When I first published Maids of Misfortune, book one in my Victorian San Francisco Mystery series, I placed it in the historical and women sleuth mystery categories on Amazon. Since the book was set in the Victorian era, and the main protagonist was a woman who acted as an amateur sleuth, this was perfectly appropriate. At the time there was no “cozy mystery” sub-category in the Kindle store, and I didn’t use this term as a key word because I tended to think of cozy mysteries as contemporary mysteries with some sort of theme: like baking, quilting, or cats. To a degree, I wasn’t wrong, since when Amazon created the cozy mystery sub-category a few months ago its three sub-divisions were: animals, crafts and hobbies, and culinary.
Nevertheless, as I began to understand my audience and discover what people liked most about my books (the upside to reading reviews), I realized that many of them saw the books as cozy mysteries––and that this element was as important as the Victorian setting in explaining the series’ growing popularity.
So, why are my Victorian San Francisco mysteries considered cozies?
The definition of a cozy mystery is pretty consistent. Most commentators agree that the origins can be found in Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple series. The common characteristics of cozies are: the main protagonist is an amateur sleuth (usually female), the sleuth frequently has some connection (often a love interest) with a professional involved with the law (police, medical examiner, lawyer, etc.), the people in the book are part of a small or close-knit community, the main characters are “likable,” and the secondary characters (including animals) provide some sort of comic relief. See Cozy-Mystery List, and Laura DiSilverio’s post.
In addition, there is little graphic violence or sex (and limited profanity) in cozies, and good triumphs over bad, so that, as one author put it, “…when you finish you’ll have a smile on your face.” Nathan Bransford
While it is pretty obvious how contemporary mysteries that feature wacky families and small towns (such as Donna Andrew’s Meg Langston series, Lorraine Bartlett’s Victoria Square series, and Elizabeth Craig’s Southern Quilting series) fit this description, it isn’t as obvious how a mystery about a woman without any family who lived in San Francisco in the late 19th century does.
But it does. Let’s take those common cozy characteristics. My main protagonist, Annie Fuller, is definitely an amateur sleuth, since her main source of income is running a boarding house and giving advice as a clairvoyant, not investigating crimes. Annie also has help from a lawyer (Nate Dawson—her romantic partner) and a police constable (Patrick McGee––her maid’s romantic partner). Like most amateurs, she gets drawn into solving crimes because someone she knows is murdered, in danger, or accused of a crime, and her major attributes are that she is “intelligent, intuitive, and inquisitive.” Nathan Bransford
While Annie Fuller lives in a city, not a small town, San Francisco in 1880 was still limited geographically enough for a person to move across it by foot, and the boarding house she owns provides the same sort of cast of quirky characters that a small village does. These boarding house residents, like the elderly seamstresses, Millie and Minnie Moffet, and Dandy, the Boston terrier, do provide much of the comic relief.
Perhaps even more crucial to determining the “coziness” of my mysteries is their lack of explicit or gratuitous sex or violence. Much of the actual “wrong-doing” happens before the story starts or occurs off-stage. When violence is described, there isn’t a lot of blood and gore. As with other cozies, the solving of the mystery and what it reveals about the characters is more important than non-stop action scenes. This doesn’t mean that there can’t be a sense of danger or even a good fight, but as one of my reviewers once said, you can read my books right before you go to bed and not worry about bad dreams.
The same goes for sex. What I am interested in is the course of the romance between couples not their sexual practices. Since my books are set in a time period when women knew that even the whiff of sexual activity outside of marriage could ruin their reputations or their employment opportunities, I am being historically accurate as well. But even when I write about people who challenge those social mores or I describe a married couple, it doesn’t serve either my plot or my character development to give details about the bedroom, so I don’t.
I remember when I wrote the first draft of Maids of Misfortune in 1989 and an agent shopped it around, one of the common responses by editors was that they weren’t sure how strong the market was for historical mysteries in general, and that they already had one Victorian era mystery. Today, Kindle’s historical mystery category lists 3800 books, and 250 of these are related in some fashion to the Victorian era.
However, the Victorian era, with Jack the Ripper wandering the mean streets of England and poverty, prostitution, and political corruption destroying lives on both sides of the Atlantic, generally inspires a darker view of humanity. For example, Anne Perry’s Charlotte and Thomas Pitt and William Monk series and P.B. Ryan’s Nell Sweeney series are excellent Victorian mysteries, but they are definitely not cozies.
And yet I am not the only reader who enjoys both the Victorian period and the cozy-style of mystery when I settle down for a good beach read or a rainy day in front of the fire, and that may explain why the third book in my Victorian San Francisco mystery series, Bloody Lessons, just published, is already one of the top cozy bestsellers in the Kindle store. (And thanks to all of you who have helped get it there!)
Next week I am going on a Cozy Book Tour, where I will get to expand on some of the reasons my Victorian San Francisco mysteries are cozies–I hope you all will come along!