Ron Benrey co-authored with his wife Janet, nine Christian cozy mysteries. He also writes nonfiction books; his latest is “Know Your Rights, a Survival Guide for Non-Lawyers.” Visit Ron's website and check out the Benreys’ blog.
Whither Goest the Christian Cozy?
A few years ago, the director of a major Christian writers’ conference asked Janet and me to develop a four-session workshop on writing cozy mysteries. Participants wanted the course, we were told, because several major Christian publishing houses had announced they were shopping for cozies.
We were a tad bewildered by the sudden interest in cozies. Neither of our two cozy series — “The Pippa Hunnechurch Mysteries” and “The Royal Tunbridge Wells Mysteries” — had achieved stellar sales in Christian bookstores. In fact, we’d begun to doubt there was a significant market for Christian cozies.
Nonetheless, we developed the how-to-write cozy course and also took advantage of the new publishing opportunity: we sold “Glory Be,” the first of our “Glory Mysteries.”
Fast forward to this year, when I participated in several discussions about why Christian mysteries in general — and Christian cozies in particular — don’t do well in the fiction marketplace.
That the Christian cozy is dead seems to be conventional wisdom these days. The chief evidence is that:
1. Christian publishers terminated those dedicated cozy mystery lines.
2. It’s exceedingly difficult to get agents and editors to read cozy mysteries these days.
Happily … the report of the Christian cozy’s demise is an exaggeration. Our novels about the Royal Tunbridge Wells Tea Museum and Pippa Hunnechurch are selling quite nicely as eBooks, thank you very much. So are several other Christian cozies we use as “benchmarks” to gauge the marketplace.
What’s going on?
For starters, there’s no doubt that the market for cozies does fluctuate. Some publishing gurus say that the shifting demand for cozy mysteries is a barometer of societal angst. Before you laugh, consider their argument: Cozies apparently do well in the aftermath of wars, during economic upheavals, and in times of widespread uncertainty. That’s when readers seek out novels that show good triumphing over evil, honor traditional values, and have tidy endings in which the world is put right again.
If this nifty theory is true, 2011 is ripe for a cozy renaissance. Maybe that’s why our own cozies are attracting readers these days.
Or maybe—I think this is the more likely explanation—the answer lies in the new, improved Internet based book-selling infrastructure. It’s become lots easier for readers to find Christian cozies, because some online booksellers have resolved the cozy-mystery “shelving dilemma.”
For a perfect example of this, visit CBD.com. Navigate to the “Browse for Fiction” and you won’t find a “Mystery” or “Cozy Mystery” category. You will see a hefty “Suspense & Intrigue” catergory … and an even bigger “Romance” category. And you’ll discover cozy mystery novels in both.
The typical cozy mystery is somewhat suspenseful, but it’s hardly a thriller. Similarly, the typical cozy has romantic elements, but it’s not a true romance. A reader looking for a Christian cozy isn’t likely to browse among the suspensers or the romance novels. When our books were first available in bookstores, they were often in all the wrong places.
Search engines change the game, because readers can type in “Christian Cozy Mystery” — and immediately find a bunch. That happens at Amazon — and at CBD — but curiously, not at Nook.
For search engines to work, of course, someone has to actually look for Christian cozies.
Other publishing gurus argue that Christian cozy mysteries have lackluster sales because the novels were written for an audience that doesn’t exist. Secular cozies, this idea goes, are “clean and gentle reads” that are acceptable to many Christian readers, even if they include a few Christian publishing don’ts.” (Drinking, a modest cuss word or two, even the occasional discrete sex scene, to name a few.) Since vast numbers of secular cozies have been published, why would a reader bother seeking out a Christian cozy?
No reason at all—unless the reader wants a genuine cozy mystery that also contains a Christian message. I believe that readers buy genuine Christian cozies for the same reason they purchase Christian historicals, romances, time travel stories, and westerns. They enjoy reading Christian genre fiction.
I hope you noticed that I used “genuine” two times in the previous paragraph.
I believe that the real reason that Christian cozies have a checkered sales history is that most so-called Christian cozies ... weren’t.
A gentle Christian mystery with a pun-ish title, a clever cat, and a lighthearted cover illustration is not necessarily a cozy. Neither is a cheerful Christian romance with some satiric dialog and a murder or two. Cozy fans know the difference.
A genuine cozy mystery offers:
Clever plot twists that create an intriguing puzzle for readers.
An exotic setting that becomes a “character” in its own right. For example: an English village, an elegant manor house, an ccean liner in mid-Atlantic, a private island, a yarn shop, unusual college, or—in one of our series—a tea museum.
A memorable amateur sleuth with attitude. Much of the fun of a cozy is watching a quirky, but likeable amateur outthink the proper authorities.
An unusual “MacGuffin”—the thing the characters care about. In many mysteries, the MacGuffin is money; in a thriller, it’s often some sort of document (like the “letters of transit” in “Casablanca.”). Cozy MacGuffins often involve arcane pursuits, such as bell-ringing, trout fishing, odd crafts, executive recruiting, even curating a tea museum.
A friendly murderer who is invariably an upstanding citizen—the sort of person you’d be delighted to invite to dinner at your home. He or she is driven by straightforward motives—greed, jealously, revenge, or self-protection—and typically commits bloodless murders. Psychopaths or serial killers need not apply.
Idealized stakes rather than realistic dangers. The protagonist must resolve a matter of life and death—but nothing in a cozy is all that serious.
Cozies encourage page-turning, but at a less frenetic pace than a thriller. A reader can set down a cozy and pick it up the next evening.
Christian cozies add a Christian message that must be carefully constructed so that it doesn’t overpower the novel’s coziness. A non-preachy Christian message makes the pendulum swing both ways: While it’s undoubtedly true that many Christian-fiction readers like secular cozies, many secular readers enjoy Christian cozies.
If I may be forgiven a possibly prideful observation, it more difficult to write a Christian cozy than many writers (or editors) imagine.
They read like simple novels, but are surprisingly complex to build. Our full-length Christian cozies have five plots:
1. Main plot—which should never be the plot about identifying the murderer. This plot “drags” the sleuth into the mystery and keeps him/her/them engaged, unable to go home and leave matters to the local cops.
2. Murder plot—which includes the backstory of the crime that led to the murder.
3. Romance plot—which must not overwhelm the main plot. (Too many romantic mysteries were mislabeled “cozies” in recent years.)
4. Christian plot. It delivers the novel’s Christian message.
5. The “Other Plot”—which is usually humorous. (Ours have ranged from a story about unusual pets, to the challenge of a too-small house, to the search for an associate pastor.)
We began writing cozy mysteries because we love to read them. And we don’t plan to stop. We’re currently working on a pair of new Christian cozies that will expand two of our series.
So whither goest the Christian cozy? These days, into lots of Kindles and Nooks — and quite a few bookshelves. We say, Long Live the Christian Cozy Mystery!
Dead as a Scone
Murder is afoot is the sedate English city of Royal Tunbridge Wells … and the crime may be brewing in a tea pot!
Nigel Owen is having a rotten year. Downsized from a cushy management job at an insurance company in London, he is forced to accept a temporary post as managing director of the Royal Tunbridge Wells Tea Museum. Alas, he regrets living in a small city in Kent, he prefers drinking coffee (with a vengeance), and he roundly dislikes Flick Adams, PhD, an American scientist recently named the museum’s curator.
But then, the wildly unexpected happens. Dame Elspeth Hawker, the museum’s chief benefactor, keels over a board meeting—the apparent victim of a fatal heart attack. With the Dame’s demise, the museum’s world-famous collection is up for grabs, her cats, dog, and parrot are living at with Flick and Nigel—and the two prima donnas find themselves facing professional ruin.
But Flick—who knows a thing or two about forensic science—is convinced that Dame Elspeth did not die a natural death. As Flick and Nigel follow the clues—including a cryptic Biblical citation—they discover that a crime perpetrated more than a century ago sowed the seeds for a contemporary murder.