Cozy mysteries, the gentler subset of the genre ruled by embittered detectives and grisly crime scenes, can offer satisfying whodunits for a weekend in the hammock. Set mostly in small towns with relatable protagonists, they have more in common with Dorothy Sayers than Dennis Lehane. But they have their pitfalls: too little realism, too much saccharine romance, and often, too many cats. These three selections manage to avoid most of those problems to get at the best cozies have to offer: a good, clean mystery with a few laughs and a satisfying ending.
James Runcie’s Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death (Bloomsbury) has as its protagonist a Church of England priest living in 1950s Cambridge. Chambers becomes an amateur detective quite by chance, of course, when a woman asks him to investigate her lover’s death: He then unravels the mystery from his unique perspective as a man people trust, using his powers of observation and insight into human nature to lead him to the right conclusion. His sincere effort to work out his faith with fear and trembling is satisfying: When his close friend Amanda asks him whether seeing terrible things ever shakes his faith, Chambers says, “Not in God. It shakes my faith in people.” One word of caution: Chambers’ biggest flaw is his tolerance for homosexuality, which tracks more closely with today’s Church of England position than that of 60 years ago, but the treatment of a gay man includes an unexpected twist and a dose of redemption.
In The Christie Curse (Berkley Publishing Group), Jordan Bingham is a recent college graduate with a degree in English and few job prospects that pay well enough to make a dent in her student loans. When she responds to an ad for a research position in her hometown, she has no idea the job will turn her into a sleuth, past the obvious digging she must do to discover a previously unpublished Agatha Christie play. Mother and daughter authors Mary Jane and Victoria Maffini, who write under the pen name Victoria Abbott, spin an entertaining tale with strong characters, no gaping plot holes, and just enough humor to keep the protagonist from taking herself or her situation too seriously. Warning: This book does include cats, but only as an annoyance to Bingham, and they don’t provide any help in solving this well-developed mystery.
The puzzle in Buried in a Bog (Berkley), a quick read by prolific cozy author Sheila Connolly, has less to do with crime than with what the main character will do with her life. In what could pass for today’s version of a coming-of-age tale (young adult with no plan or prospects seeks meaning and purpose), Maura Donovan travels from Boston to the tiny Irish village where her grandmother grew up to discover more about the extended family she never knew she had. Along the way, she learns the value of community, where everyone knows everyone else’s business and relational ties span generations. Maura’s angst wears a little thin halfway through the story, but the descriptions of the Emerald Isle offer a nice distraction. Like all three of these selections, this book is the first in a series, another hallmark of the cozy mystery.