25.11.09

The Soft-Boiled (or Cozy) Mystery Novel


Mysteries are often described as “hard-boiled,” “soft-boiled,” or “cozy.” Soft-boiled (also known as “cozy”) mysteries were initially written by British writers during the interwar years. Agatha Christie’s novels characterize – indeed epitomize – the cozy mystery. American authors saw soft-boiled mysteries as implausible and artificial. In the late 1920s, they began writing hard-boiled novels in reaction to the lack of realism in the cozy. Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler were early masters of the new hard-boiled form. In this post, I will explore the characteristics of the soft-boiled mystery; in the next post, I will turn to the hard-boiled novel.

Characteristics of the Soft-Boiled or Cozy Mystery Novel:

• Characters are frequently from the middle and upper classes.

• The detective often has aristocratic connections, usually is an amateur, and sometimes exhibits eccentric habits.

• The detective in not a loner but is “tied into a community and works with a close-knit circle of family, friends, and acquaintances” (Charles, Morrison, and Clark 2002, 57).

• The role of the detective is to restore the stability and order temporarily upset by the criminal.

• Characters have great faith in the power of reason to solve mysteries and restore order.

• The setting is typically circumscribed, giving rise to a closed circle of suspects. The country estate is a typical cozy milieu.

• Settings tend to be rural rather than urban, a small village rather than a large metropolis, and English rather than American or non-English.

• There is little explicit violence; the murder often happens offstage.

• The plot is puzzle-oriented, operating within the rules of fair play between the author and the reader.

• The author presents clues that are readily available to the reader but difficult to fathom because of red herrings and false leads.

• Soft-boiled writers favour certain plot devices: the villain assumes a false identity; the murder weapon is cleverly hidden; the chronology of the plot is confused (Panek 2000, 96); characters congregate in a room for the revelation of the mystery; the crime is committed in a locked-room – a seemingly impossible situation.

• Writers use the “drawing-room diction of polite society” (Rzepka 2005, 179). The language is literary rather than colloquial, and characters do not swear or use slang.

• The vision of the world is essentially one of order and coherence. As Cawelti suggests, “evil is an abnormal disruption of an essentially benevolent social order” (1976, 149).

Some of the most popular cozy writers are: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, Jane Langton, Amanda Cross, Martha Grimes, Elizabeth Peters, Diane Mott Davidson, Lilian Jackson Braun, and Janet Evanovich. Visit the Cozy Mystery List for additional authors.

Cawelti, John G. Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.

Charles, John, Joanna Morrison, and Candace Clark. The Mystery Readers’ Advisory: The Librarian’s Clues to Murder and Mayhem. Chicago: American Library Association, 2002.

Panek, LeRoy Lad. New Hard-Boiled Writers 1970s-1990s. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 2000.

Rzepka, Charles J. Detective Fiction. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2005.