Some friends were discussing the number of murders on a cozy mystery TV series they were watching and made some tongue-in-cheek statements to the effect that they wouldn’t want to live in that town because people kept getting murdered there.
A while ago, there were a couple of facetious internet theories going around about the character of Jessica Fletcher from Murder, She Wrote. Theory #1 was Cabot Cove, Maine, population 3560, was the Murder Capital of the US. Theory #2 was Jessica Fletcher was a serial killer and she got away with it by using her mystery writing skills to find a fall guy for all the murders she “solved.”
And therein lies the problem.
If you write a cozy mystery series, how do you account for the sheer volume of death and destruction? Considering that many cozies have an amateur “detective,” how is it believable that your protagonist manages to be nearby when suspicious deaths happen?
Short answer: It isn’t believable. Nor should it be. It’s the classic suspension of disbelief that has been used in speculative fiction forever. If we can believe in fairies, hobbits, and werewolves for the length of time it takes to read a fantasy novel, why can’t we believe that the local school teacher turned mystery novelist keeps being involved in murder cases? Cozy mysteries aren’t considered to be speculative fiction, but maybe they should be. After all, they are set in a world where people are dropping like flies in small towns and villages and the only one who ever solves the crimes is the local baker, the yarn store owner, or the former high-powered lawyer who inherited her grandmother’s indie book store.
In the real world, professionals solve crimes. In other sub-genres of detective fiction, this problem never crops up. Readers don’t find it odd that the cops of the 87th precinct, in the fictional big city of Isola, go around solving murders. It’s their job. Even the TV show Castle wasn’t completely unbelievable in the number of homicides that were investigated annually. The show was set in the homicide division of the New York City police department. There were 34 murders in NYC in 2022 and there were about 24 episodes per season in the show. Not hard to swallow. What was hard to swallow with Castle was that any police department would allow a mystery writer to “tag along” on investigations for years on end. And, yet, the viewers bought it for 8 seasons.
Every writer handles the Jessica problem in their own way. Most writers simply ignore it. Agatha Christie, for example, never mentioned it. And that’s not the only thing she never mentioned. Miss Marple not only solved (at least) 32 murders in the 12 novels and 20 short stories in which she appeared, she also was an “old lady” for 49 years without really aging. She first appeared in a short story in 1927 and her last adventure was published in 1976. She never really had a set age, either. She appeared to be anywhere from 60 to 80, depending on the story.
In Joanna Fluke’s Hannah Swensen mysteries, mention is made more than once that Hannah has “slaydar,” alluding to her radar-like ability to find murder victims. It’s Ms. Fluke’s little conspiratorial wink to her readers. It’s the author’s way of saying, “I know this is hard to swallow and you know this is hard to swallow, but we’re having fun here and, also, I’ll include a bunch of cookie recipes that aren’t hard to swallow, to make up for it.” There are, so far, 31 books in the Hannah Swensen mysteries and they pretty much all take place in a small Minnesota town. That’s a heck of a lot of suspicious deaths! But, we forgive the author, because, cookies!
Going back to Jessica Fletcher, she seems to have solved about 275 murders in her 12 years on the air. Most of them did not, in fact, happen in her small town of Cabot Cove. Only about 60 happened in the town, and many of those were murders of outsiders by outsiders. Still, the numbers are way too high to be believable. Five murders a year is more than a Maine village can take.
I haven’t decided, yet, how I’m going to handle the problem, but I’m leaning toward the Christie method. I’m simply going to ignore it. The books are planned so that they happen one every season. I only have the first 4 books’ settings planned, but they all happen in a town of about 15,000 people. Four murders in a year is not even remotely believable. Just for a real-life example, in the town in which I grew up, there have been 2 murder cases–involving 3 murders–in a town of about 20,000 in the last 16 years. (Probably more years than that, actually, but I only could find data going back to 2007.)
So, suspend your disbelief, readers! Murder and mayhem will abound in the fictional town of Millshire. And Maggie and Cassie Byrne, owners of Nibbles Catering, will be on the case!