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Want true crime without all the grisly details? Try a 'cozy mystery'

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:

Have you ever wanted to read a murder mystery without all the, well, murder? Or at least all the grisly details? A trend in literature might scratch that itch. It's called cozy mysteries. Alyse Burnside is a writer who explored the genre in a piece for The Atlantic, and she joins us now. Alyse, welcome.

ALYSE BURNSIDE: Hi. Thank you for having me on.

KURTZLEBEN: You wrote in this article that you're a fan of true crime, which we all know can be dark, graphic, even disturbing. How did you discover this lighter shade of the mystery genre?

BURNSIDE: I was on a road trip with my sister, and we kind of hit a lull in conversation, so she put on one of her audio books. And she was listening to this book called the "Triple Chocolate Cheesecake Murder" by Joanne Fluke. And as we were listening to it together, I was picking up on the fact that it was a murder mystery but seemed very much focused on desserts. I felt really intrigued by this concept of a murder mystery that was also very much, like, a light-hearted, a little bit rom-com, a little bit, like, Hallmark understanding of murder.

KURTZLEBEN: It sounds a little bit like a Hallmark movie. I'm wondering, can you tell us more about what exactly defines the cozy mystery? What are its characteristics?

BURNSIDE: Yeah. So generally, the protagonist is a woman in her late 20s, early 30s - kind of a brassy, independent woman but, you know, very much dedicated to her community, her family, and just keeps finding herself at the center of all of these murders that happen in her small town. But one of the hallmarks of the murder mystery genre is that despite that murder is at the center of these plotlines, it's completely sanitized of gore. So when the protagonist encounters, you know, a dead person, often it will just be written into the story very plainly. And then the chapter will end, and the next chapter will start with a very cozy image of a cake or freshly baked muffins, something to sort of mollify any potential upset that the murder itself caused.

KURTZLEBEN: To hear you describe it, it sounds like a tough balance for these writers to strike - to combine the sort of warm and fuzzy tone with murder.

BURNSIDE: Yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: I'm wondering, do you think that the genre ever runs the risk of trivializing murder or softening it too much?

BURNSIDE: I had this idea that my thesis would be we can't trivialize murder; you can't have murder without the gore. It's almost, like, unethical, right? There's still a lot of truth in that. But I started to think, like, does my ability to listen to gruesome things, watch gruesome things really make me any more ethical? And I think that the answer is no. But I also think that it's very, very natural to be attracted to things that we cannot really comprehend. So violence, murder - all of these are huge realities that can be nearly impossible to lean into too much. And I think that it's just a matter of wanting to control that fear. So a cozy mystery reader might believe that they can become in control of the violence and fear around them by taking in these images in very, very small doses.

KURTZLEBEN: All right. That's Alyse Burnside, a writer whose piece in The Atlantic is called "The Dark Reality Behind Cozy Mysteries." Alyse, thank you so much for being with us.

BURNSIDE: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSEE MECANIQUE'S "CASTLE WALLS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.