“I specialize,” Agatha Christie once said, “in murders of quiet, domestic interest.” Today, almost 90 years after the publication of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, her first novel featuring the fastidious Belgian private detective Hercule Poirot, the traditional mystery still thrives. Readers continue to crave the classic whodunit, a puzzle they try to solve along with the protagonist, who may be a professional like Poirot or an amateur sleuth like Miss Jane Marple, one of Christie's other creations.

Violence is never absent from these tales—they are, after all, murder mysteries—but there's a definite lack of gore and gratuitous carnage. Louise Penny, whose award-winning Chief Insp. Armand Gamache series is set in the tiny Quebec village of Three Pines, likens the suspense in her novels to that of famed director Alfred Hitchcock, who “knew that less is more.” Says Penny, “My books aren't about murder—that's simply a catalyst to look at human nature. They aren't about blood but about the marrow, about what happens deep inside, in places we didn't even know existed.” In October, Minotaur will publish Penny's fifth Gamache novel, A Brutal Telling.

A quaint village setting isn't required for a traditional mystery, but whatever world the author creates is paramount. From Holmes's flat at 221B Baker Street in Victorian London to the tiny English hamlet of St. Mary's Mead where Miss Marple spent her days, the setting and the surrounding community is integral to the story. Broadening this focus on communities, the genre has seen an upsurge in recent years in theme-based mysteries, often called cozies, geared toward gardeners, knitters and even animal enthusiasts. Judy Clemens, president of Sisters in Crime and author of the Stella Crown series, describes the cozy as having “a 'softer' atmosphere, such as the world of quilting, a bed and breakfast or antiques.” As the genre expands, so does the number of hobbies, professions and location-based cozies. Lilian Jackson Braun—whose Cat Who series features journalist Jim Qwilleran and his two cats, Koko and Yum Yum—was one of the first authors in the genre to incorporate talking animals as major characters into her work.

Another long-running feline-centric series is Rita Mae Brown's—“co-written” by her own cat, Sneaky Pie—which finds cats Mrs. Murphy and Pewter helping their owner, retired postmistress Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen, solve crimes in Virginia. Ballantine will publish her memoir, Animal Magnetism: My Life with Creatures Great and Small, in November. For readers who enjoy a wider range of pets, Blaize Clement's series stars an ex-sheriff's deputy turned professional petsitter, Dixie Hemingway, in Sarasota, Fla. Minotaur published the fourth installment, Catsitter on a Hot Tin Roof, in January. As an added bonus in a number of craft-based cozies, authors include recipes (Diane Mott Davidson), knitting patterns (Maggie Sefton) and teatime tips (Laura Childs).

Often, the focus in the cozy is the engaging—and often quirky—hero or heroine and his or her network of friends and enemies, rather than the nitty-gritty details of crime solving. The shift in emphasis from puzzles to characters and atmosphere is a key element in differentiating the cozier offshoots from their more traditional predecessors and contemporaries. Humor is also a cozy staple, helping to provide a counterbalance to the murders, as bloodless as they might be, that propel the stories. Even though cozy mysteries don't appear on bestseller lists as regularly as thrillers, there are several authors who buck the trend, like Diane Mott Davidson, whose Fatally Flaky, the 15th installment in her series featuring Colorado caterer Goldy Bear, debuted at #5 on the New York Times bestseller list on its release in early April.

While the vast majority of cozy mysteries are written by women and focus on traditionally female pursuits—crafts, gardening, home decorating—the term is sometimes viewed as demeaning by authors who think it denotes a lack of substance. Sisters in Crime president Clemens notes, “It's hard to be taken seriously when women writers are lumped into one category that's seen—mostly by people who don't read widely in the genre—as being light and unimportant.” Shawn Reilly of Malice Domestic, an organization that honors traditional mysteries, observes, “There is some controversy about 'cozy' in some circles—it's not always a label authors like attributed to them because of some real or imagined stigma against 'cozy writers.' ”

Alexander McCall Smith—whose No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series featuring Botswana private investigator Precious Ramotswe—is certainly an exception to the female-dominated genre. Though crimes are certainly the catalysts in Smith's tales, the heart of the series is the engaging Mma Ramotswe and her eccentric friends and neighbors. Pantheon published the 10th installment, Teatime for the Traditionally Built, in April, and HBO is currently airing an adaptation of the series.

For readers who prefer a more traditional read, Penny's Chief Inspector Gamache series exemplifies the classic, Christie-style whodunit updated for the 21st century. Penny describes her work as “not confined to any one sub-genre, since I've pretty much stolen from every genre going, including literary fiction and poetry. I use whatever is available and cobble together a story.”

One of the mainstays of the well-crafted contemporary mystery is Margaret Maron, whose long-running series features a North Carolina district judge, Deborah Knott. Bootlegger's Daughter, the first in the series, won the Edgar, Agatha and Anthony awards for best novel in 1993. Grand Central will publish Maron's 15th Knott novel, Sand Sharks, in August.

In both the publishing and mystery communities, traditional and cozy mysteries figure prominently. Larger publishing houses—like Penguin's Berkley Prime Crime and Obsidian imprints—and smaller presses—such as Kensington and Midnight Ink—publish several traditional and theme-based cozies every season. For cozy writers in particular, mass market publication is often a stepping stone to a larger audience. For example, Elaine Viets, whose Dead-End Job series features a woman who abandons her affluent lifestyle for a series of minimum wage jobs, debuted in mass market and is now published in hardcover. Obsidian will publish the eighth installment, Killer Cuts, in May. Berkley Prime Crime's upcoming cozy and traditional lineup includes Dropped Dead Stitch, the seventh book in Maggie Sefton's knitting-themed series coming in June.

Kensington publishes Joanne Fluke, whose series revolves around Hannah Swenson, the proprietress of the Cookie Jar bakeshop in Minnesota. In March, Kensington published the 11th installment, Cream Puff Murder. Midnight Ink's promising new trade paperback series from G.M. Malliet features Cambridge DCI Arthur St. Just. Following Malliet's Agatha-nominated debut, Death of a Cozy Writer, Midnight Ink published the second installment, Death and the Lit Chick, in April, which found St. Just investigating a murder at an Edinburgh writers' conference.

When it comes to awards, those given in the mystery community are as varied as the genre itself. The Agatha Awards, which are voted on by attendees of the annual Malice Domestic convention and named in honor of Agatha Christie, specifically recognize traditional mysteries. This year's winners were announced on Saturday, May 2. As defined by the organization, the traditional mystery is one that “contains no explicit sex, excessive gore or gratuitous violence; usually features an amateur detective; and takes place in a confined setting containing characters who know one another.” Guidelines for Agatha nominees specifically state that while “novels and stories featuring police officers and private detectives may qualify, materials generally classified as 'hard-boiled' are not appropriate.”

In contrast to the Agathas and other fan-based awards, such as the Anthony Awards, presented during the annual Bouchercon convention, the Mystery Writers Association's Edgar Awards are voted on by a small group of industry professionals. Clemens chalks up one reason for a general lack of overlap between Agatha and Edgar nominees to the fact that “the Edgars, which are determined by a small group of a specific organization's members, usually lean toward books that are more hard-boiled.” Otto Penzler—owner of Manhattan's Mysterious Bookshop and publisher of the Harcourt imprint Otto Penzler Books—disagrees that the MWA doesn't recognize traditional or cozy mysteries, citing awards for Aaron Elkins's Old Bones in 1988, Margaret Maron's Bootlegger's Daughter in 1993 and S.J. Rozan's Winter and Night in 2003. These types of mysteries, he adds, “also have a pretty good record in the paperback original category, where a disproportionate number of cozies are published.”

Overlaps between the two pools of nominees are not unheard of, and two examples in the last decade demonstrate that both organizations recognize excellence in crime fiction, regardless of subgenre. Laura Lippman's In Big Trouble (1999) and By a Spider's Thread (2004), both part of her Tess Monaghan PI series, were nominated for both an Edgar and an Agatha in the same year, as was Jacqueline Winspear's 2003 debut, Maisie Dobbs, a traditional mystery featuring the titular journalist and psychologist in 1920s and '30s Britain.

Traditional mysteries have come a long way since the Golden Age of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. But even as our world becomes increasingly modernized, there is always room for another puzzle, another caper to test the deductive skills of Holmes's descendants and stimulate the little gray cells prized by Poirot.

Author Information
Jordan Foster is a freelance writer in Portland, Ore.

Why I Write…
By Carolyn Hart

I was a little kid living in Oklahoma City, Okla., during WWII. Even for a child, it didn't take long to understand the importance of newspapers. The bigger and blacker the headlines, the more important the story. The war dominated our lives, from ration books to Victory gardens to scrap drives to the desperate need to know what was happening and what the future held.

I grew up believing nothing could be more important than news—honest, unbiased, factual reports. I decided when I was 11 that I would be a newspaper reporter. I majored in journalism at the University of Oklahoma. Always, I held to the faith that news mattered. I believed and still believe St. John's Gospel: “And you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”

I saw truth as the mainstay of goodness.

And it was in the traditional mystery novel that I also found that same essence of truth.

While all fiction deals with human hope, desire, longing, triumphs and failure, the motif of mystery fiction is a commitment to goodness.

A traditional mystery is about the struggles of ordinary, everyday people who sometimes succumb to evil. The traditional mystery reveals the truth of relationships. When the detective sets out to discover who committed a murder, the detective is actually discovering what fractured the relationships among the people involved in the story. The ultimate aim is to uncover truth.

I had only a dim understanding of this when I read my first Nancy Drew, but I knew that these stories satisfied an inner hunger. I didn't want the villain to triumph. I wanted goodness to be rewarded.

One might ask, aren't mysteries all about murder, guns and knives and poison, anger, jealousy and despair? Where is the good?

The good is in the never-quit protagonist who wants to live in a just world. Readers read mysteries and writers write mysteries because we live in an unjust world where evil often triumphs. In the traditional mystery, goodness will be admired and justice will prevail.

It is this underlying theme that I have celebrated in writing more than 40 mysteries. When I began the Death on Demand series in 1987, Annie Laurance, later Annie Darling, inherits a mystery bookstore from her uncle. I chose a mystery bookstore because it provided Annie with a platform to talk about great mysteries of the past and present. The mystery is always celebrated in the Death on Demand books.

Annie and her husband, Max Darling, symbolize society's hunger for justice and serve as society's representative as they seek to solve yet another murder on their South Carolina sea island. In the newest book, Dare to Die, Annie and Max become involved in the murder of a young woman who returned to the island because she feared she may have caused the death of a high school friend 10 years earlier. A desperate killer must be certain she never remembers the truth of that long ago, foggy night. No matter what danger they face, Annie and Max persevere.

Every time I write or read a mystery, I am buoyed by my belief that, indeed, truth will set me free, and that there is a special place readers and I can go, hand in hand, where goodness will be celebrated.

Hart's Dare to Die is the 19th entry in the Death on Demand series (Morrow, Mar.). This “Why I Write” column is the first in a series, edited by Mark Rotella, that will run in PW along with our Category Closeup features.
Ruth Cavin-the Doyen of the Mystery Novel
St. Martin's Press celebrated Ruth Cavin's 90th birthday and 20 years as an editor in December 2008.

Did you have an interest in mysteries and mystery writers from an early age?

That's hard to say, since my early age is so long ago. But, yes, I was pretty young when I discovered them, and after a few years I became a real mystery lover. I'd say I was about 15, in my ninth or 10th year in school.

You have been on both sides of the editor's desk. Do you find writing or editing more rewarding?

Editing. It's entirely different from writing. I have written and had published four or five books of my own, possibly more, and I very much enjoyed doing them. But none of them was deep or important. They were just good reads. If I write a book that is more than a pleasant read, it would be my first.

St. Martin's recently celebrated your 90th birthday. What keeps you going?

It's just that I'm lucky enough to be able to do it. I live in a small city 35 minutes from New York by train. I have been working in this company for more than 20 years, eight years or so before that elsewhere in the company. People at the office are amazingly wonderful to me, and I can't see why I would stop. I couldn't dream of a nicer place with nicer people; and I'm still able to do my job (I think)!

What trends do you see today and for the future of mystery-book publishing?

In spite of the general money problems in the world right now, I can't see anything but good for the future of book publishing. People in our country and abroad, from truck drivers to the president, have enough different kinds of books to select from and to satisfy their interests. The mystery world will be full of authors' work so long as we, in the business, are able to keep turning up new writers and new books, and finding eager readers for them.—Evander Lomke
Books Mentioned in This Feature
The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny. Minotaur, $24.99, Oct. ISBN 978-0-312-37703-8.

Animal Magnetism by Rita Mae Brown. Ballantine, $26, Oct. ISBN 978-0-345-51179-9.

Catsitter on a Hot Tin Roof by Blaize Clement. Minotaur, $24.95, Jan. ISBN 978-0-312-36955-2.

Fatally Flaky by Diane Mott Davidson. Morrow, $25.99, Apr. ISBN 978-0-06-134813-6.

Teatime for the Traditionally Built by Alexander McCall Smith. Pantheon, $23.95, Apr. ISBN 978-0-375-42449-6.

Bootlegger's Daughter by Margaret Maron. Mysterious, $7.99 paper, 1993. ISBN 978-0-446-40323-8.

Sand Sharks by Margaret Maron. Grand Central, $24.99, Aug. ISBN 978-0-446-19611-6.

Killer Cuts by Elaine Viets. NAL, $22.95, May. ISBN 978-0-451-22686-0.

Dropped Dead Stitch by Maggie Sefton. Berkley Prime Crime, $24.95, June. ISBN 978-0-425-22774-9.

Cream Puff Murder by Joanne Fluke. Kensington, $24, Mar. ISBN 978-0-7582-1022-7.

Death and the Lit Chick by G.M. Malliet. Midnight Ink, paper $14.95, Apr. ISBN 978-0-7387-1247-5.

Old Bones by Aaron Elkins. Berkley Prime Crime, $7.99, 2006. ISBN 978-0-425-20748-2.

Winter and Night by S.J. Rozan. $6.99, 2003. ISBN 978-0-312-98668-1.

In Big Trouble by Laura Lippman. Avon, $7.99, 1999. ISBN 978-0-380-79847-6.

By a Spider's Thread by Laura Lippman. Avon $7.99, 2005. ISBN 978-0-0605-0671-1.

Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear. Penguin, $15, 2004. ISBN 978-0-1420-0433-3.

Bones by Jan Burke. Pocket Star, $7.99, May. ISBN 978-1-4165-9608-0.