I’ve talked before about my inability to write a mystery story, something a number of you empathized with. I’ve always thought it was odd I couldn’t write one since I’ve read them all my life.
Well, I think I’ve had a breakthrough! The other day I realized most of the mystery stories I’ve read in the last few years were written before I was born. Perhaps one reason I’ve had such trouble writing a contemporary mystery story is that I’m out of step with todays readers. So I took my own advice (see: How To Tailor A Story To Readers), chose a category, and read a few contemporary mysteries—cosys.
I chose the cosy because it seemed to be a successor to the locked room mystery (that doesn’t seem to be the case, btw) and chose 4 authors from the top 10. I bought one book from each author, downloaded them and read them.
The two books I plucked from the top 10 still have a rank of less than 1,000. The other two I read were the first books in a series and not currently in the top ten—though the last book in the author’s series was. That said, all books had a rank less than 5134
To give you an idea what that means, according to the Kindle Best Seller Calculator a book with a rank of 5133 sells about 32 books a day. Not bad! Sure, if the author is charging a dollar for the book they’re only receiving about 30 cents in royalties but that’s still $9.60 per day or $288 per month. That’s a bill payment. 
My point is that the book that is currently selling the _least_ well of the four I read is still selling well enough to, literally, help pay the bills. So let’s take a look at the characteristics of a modern cosy.
I’m not going to talk much about these four books today. Instead I’m going to go over what a cosy is generally. In an upcoming post I’ll zero in on the books I read, focusing on their specific structure and content.
Today, let’s look at the characteristics of the sleuth.
The Sleuth Is An Amateur
The sleuth is, generally speaking, not a professional investigator. She may be, for example, a party coordinator, a mystery writer, a bookstore owner, a caterer, a librarian, but she’s generally not a police detective, coroner, medical examiner, private detective or even newspaper reporter.
The Sleuth Has A Connection To The Police
Because the sleuth is an amateur it comes in handy for her to have a connection to a professional like a police detective. Perhaps the sleuth’s boyfriend is a police detective, or one of her in-laws is a detective. If it’s a small town and your sleuth runs the local bakery then you could always just have the detective come in for a coffee and sweet pastry every morning.
The Sleuth Is Likable
The sleuth is usually unambiguously good. They are no antiheroes in a cosy mystery! And as soon as I wrote that I thought of Sherlock. Not that Sherlock is a cosy, it’s not! But still. It’s a quintessential British mystery. I would argue that even though Sherlock defines himself as a high-functioning sociopath that he is both good and (for the reader at least!) likable. Why? Because he has various good-guy qualities. For instance, he is loyal; he stands by those who stand by him. And he is good in the sense that he does not repay those who do him good deeds with evil—at least not intentionally! Anyway, moving on ... ;)
The Sleuth Investigates
What does the sleuth investigate? Three things: the crime scene, the suspects and the clues.
Although the murder itself is often done offstage, the sleuth should investigate the scene of the crime. Generally this means going there and taking a look. Since she’s not a professional and, really, has no legitimate reason to be there, this can take a bit of creativity. Which may be why the sleuth often finds the body! Problem solved.
Much less common, the sleuth learns about the crime scene through intermediaries—for instance, she might not have been on the case when the first murder occurred and so must talk to the detectives who were, study their notes, etc.
(I’ll cover the suspects and the clues in a later post.)
The Sleuth’s Hook
The Sleuth, being an amateur, needs a reason to investigate the crime. Perhaps this is why—at least in the books I’ve read—the first victim is often found either on the sleuth’s property or nearby.
Another possibility is to isolate everyone in the story so that characters can be pressed into different roles. For instance ...
- It could be that the worst snow storm in recorded history has cut off the inn, or possibly the entire town.
- It could be that a flood has demolished the only bridge into, or out of, town.
- It could be that the sleuth is part of a team building exercise.
- It could be that the sleuth is part of a small English village.
The Sleuth As Character
The sleuth is, of course, the protagonist so the same pointers apply here that apply for any protagonist. When the sleuth is introduced, answer as many of the following as you can:
- What does the sleuth desire above all else?
- What is her ruling passion?
- What does she fear?
- What does she do better than anyone else?
- What are her tags?
The Sleuth: Tropes
There are some tropes having to do with the sleuth that have, perhaps, been used a time too many.
Leaving the big city.
In a startling number of cosy mysteries the sleuth has moved from the big city back to a small town.
Disastrous romantic relationship in the backstory.
Often she has had a disastrous romantic relationship in the city and this is part of the reason why she moves back to her hometown. Often the significant other comes to visit the sleuth and this becomes a subplot.
The sleuth becomes the owner of a small business and struggles financially.
Sometimes the sleuth inherits the business from a family member such as a parent or grandparent.
Every post I pick a book or audiobook I love and recommend it to my readers. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post. :-)
Today I'm recommending Writing Deep Scenes: Plotting Your Story Through Action, Emotion, and Theme by Martha Alderson and Jordan Rosenfeld sold by Writer's Digest. From the blurb: "Writing Deep Scenes teaches you how to write strong, layered, and engaging scenes—the secret to memorable, page-turning plots. It's filled with practical tools for building layers and nuance into your scenes, employing the right scene types at the right junctures, and developing a profound understanding of how plot and scene intertwine."
This article drew from material in the following articles:
4 Things You Should Know About Writing a Cozy Mystery Novel
20 Tips for Writing the Cozy or Traditional Mystery
Writing the Cozy Mystery
The Mystery of Mysteries: 16 Steps to Writing the Cozy Mystery
How To Write a Cozy Mystery
1. How To Write A Murder Mystery, by Lee Goldberg.
2. I’m NOT saying that if you choose to write a cosy that you will meet with similar success! I know you know that, but I thought I’d better say it anyway. :-)