no. 11: Cozying Up with a Cozy Mystery

in which Sydney shares that she has a soft spot for quaint villages with elderly sleuths and Kati discusses the future of cozy mysteries

no. 11: Cozying Up with a Cozy Mystery
Miss Phryne Fisher (Essie Davis) and Detective Inspector Jack Robinson (Nathan Page)

I mentioned the last issue, but near the bottom—we are now offering paid subscriptions to Thursday Matinee. Our weekly issues will always be free, so paid subscriptions are for you to support what we do and get a little something extra in return.

Exploring the feminine in cozy mysteries

by Sydney Bollinger

Illustration from old Nancy Drew book. Nancy wearing a blue dress holds a flashlight and looks at a ballet dancer doll with a shadowy figure in the background.
Cover from an old Nancy Drew book

I’ve loved mysteries since I was a little kid. Those who knew me as a child remember that I carried around stacks of Nancy Drew Mystery Stories. I was obsessed with the girl detective to the point that I tried to solve my own (fake) mysteries and write my own mystery stories. Of course, my mystery stories were never very good, but it didn’t matter to me. I didn’t know. I just knew that I loved the thrill of being a sleuth, the feeling that I may be able to solve something important.

A lot of people love mystery stories; the publishing industry sells mass market paperback after mass market paperback of the books in the Cozy Mystery genre. Cozy mysteries are the type of murder mysteries that take place in small unassuming towns with quirky characters and a person—usually a woman—who has a knack for solving mysteries, even though their actual profession is a baker or librarian or dressmaker. The stakes are high because of the murder, but the warm and fuzzy atmosphere detracts from the feelings of danger making them light and fun reads.

“Women’s Television”

It’s easy to say that enjoyment of the murder mystery genre started with Agatha Christie’s novels, many of which have gone on to spawn television series and movies either directly adapting her work or using her formulas as the basis for a new mystery. While Christie’s Poirot may be a celebrated detective, Miss Marple is an elderly woman who solves mysteries in her idyllic town, which is also filled with murder. Characters like Miss Marple are much more accessible than Poirot and the agents and detectives in crime television. Unlike traveling private detectives and FBI agents, Miss Marple and her successors are deeply ingrained in the communities in which they live, taking on the role of neighborhood social manager—a role typically held by women. These women use their social connections to solve mysteries because, unlike the local detectives, they are acutely aware of the fabric of their social network, able to suss out any anomaly, hidden grudge, or false explanation.

Geraldine McEwan as Miss Marple

These shows, then, are often discussed among groups of women, specifically older women who watch Hallmark (they have a whole channel devoted to mysteries) or subscribe to AcornTV, which among its many offerings includes an entire section dedicated to the cozy mysteries. This characterization of these shows also leads to lower marketing budgets and a general aura of being “not that good,” which is also often the perception of “chick flicks.” Currently, chick flicks are seeing something of a resurgence for being smartly written films, rather than just fluffy romances. There is truth to every trope, however—Hallmark movies do follow a specific formula—but many films are labeled a “chick flick” with hardly a second thought. Bridget Jones’s Diary can be enjoyed by everyone!

The Miss Fisher Effect

It could just be me, but I had never heard someone my age talk about a cozy mystery until Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. The show has ignited a rather fervent fanbase (myself included) over the past few years, which has led to both a movie and a spinoff series for AcornTV. This show transcended the cozy mysteries, making it a well-known show not just in the genre, but in general.

It took me a few tries to watch it at first. I wasn’t immediately sold on the idea that I would like it or that this was a show I wanted to invest my time in. I think part of the problem was my own perception of the show as silly—I never sat down and really paid attention to it until the time that I couldn’t stop watching it. I ended up finishing all three seasons just before the show was removed from Netflix.

In contrast to other cozy mysteries—or rather, the perception of the genre—Miss Fisher’s is fresh and modern, with progressive, feminist writing. Miss Fisher, though an unmarried “older” woman in the 1920s, is fiercely independent and creates an eclectic family of her own, made up (in part) of a lesbian doctor and communist taxi drivers. The show—and Miss Fisher—push the boundaries of the traditional cozy mystery, which led me to looking for more similarly-minded series.

So I don't talk about it at all in this issue, but Miss Fisher and Jack have the best on-screen chemistry ever.

Staying cozy

After finishing Miss Fisher's, I felt I knew where to look, so I found many kindred spirits. Frankie Drake Mysteries, which aired on PBS, follows the titular Frankie Drake and her companions as she solves mysteries in 1920s Toronto. Miss Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries details the sleuthing skills of Miss Fisher’s niece, Peregrine in the 1960s. Set in the modern day, Queens of Mystery is a fun-loving series about a young woman who solves mysteries with the help of her three crime writer aunts.

I used to not tell people I watched all these cozy mystery shows. It seemed to conflict with this persona I try to put on of being edgy, hip, and only into things that are frightening and gory. I’m a multifaceted consumer of media, as we all are, and sometimes it’s nice to watch something filled with saccharine joy—and a side of murder.  

Screen Break

by Kati Bowden

Though I can't say I've always been the biggest fan of cozy mysteries, I can say that Arsenic and Adobo by Mia P. Manansala is the title I recommend the most to my patrons. When you've finished the Miss Julia Series or grown tired of Aunt Dimity, try spicing things up by following Lila Macapagal and her family's restaurant in the first entry in a whole new cozy series.

Lila Macapagal has just moved home after a nightmare of a breakup, and between being tasked to save her Tita Rosie's failing restaurant, and the swarm of judgemental (yet loving and protective) aunties that surround her all day every day, she's found plenty to distract her from her broken heart. Things start turning around for Lila and the rest of the Macapagals--until a notoriously harsh food critic drops dead after a confrontation with Lila. Oh, and that food critic also happens to be Lila's ex-boyfriend, the man who ruined her life. Go figure.

Things head south very quickly for our heroine. She's the primary suspect in the apparent murder of the man who broke her heart, and the restaurant's skeezy landlord sees the scandal as the perfect opportunity to kick the Macapagal family out of his storefront. The cops treat Lila as the only suspect in the case, so, to save herself and her Tita Rosie's legacy, Lila takes it upon herself to conduct her own investigation. With her army of aunties, her barista best friend, and her beloved Daschund, Lila is sure she can figure it all out and find the true culprit. Or at least, she'd better figure it out--if she isn't quick enough, Lila and her family are next on the chopping block.

With a fresh perspective on the genre and its most beloved elements, Manansala brings us a hero we can root for, a family we can (begrudgingly) love, and a new series of mysteries full of sizzle and spice. Arsenic and Adobo has already wooed readers with its charm and flavor, and I know that whatever the "Tita Rosie's Kitchen" series brings next will be more than fun. We're looking at the future of cozy mysteries here, and it's delicious.