biscuit, A Casket” or “Kneading to Die” — complete with gourmet pet food recipes. It’s the literary equivalent of eating chicken noodle soup in sweatpants.
The authors are published by popular presses like Kensington Publishing Corp, which apparently can’t get enough of these fleecy thrillers set at country stores, coffee shops, and clambakes. Many also feature furry friends, especially cats, adding to the snuggly tone.
“Strong and relatable characters are the most important element. Usually you have an ensemble cast led by our sleuth, and over time this crew becomes like a set of friends the reader gets to hang out with during each new book,” says Wicked Cozy agent John Talbot, who’s based in Westchester County, N.Y.
Therein lies the appeal: Readers (many of whom are middle-age women) know exactly what they’re getting. Cozies, typically released in series form, are formulaic in the comfiest way.
“In a cozy, justice is restored to a village or small-town setting. There’s no violence, sex, or gratuitous profanity. Sometimes a craft or occupation is involved, like clambakes or organic farming, and they’re solved by an amateur sleuth,” explains Edith Maxwell, who writes a series set at a country store called Pans ‘n Pancakes, under the pen name Maddie Day. Her titles include “Flipped for Murder” and “Grilled for Murder.” Indeed, a pun-worthy title (“Clammed Up,” “Murder Most Fowl”) is de rigueur.
A provincial setting and a fluffy profession help, too. Remember Jessica Fletcher, the retired English teacher of “Murder She Wrote,” who patrolled the Maine coast on her bicycle? Or Christie’s Miss Marple, the spinster who stumbled upon corpses in vicarages across the British countryside? Cozies lend themselves to a quaint backdrop, which give these New England authors extra cachet. Churches, libraries, garage sales — our landscape is ripe for a proper murder. And our frosty culture doesn’t hurt.
“Throw in the New England attitude: curmudgeonly, eccentric people minding their own business. God only knows what’s happening next door. You can say hello to someone and not even know if they killed their wife!” says Jessie Crockett with a touch of glee.
Amateur sleuths save the day in these mysteries, and their authors are easy to relate to also, which is part of the allure. Several have day jobs. Most didn’t start to write professionally until middle-age. Each keeps in close touch with fans via blog posts and social media. They often meet fans at conventions. Next up is Malice Domestic, happening April 29-May 1 in Bethesda, Md., where both Hennrikus and Maxwell are up for awards. No star power, glitzy book tours, or egos here. “I once had someone recognize me in a Trader Joe’s!” says Sherry Harris.
No backstabbing, either. Although Boston is known for hard-boiled crime by the likes of Robert B. Parker and Dennis Lehane, the reality is much, well, cozier, says Ray Daniel, an author known for Boston-based crime fiction and president of Mystery Writers of America, New England.
“The mystery writing community in Boston is hugely supportive [of all mystery genres.] At my first Mystery Writers of America meeting, I was welcomed, and it has never stopped. There’s this culture of everybody wanting to help each other and expand the genre and to get better,” Daniel said.
“You can’t find a nicer group,” agrees author Maxwell. Indeed, the Cozies came together after meeting at various conventions through the years.
Not everyone can be Mary Higgins Clark, of course. Most advances hover in the $7,000 range per book, and many multi-book contracts call for manuscripts delivered every nine or so months — hardly a leisurely rumination period. Sometimes the authors pitch ideas; other times, a publishing house has a specific idea for a series and casts about for the right writer. Instead, the payoff is mainly psychological.
“For us, the worse it gets, the better it gets. Every rotten driver, every rude bank teller — you think, I’ll put you in my novel!” Crockett chuckles.
In fact, says Ross, many cozy authors auction off character names to readers during charity fund-raisers or mystery book conventions, often attended by fans.
It’s a reader-focused genre, and that’s why people love them, say the Wicked Cozies. Here, anyone can become Miss Marple.
“It’s a fantasy where a regular Joe saves the world, a fantasy for people who are stressed at work, who don’t feel as connected in their personal lives, maybe not living their dream career, and it’s a fantasy because it’s linked with a job that seems like a fantasy: a bed-and-breakfast; a garden center. Those things feel like a dream,” says Crockett.
Until someone gets killed, of course.