The Hook

Kathleen Delaney with BooksKathleen Delaney, author of Murder Half Baked and other books, retired from real estate to pursue writing full time. She’s here today with an expose on how cozy mysteries have changed since Miss Marple’s adventurous days.

Murder by Syllabub, fifth in the Ellen McKenzie series, will be out in July 2013.

Cozy mysteries have been around since Agatha Christie started turning them out during the early nineteen hundreds. They’ve changed since then but still retain the same central core. Not too much blood, sex remains firmly behind closed doors, and the thrust of the story is who committed murder and why.

Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple knew everyone in her village, knew their parents and their children. She was a keen observer of human nature and a great listener. She also expected the worst of everyone and was rarely disappointed. The combination of village life and Miss Marple’s assessment of the people in it while she knitted garment after garment was The Hook. I don’t think Agatha used that term, but it was what made us come back, story after story.

Cozies are still grounded in one place, usually in a small town, and always with a small cast of characters who know each other well. Sometimes too well. Publishers want their heroine-it is almost always a heroine- to be an integral part of the community, as was Miss Marple, with the mystery revolving around the part she plays in that community. Only, today we have heroines who run flower shops, bakeries, tea shops, herb shops, catering businesses and quilting stores. They are real estate salespeople, sheriffs or mayors in small towns, have dead end jobs, clean houses, teach fly fishing—maybe not fly fishing.  The murders, all the conflict in the story, swirl around their jobs or professions. The combination of that and what happens while they’re doing them pulls us back into their world again and again, wanting to see what happens next.

That is The Hook. But wait, there’s more.

Dying for a Change 2In a cozy mystery the setting is not only worked into the story line but subtly imparts information. Herbs and what they do for, or possibly, to you, quilt patterns and the history behind them, a behind the scenes look at how bakeries turn out those delicious delights, how wineries turn grapes into wine. These are the little added things that make the modern cozy not only fun but interesting on a whole new level. Miss Marple may have knitted a mean sweater and listened to everything everyone in her village had to say but she never gave us a knitting pattern nor took us down the aisle of the local dog show.

I’ve tried to add some of those “behind the scenes” tidbits in the Ellen McKenzie real estate mysteries. I’ve touched on real estate development in a small town, talked about breeding and showing of Arabian horses, murdered a chef by dropping him into a wine fermenting tank, (the wine in that tank didn’t get bottled but you get a pretty good tour of the wine cellar floor while looking for clues) and explored the kitchen and all of its equipment in a small local bakery.

It’s in the fifth book in the Ellen McKenzie series, though, where I have really explored the possibilities of setting.

Murder by Syllabub finds Ellen McKenzie and her aunt, Mary McGill, in Virginia, learning how to bake a cake in a fireplace, roast a stuffed chicken on a spit and how to make Syllabub, while they track down a murdering colonial ghost.

Where else but in a cozy mystery could you learn all these things, have fun, and solve a murder at the same time?