Murder. It’s scary, right? We could also say it’s also frightening, terrifying, traumatizing, and just plain messy and disgusting. Blood and guts everywhere, nasty smells, and emotionally paralyzing. For those of us who have never seen a dead body, it’s beyond imaginable what it’s like to walk into a room to see someone lying there, obviously killed by another human being.
This one vile, unforgivable act is one of the most awful things we can do to each other.
But if there’s one thing we can count on when we read a cozy mystery, it’s that the story isn’t at all about the actual murder. It’s about the people involved in it and understanding the puzzles in our lives that push us toward that breaking point.
And most of all, it’s about getting justice for the victim.
Ever heard of Agatha Christie? Ever since the queen of mystery herself practically invented the genre, cozy mysteries have been lighthearted, fun and often funny, family friendly, and downright wholesome. It’s almost hard to believe that something involving murder could have such a light touch.
Back when the genre first started, cozy mysteries offered an alternative to the dark detective novels that were so popular. They existed as a contrast to the haunting reality that so much gruesome death and murder brought to literature. The cozies of yesterday turned into something exciting—yet not so dark—that readers could immerse themselves in and solve all the puzzles with the amateur sleuth. If it was scary, dark, and terrifying, solving those puzzles wouldn’t have been such a satisfying experience for readers.
With that idea in mind, the dead bodies themselves are practically glazed over. We don’t linger on the fact that the victim is laying in a pool of their own blood because this is not an experience readers want to dive into. They do, however, want to solve the whodunit mystery.
If you’re new to writing cozy mysteries, here are five tips and tricks for getting the death scene right:
- Don’t mention the fact that the victim practically looks like they drowned in their own blood. This is not a horror novel, so we don’t need 100 sensory details about how mangled, twisted, or rotten the dead body is. All we really need to know is that there is a dead body.
- Get creative about how the amateur sleuth finds the victim’s body. Since you can’t play up how the dead body looks, it’s often necessary to get creative about the other details. Since animals are so popular in cozy mysteries, maybe the sleuth’s dog discovers the body, or maybe they’re found in the most unlikely place.
- Cozy mysteries are all built on puzzles for the reader to solve, so give them that! Perhaps the way they died is a mystery, or maybe how they got to the crime scene at all is part of the mystery. This gives the readers the mental workout they’re craving, and it makes it a much more fun reading experience for them.
- Focus on the clues rather than the body. One thing you can do to get this right is to make a sketch with pencil and paper of how the crime scene looks when the sleuth finds the victim’s body. It’s very rare that the only thing they find is a dead body. Each clue, no matter how minor, can be a puzzle for readers to solve.
- Design the scene so the sleuth doesn’t actually see the blood and/or guts. This can be done in a way that the sleuth (and the readers) gets that there is a dead body in the room, yet they are spared of having to think about the gory details. Maybe it’s dark and they can’t see much, or maybe they are lying underneath a blanket. This is probably the simplest way to keep a cozy mystery death scene from going too dark.
What are some of the most interesting ways you’ve seen a cozy mystery author describe a death scene without forcing the reader to live through that disturbing experience? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!