Cozies: 22 Core Titles

Featuring M.C. Beaton, Agatha Christie & Alan Bradley

Cozies, frequently defined as mysteries where the murder occurs offstage, offer readers reliable pleasures. These books contain less violence, sex, and gritty language than the norm, have an engaging tone (ranging from warm comfort to crabbily witty), and typically feature a sleuth who stumbles into his or her role—be that as a sideline to another job or as the presumptive village busy body.

Members of The Reading List—the RUSA/CODES committee that selects the year’s best genre fiction—here pick 22 classic and contemporary cozies for a core collection.


 

The Classics

Albert, Susan Witting. The Tale of Hill Top Farm. Berkley. (Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter.) 2005. 286p. ISBN 978-0-425-20101-5. pap. $7.99. M

Author of several beloved cozy series, Albert is a name to know. While her China Bayles books (set in the world of herbs and tea) are a treat, her “Cottage Tales” stories are genre-defining cozies, charming concoctions featuring Beatrix Potter as a village detective and a bevy of her animal characters (who detect as well). Whimsical, gentle, and delightfully sweet, these tales mix puzzles with dashes of biographical details on the real life Potter. In this opening tale Beatrix moves to Hill Top, animals in tow, and is faced with a mysterious death.

Beaton, M.C. The Quiche of Death. St. Martin’s. 2006. 262p. ISBN 978-0-312-93916-8. pap. $6.99. M

Beaton has a style and wit that sets her detective Agatha Raisin apart in the cozy genre. In the opening series title (first published in 1993), Agatha moves from London to Carsely, a quiet village in the Cotswolds, and manages to kill the judge of a quiche contest with her poisoned entry (which she bought from a London bakery). Now she must clear her name. Far from kind and loveable, Agatha is proud and thin-skinned, and her eagerness for approval often leads her astray. This multilayered series is full of village events and personalities and always keeps the reader guessing.

Block, Lawrence. Burglars Can’t Be Choosers. HarperTorch. 2004. 307p. ISBN 978-0-06-058255-5. pap. $7.99. M

As charming as he is light-fingered, Block’s bumbling cat burglar/antiquarian bookseller Bernie Rhodenbarr always finds himself in trouble with the law, and the only solution is to solve the case before the police can pin it on him. These cozy comic capers feature vividly drawn series characters, puzzling cases, smart dialog, and a humorous tone. In his 1977 debut, Bernie has planned a simple heist, but he doesn’t expect to find a dead body and the police waiting to frame him for murder.

Braun, Lilian Jackson. The Cat Who Could Read Backwards. Jove. 1986. 250p. ISBN 978-0-515-09017-8. pap. $7.99. M

Reporter Jim Qwilleran and his gifted Siamese cat, Koko, became cozy superstars in this first entry in Braun’s beloved series. Recovering from the descent into alcoholism that destroyed his marriage and his career, Jim takes a job as an art reporter, a far cry from his former crime beat. Ironically, he immediately stumbles into a murder, but it is Koko who finds the clues to solve the crime. This series is responsible for setting off a frenzy of feline cozies, although none comes close to displaying the charm of Koko and his human companion.

Brett, Simon. A Nice Class of Corpse. Scribner. 1986. 181p.  ISBN 978-0-684-18685-6. $14.95. M (Out of print but widely held)

Adored and well provided for by her late husband’s shady business dealings, Melita Pargeter, a woman of a certain age, is ample in stature and appetite, jeweled and chauffeured. But her irrepressible curiosity courts trouble and murder wherever she goes. Along with the money, she also inherited Mr. Pargeter’s burglary tools and his band of criminal cohorts, who stand ready to serve the good lady. In this first outing, she must confound a murderer in her rather stuffy seaside retirement home. Wit and humor underline these titles.

Christie, Agatha. A Murder at the Vicarage: A Miss Marple Mystery. Signet: NAL. 2000. 247p. ISBN 978-0-451-20115-7. pap. $6.99. M

In 1930, Christie created what is often considered the quintessential classic cozy character with her introduction of Miss Marple. An older “fluffy” spinster with a sharp mind and a deep understanding of human nature, Miss Marple has been called in to help when a body is found in the vicarage in the small English village of St. Mary Mead. Known for the consistent quality of her prolific and incredibly tightly plotted, complex mysteries, Christie remains one of the most beloved cozy writers of all time.

Davidson, Diane Mott. Catering to Nobody. Bantam. 2002. 310p. ISBN 978-0-553-58470-7. pap. $7.99. M

Although many cozy mysteries authors have played with the food theme, perhaps the most successful has been  Davidson. The introduction of small-town caterer Goldy Bear Schulz brought a new type of amateur detective to the genre. In her first mystery (originally published in 1990), Goldy is catering a funeral when her son’s favorite teacher is murdered. Circumstances lead her to be considered a suspect and her business closed down until the crime is solved. With financial ruin staring her in the face, she decides she must solve the murder herself, which, of course, gives her the crime-fighting bug. Accompanying recipes give this series extra charm.

Hart, Carolyn G. Death on Demand. Crime Line: Bantam. 1989. 195p. ISBN 978-0-553-26351-0. pap. $7.50. M

Hart has other cozy series, but her most popular remains the “Death on Demand” series. Annie Laurance sells books and solves murders with equal flair at her small town bookstore, Death on Demand. In true cozy style, Annie’s first brush with death causes her to become the prime suspect in the murder and, with the help of her friend Max Darling, she must solve the crime before she is arrested. Fans eagerly await the mystery-painting contest that starts each book, as puzzling out these clues is an added bonus for the true mystery buff.

MacLeod, Charlotte. The Family Vault. Doubleday. 1979. 184p. ISBN 978-0-385-14871-9. $7.95. M (Out of print but widely held)

Sarah Kelling and Max Bittersohn are a duo that will remind readers of the great screwball comedy couples of another age. In their debut adventure, Sarah’s eccentric family is burying Uncle Frederick in the family vault when they discover the unexpected corpse of a showgirl. Max is a PI who helps Sarah investigate who might have put the body there and why. MacLeod also wrote the academic cozy series starring Peter Shandy.

Sayers, Dorothy. Whose Body? HarperTorch. 1995. 224p. ISBN 978-0-06-104357-4. pap. $7.99. M

Sayers, with her wit, clever plotting, and wonderful use of language, wrote 12 mysteries featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, and each is a delight—strongly set, elegantly constructed, and smart. As the books build in both intricacy and relationships, it is best to start with this beginning title (originally published in 1923). Wimsey, asked to do a favor by his mother (the Dowager Duchess of Denver), investigates how the corpse of a stranger ends up in the bathtub of a family friend. Readers will quickly fall for Wimsey’s sophisticated allure and clever mind.

Tey, Josephine. The Daughter of Time. Touchstone: S. & S.  1995. 206p. ISBN 978-0-684-80386-9. pap. $14. M

If one of the hallmarks of a cozy is that the body is not depicted in up-close and gruesome detail, then Tey’s superb mysteries are great examples of the genre. In this 1952 novel, the corpse has been dead a few centuries. A detective laid up in the hospital becomes determined to solve the mystery of what happened to the Princes in the Tower and to exonerate the much-maligned Richard III, long suspected of the boys’ murders. Tey’s fiction consistently shows a deft hand at plotting and character, revealing a deep interest in the psychology of crime.

Contemporary Cozies of Note

Arsenault, Emily. The Broken Teaglass. Delacorte. 2009. 370p. ISBN 978-0-553-80733-2. $25. M

Arsenault’s charming debut  is quietly getting some much-deserved hand-selling. Two young lexicographers stumble onto clues scattered among the citations file at the dictionary-publishing office where they work. Written as “cits,” the clues reference a fictitious book called The Broken Teaglass but seem to be a confession to a decade-old unsolved murder case involving the “The Glass Girl.” What begins as curiosity for two active young minds turns strangely personal when many of the players involved clearly resemble their senior colleagues and mentors. Clever word play, a behind-the-scenes look at the dictionary-publishing industry, and well-drawn characters make for a delightful, quietly humorous, and offbeat mystery.

Bradley, Alan. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Delacorte. 2009. 373p. ISBN 978-0-385-34230-8. $23. M

Charm, wit, and a lovely evocation of time and place made Bradley’s debut cozy a quick hit. Starring  precocious 11-year-old Flavia de Luce, who is quite taken with chemistry (which she uses to torment her elder sister), the story spins out in lovely dashes of whimsy. First there is a dead bird with a stamp on its beak, then a dead body; then, Flavia’s father is arrested. Confessing to the crime to buy some time, Flavia must put her brilliant mind to work and figure out the clues.

Childs, Laura. Death by Darjeeling. Berkley Prime Crime. 2001. 242p. ISBN 978-0-425-17945-1. pap. $7.99. M

Childs writes three character-centered cozy mystery series: the “Tea Shop” series set in Charleston, SC; the “Scrapbooking” series set in New Orleans; and the “Cackleberry Club” series set in a café in a small Tennessee town. Humor—in titles, dialog, and story lines—abounds, as do quirky characters and a charming tone. In addition to interesting cultural and historical details, each title includes something extra: scrapbooking tips in that series, and recipes in the tea shop and café series. The “Tea Shop” series remains her most popular, and in the first volume, owner Theodosia Browning must turn sleuth to clear her own name when a guest dies at an event she catered.

Cleland, Jane. Consigned to Death. St. Martin’s. 2007. 287p. ISBN 978-0-312-94952-5. pap. $6.99. M

Cleland’s Josie Prescott Antiques Mystery series stars an appraiser who uses her knowledge of antiques to solve crimes. Packed with antiques lore, complex characters, and intricate plots, this traditional, now five-book series has been referred to as an Antiques Roadshow for mystery fans. In the first entry, Josie moves from New York City to a small town on the rugged New Hampshire coast after she blows the whistle on a price-fixing scandal at the auction house where she worked. Setting up her own business, Josie gets mixed up in a murder investigation and uses her specialized knowledge to clear her name.

Duncan, Elizabeth. The Cold Light of Mourning. Minotaur: St. Martin’s. 2009. 277p. ISBN 978-0-312-55853-6. $24.95. M

This delightful debut by a Canadian author won the Minotaur Books/Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel Competition and has been nominated for a 2009 Agatha Award for Best First Novel. Penny Brannigan, a Canadian expat, has made the village of Llanelen home for decades, having been seduced as a young backpacker by the breathtaking view of this part of the Welsh countryside. Now an owner of the Happy Hands Nail Care shop, she has become an integral member of the community. When a young bride goes missing after her prewedding nail appointment, Penny gets involved. Her budding romance with the local police inspector, colorful village personalities, quiet domestic routines, and the idyllic setting will engage readers longing for a new voice in contemporary cozies.

Hall, Tarquin. The Case of the Missing Servant. S. & S. 2009. 310p. ISBN 978-1-4165-8368-4. $24. M

Portly, persistent, and unmistakably Punjabi, Vish Puri cuts a determined swath through modern Delhi’s swindlers, cheats, and murderers. Pleased with a break from the usual screening of prospective marriage partners, Puri investigates the murder of a maidservant while keeping an eagle eye on his widowed “Mummy-ji,” who is determined to sleuth alongside his team of colorful undercover operatives. Ingeniously combining modern investigative techniques with 2000-year-old Indian principles of detection, Puri is a welcome addition to the pantheon of exotic sleuths.

McCall Smith, Alexander. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Anchor: Random. 2009. 235p. ISBN 978-0-307-45662-5. pap. $7.99. M

The Scottish author became a new cozy star with this debut and his introduction of Mma Ramotswe, the owner of the title agency. Mma Ramotswe is practical yet softhearted, inventive while her life is steeped in African convention. In the opening title, she solves a series of domestic puzzles, highlighting the life of Botswana in all its complexities and contradictions. McCall Smith writes three other series, and cozy fans should also consider his Isabel Dalhousie mysteries, set in Edinburgh, Scotland. The editor of The Review of Applied Ethics, Isabel is intrigued by puzzles and enjoys considering philosophical questions in her job and her professional life. In the opening series title, The Sunday Philosophy Club, Isabel investigates the death of a man who might have been pushed off a balcony.

Sansom, Ian. The Case of the Missing Books. Harper. 2007. 336p. ISBN 978-0-06-082250-7. pap. $12.95. M

Londoner Israel Armstrong is the ultimate fish out of water in Ian Sansom’s series opener. When Israel shows up in a rural Irish town to be the new librarian, he discovers that the library is closed and his new post is in a decrepit bus that will serve as the community’s bookmobile. But first he must discover what happened to the library’s 15,000 books, which have gone missing. As mysteries go, this is not life and death, but the increasingly absurd and hilarious encounters that Israel has with the locals make this a cozy to savor.

Sefton, Maggie. Knit One, Kill Two. Berkley Prime Crime. 2005. 280p. ISBN 978-0-425-20359-0. pap. $7.99. M

In this first of Sefton’s popular knitting series, busy CPA Kelly Flynn leaves her frantic career in DC to investigate her elderly aunt’s suspicious death in Fort Connor, CO, and becomes a part of that thriving community and an integral member of the cozy knitting club situated at the House of Lambspun knit shop. This chatty series features a large cast of regulars, both men and women, whose interests extend beyond knitting. Infused with gentle humor, these leisurely paced cozies also include recipes and knitting patterns.

Swann, Leonie. Three Bags Full: A Sheep Detective Agency. Flying Dolphin: Doubleday. 2008. 341p. tr. from German by Anthea Bell. ISBN 978-0-7679-2705-5. pap. $13.95. M

Mystery readers are bound to have come across some very famous feline detectives and may have noticed the odd dog or two trying to get in on the act. Clever as these animals may be, they have always relied on their two-legged sidekicks for assistance in detections. Swann, in her debut mystery, introduces fleecy ones who work alone! In the bucolic Irish village of Glennkill, a flock of sheep has just come across the murdered body of its beloved shepherd, George Glenn. Led by the very smart Miss Maple, they are determined to bring the killer to justice, not withstanding all the obstacles in their way—they can’t talk, and their chief suspect is the BUTCHER!

Yancey, Richard. The Highly Effective Detective. Minotaur: St. Martin’s. 2008. 304p. ISBN 978-0-312-36900-2. pap. $6.99. M

Theodore “Teddy” Ruzak of Knoxville, TN, is the bumbling but determined detective in Yancey’s entertaining debut. Overweight and unschooled, Teddy quits his job as a night watchman to set up his own detective agency with a small inheritance. For his first case, Teddy is hired to track down a hit-and-run goose killer. Before long, however, the case turns decidedly homicidal. Endearing and colorful characters, suspenseful plots twists, and witty dialog make for a fun read.


Alicia Ahlvers, Cheryl Bryan, Megan McArdle, Jackie Sasaki, Joyce Saricks, and Neal Wyatt are all members of The Reading List, the RUSA/CODES committee that selects the best genre fiction of the year.

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