I’m going to school again, and I couldn’t be more excited. I call it Cozy College, a year-long look into cozy and traditional mysteries. And I even have a professor.
Even though I spent my youth reading novels featuring The Three Investigators and the Hardy Boys, I didn’t truly become introduced to mystery and crime fiction as an adult until 2001 when I read Mystic River by Dennis Lehane. I liked the harder-edged material and started to amass a list of like authors. Couple this reading with my discovery of pulp novels and authors of the past and I was firmly in the realm of the hard stuff.
When it came to traditional mysteries—the kind whose Golden Age was between the world wars, usually featuring a quirky detective with violence largely off-screen—I just never got into them. Throw in cozy mysteries with their cutesy titles and eccentric hooks and I dismissed them out of hand.
But something changed over the past few years and it all started with television. Masterpiece Mysteries and online streaming services showcase fantastic programs from around the world and many of them, while not cozy, are certainly firmly ensconced in the traditional mystery field. I’m thinking Unforgotten, Broadchurch, The Killing, Hinterland, Elementary, and, most recently, Knives Out and Before We Die. What they showed me was there didn’t have to be a lot of violence, blood, and language to create some rich characters and stories.
These shows were traditional mysteries, but not cozies, so something else needed to be added to the mix.
The other thing that helped change my mind also involved television. It begins with the word “Hall” and ends with the word “Mark.” Yes, I’m talking Hallmark, specifically Hallmark Christmas movies. In past years, I’d kinda sorta check the Hallmark Channel’s Christmas lineup and watch barely a handful, many of them unmemorable. In 2020, I went the opposite direction. I actively sought out and watched as many of them as I could. I would earmark certain movies and make sure to watch them or tape them. I’d set the VCR (yeah, really) to record the ones I wanted to finished if I had to go to bed on work nights. I started to recognize the actors, where they showed up in other movies, and basically had a field day in the coziness of a Hallmark Christmas.
That’s when I basically looked over at the mystery genre again with a decidedly open mind about cozy mysteries. Maybe they weren’t all that I thought they were.
The First Step
In December, seeking to merge my love of Christmas, Hallmark, and mysteries together, I went over to Houston’s Murder by the Book bookstore and picked up a couple of cozy Christmas mysteries. I finished one during the season, Dachshund in the Snow by David Rosenfelt. With a title like that, my preconceived ideas were all cutesy things where the titular hound solves the case. I was prepared for saccharine.
Didn’t get it.
I got a darn good book with a good mystery and a likeable narrator who is a chip off the block of past detectives like Donald Lam and Archie Goodwin. The novel was traditional but not necessarily cozy. Nonetheless, I was definitely intrigued, so much so that I went to my Libby app (for public libraries) and downloaded another audiobook in the series. And I decided to spend 2021 reading a lot more traditional and cozy mysteries. But I would need a guide to help chart my course.
Tthat’s when I got the email.
Murder by the Box’s Subscription Service
Just in time for Christmas, the owner of the bookstore, McKenna Jordan, sent an email describing the new Murder by the Box subscription service. In either 3-month or 12-month choices, readers can choose one of three themes and receive books. There is Best of the Month (a new hardcover), Crime Fiction Legends (two trade paperbacks) and—yes, I literally scanned the email quickly to make sure it would be a choice—Cozy Corner.
I was set. One mass market paperback in the cozy/traditional genre per month. I eagerly signed up in December—it was my Christmas gift to myself—and waited for January.
The book was brand-new: Bait and Witch by Angela M. Sanders. With the book came a postcard with a welcome message, the reason the book was selected, and immediate recommendations for similarly themed stories. Like Rosenfelt’s book, Batch and Witch was a good mystery but definitely more on the cozier side. I enjoyed it and am definitely looking forward to each month’s selections.
Maybe all those preconceived ideas I had about cozy mysteries were wrong from the jump. I hope this reading list of 2021—and the jumping off points—prove me wrong. It’s already started.
The Professor Is In
But what makes the Cozy Corner special is the person selecting the books, the Professor at Cozy College. John McDougall is the Event Coordinator at Murder by the Book. If you’ve seen the many author talks via the store’s YouTube channel since 2020, you’ll recognize him. He is the resident cozy expert. I reached out to John this week to ask him a few questions, including how this subscription idea came about and what drew him to cozies.
“A few years ago when Helen Ellis (author of American Housewife) signed at the store, she said she wished I could send her a cozy every month, and that's what unofficially started it. As subscription boxes became more popular, McKenna started playing with the idea of starting one for the store, but we never got all the logistics nailed down. In one of those weird coincidences, I mentioned to McKenna that I wanted to start something more official for the Cozy of the Month and she told me that she had also been thinking about wanting to start a subscription service. We were both really excited to get the program started for the holidays and offer the three different options.”
The genesis of his love for cozies stemmed from him reading Posted to Death by Dean James. “At that point I was just a customer at the store and David [Thompson] gave me a copy because he knew I liked other paranormal mysteries. After that I devoured the Ghost Hunter books by Victoria Laurie and I was hooked.”
“The thing that draws me to cozies is the character development. Cozy authors have to quickly create a main character you'll fall in love with, and a community that you'll want to return to over and again. But there's also depth there that people might not expect based on the covers or by calling them cozies. A prominent trope in the cozy genre is the main character going through a bad breakup or divorce and returning to her hometown to start over. A lot of times, that breakup is the thing that allows her to follow her dream, and the dream is usually starting her own business and rebuilding her life on her own terms. The genre has a lot of heart to it, in addition to some really stellar plots.”
In light of the chain of events and mindset shifts I had experienced, John’s words in this last paragraph really hit home for me. Here I was, having a predefined idea of what a cozy was, and basically, I was wrong. And the two books I’ve read so far have proven John’s point. I have already returned to the Andy Carpenter series and the second book in the Witch Way Librarian series will be published in September.
I haven’t been this excited about “reading assignments” in a long time. I am eager to learn more about the cozy genre, and I’m happy to have Professor John McDougall as a guide.
And it’s not too late to join Cozy College for 2021. The February book hasn’t been released yet. If you subscribe now, you’d have to buy Bait and Witch on your own, but you’d get every book from here on out on your 3- or 12-month subscription. If you’re in Houston, a full year is only $99. For twelve books! It’s only $135 if you're out of town and need the books shipped to you. The other themes have different prices, so I encourage you to head over to their website and have a look for yourself.
You never know. Maybe one of your preconceived notions will disappear just like mine did.