by Barbara Ross
in Massachusetts where it’s no longer possible to pretend fall hasn’t quite arrived
Hi. My name is Barbara and I write cozy mysteries.
Whew! It took me a long time to be able to say that.
Not because I haven’t been writing mysteries for a long time. My first book, The Death of an Ambitious Woman, featured a professional sleuth, but other than that it met all the criteria of a “cozy.”
I had trouble saying I was a cozy author for two reasons.
The first was, there’s often a lingering whiff of disrespect around the term “cozy.” Raymond Chandler may have formally started it in his 1950 essay, “The Simple Art of Murder,” where he rails the detective in his “cozy little flat,” and basically throws the English authors of the Golden Age under a collective bus.
He’s not entirely wrong. Some of those books don’t stand up over time. But some of them do. And I love the memories I have of rainy summer afternoons spent reading Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. None of which despoiled me from becoming an English major and being able to analyze (and love) everything from Icelandic sagas to Moby Dick to Thomas Pynchon.
I accept that the books I write are for entertainment. In fact, that’s my goal. I have a picture of my ideal reader in my mind as I write. She’s a woman who’s just rushed home from work. She pulls up to the soccer field. What a break! Practice isn’t over! She’s ten minutes early. At that point, she reaches into her bag, and pulls out her phone, or an e-reader or my mass market paperback, and spends those ten minutes, which may be the only ten minutes she gets for herself all day, or even all week, with my book. She could call her mother, or do her grocery list, or check Facebook, but instead, she’s given her precious time to me, to my book. And I damn well better not waste it.
Definitions of cozy mysteries vary.
Here are the ones I accept.
- It’s usually an amateur sleuth.
- It’s a closed pool of suspects. The killer will be someone you meet on the journey of the book. It’s not going to be a faceless Mafia man, or terrorist, or drug lord.
- The books take place in a community, which may actually be a small town, or may just be a small community in a big city, as Cleo Coyle does so well in her Coffee House mysteries.
Some people will tell you other rules. Some say most sex and gore take place “off stage,” which I think is mostly true, though I’ve seen people die in some pretty gruesome ways in cozies, including in some of my own. Some people say there’s no swearing in cozies. To which I say, “bulls**t.” Not that any of my books read like the screenplay for Good Will Hunting, but there are some extreme situations in any murder mystery and for me, “Gosh golly,” doesn’t always do it. Some people will say there are always crafts or recipes, which is not true either. I do have recipes in my current series, and I’ve actually been pleased with how much more it makes me pay attention to senses like smell and taste.
But here’s what’s important to me. The crafts and the puzzle and the non-swearing and all of that don’t mean the book isn’t about something. That the book doesn’t, in addition to its entertainment value, have a theme or a message about human values or contemporary life or anything else a book can be about. Or that the protagonist doesn’t grow or change as a result of her journey in the book.
I heard a good comparison of different types of crime fiction from Katherine Hall Page at Bouchercon. She said (paraphrasing wildly here), “In noir books, the detective starts in a dark world and goes on a journey that affirms the world is so broken it cannot be fixed. In cozies, the world is a light place, disruption occurs, the detective brings the perpetrator to justice and order can be restored.” To me, this is like Shakespeare. A comedy ends with a wedding, and a tragedy with a death. But that doesn’t mean a whole lot of drama and comedy doesn’t take place in between, in both cases.
The other reason I had trouble saying I wrote cozy mysteries is because I do not think of myself, and indeed, I’m pretty sure others don’t think of me, as the least bit cozy as a person. I don’t have a cat or do any kind of craft or cook if I can avoid it, and I swear like a sailor when provoked. (Or even, sometimes when not provoked.) And in this age when the author and her creations are merged into a “brand,” I was confused and intimidated. Then last fall, in the Grub Street Launch Lab, one of the instructors, Lynne Griffin, told me in the politest possible way to get over myself and embrace what I was writing.
So that’s it. That’s why now, in public, I don’t insist I am writing “traditional mysteries,” but instead proclaim that I am “cozy and proud.”
What about you? What do you think “cozy” mystery means? A term of endearment? A category? A pejorative? Weigh in!
Barb–be glad you’re writing cozies. You’re eligible for winning industry-respected awards. You have a place on the bookshelf, and have a built-in audience. For those of us writing across genres, the uphill battle starts after we finish writing!
I am glad I’m writing these books. I didn’t mean to imply that I’m not, at all. It’s just the label I had to get comfortable with. And, I had to learn “cozy” is a bigger tent than some people think.
I should have also added, because of my police chief sleuth, my first book was considered cross-genre, so I totally get what you’re saying.
You’re absolutely right, Barb. Cozies have tragedy and violence and even a little swearing now and then, but the world ends up right in the end. Thank you for this great discussion of the topic. And aren’t we all glad you’re comfortable with the term now?!
Yes, I’m glad, Edith. I say it loud and say it proud.
Barb, love this post. One thing I would add to your definition of cozy is that justice is served. It may not be legal justice, and full justice may take the arc of several books, but justice it is. I think that is one reason cozies are so popular–they are soothing in a world that is not.
I like that a lot, Julie.
Great post, Barb, says one cozy writer to another.
Thank you, Kathy/Kaitlyn. That means a lot to me.
Thank you for putting into words how I feel. I will stand a little straighter today and quit saying, “It’s just a cozy.”
Yes, Sherry! No “just” about it.
Yay, for leaving out the “just.”
Good post, Barbara. I especially appreciate the quote that the world of the cozy is light until order is disrupted. Those are the books I love to read and, I hope, the books I write.
Those are the books I love, too, Judy.
Wonderful post, Barbara! For me, a cozy (whether I’m writing or reading), is an enjoyable way to exercise my mind in a way that’s challenging, but not stressful. In today’s world, that’s quite a gift!
That’s a wonderful way to think about it, Alyssa.
Barb, I love the way you describe your ideal reader!
Thank you, Jessie. Perhaps she sounds familiar?
I have pulled in to my fair share of soccer fields! With a book, of course!
Barbara, by sheer coincidence my copy of Clammed Up was delivered to me this morning. I’m very anxious to begin reading it. Cozy and proud — yes!
Oh, Linda, that’s wonderful to hear. I hope you enjoy it.
I just started reading your new book, and I’m really enjoying it! I share your attitude about the value of cozies in this world. I had a friend who was an ER doctor and read Star Trek novels in her breaks to take her away from the blood and misery. Teachers, mothers, nurses — all sorts of people need to be transported to another place for ten minutes to restore their world, sort of like meditation.
So glad you are enjoying the book, Llyn. Transport is important and restorative.
Hi Barbara, I also moved from denying I write cozy mysteries to embracing the term for the reasons you explained so well. Does anyone know who first coined the term “cozy” to describe this type of mystery? BTW, Clammed Up arrived in my mailbox a few days ago. I’m looking forward to reading it.
I don’t know Mary Ann, but I would love to find out. I hope you enjoy Clammed Up!
I love your description of the type of person who reads cozy mysteries. Life is full enough of stress and hardship. It is nice to escape to a community of characters who just happen to solve murders in the process of their daily lives.
Yes, Linda. I want to go there. I want to know those people. (Of course, if you really lived there, your stress would come with you. Just like moving to the place where you take your vacations.
Great post, Barbara! I especially loved your definition of cozy — the calm before the disrupting storm and the way things are “made right” in the end, with justice well served. So true, and that’s what makes these stories satisfying. I think of my own mystery as cross-genre, but the way you define it, I could be proud to call it a cozy! Thanks for an inspiring post.
Thanks, Christine. Crime fiction is a huge tent, and cozies are a larger part of it than people assume.
Thanks for the excellent post, Barb. I’ll stand right there with you and say, “Hi. My name is Angelo and I write cozy.”
I also used to have a problem admitting that my stories are basically cozy; not because cozies aren’t respected by the readers, but because I’m a guy. One agent friend suggested that I refer to my work as soft-boiled, which I could do, since I sometimes push the definition a bit. My latest story, “Sand Bar,” has a gory scene with seagulls, but by all other criteria it’s a cozy.
Then there’s the question of the male protagonist. Another agent told me a cozy needs a female protagonist and that “for whatever reason (a) male protagonist just doesn’t work.” She was referring to the fact that most of the readers are women. Yes, I know bestselling author Dean James uses a male protagonist, but he does write under the name of Miranda James.
I wonder what my Sisters in Crime have to say about that. Would you read a cozy with a male protagonist that was written by a man?
I would love to read a cozy male protagonist! I read lots of male authors.
If you wrote it, Ang, I would read it!
We had a panel last year at Malice Domestic about male Miss Marples. They do happen.
How did I miss this panel? So many wonderful things at Malice.
i would totally read a cozy series with a male protagonist.
Thanks, Sherry and Edith. That’s just the answer I was hoping for. That’s why I’m so proud to be a brother member of Sisters in Crime.
And why we are so glad you are a brother in crime!!
Excellent blog, and I agree with you. I write cozies and I’m proud of what I write. It’s not that I don’t have certain characters use cuss words. Like you wrote, golly gosh darn just doesn’t sound right. I also have an underlying theme to my books, too, in addition to the plot. I also read “great” works of literary fiction, too, but there are times when a cozy is just what we need to relax with.
Thanks, Gloria. I agree with you!
I’m cozy and proud, too. I agree with you. I have a degree in English and feel entitled to read what I like. I write what I enjoy reading cozies!
I don’t understand the cozy/hardboiled dichotomy. I enjoy both. Probably because of the first modern crime authors I read was Lawrence Block, whose Burglar mysteries are certainly cozies, and whose Scudder novels redefined the hardboiled PI.
I plan on writing both, myself. They are both realistic in their own ways, and have different things to love.
I agree completely, Thomas. I read widely across the mystery genre.
I think that cozies have had to change to keep up with modern common expectations as has every other media. Swearing is no longer shocking to a huge percentage of the population and often anything less would sound silly. Similarly I think that the amount of gore and violence has increased in cozies as we become more used to it on TV etc. Whether this is a good thing for society in general is a topic for another blog I guess. My own mystery (as yet unpub’d) has been called a cozy which I have trouble with because it is an international setting, different each story, but I guess each book could be said to have it’s own cozy setting.
Another blog for a different day-indeed, Judy–
Thanks, Barb, for putting to words what many of us have thought/are thinking. It is sometimes tough to define what we write and other times to feel right about the term ascribed to our writing. I thoroughly enjoy reading cozy even though my novel turns out to be amateur sleuth – akin to cozy but as a series will not always be in the same setting and it’s a little darker than most cozies.
Well said, Barb! Excellent post. And I just finished CLAMMED UP and loved it. So there.
Thanks so much, Cate.
Cate’s book, Going through the Notions is on my TBR pile for right after Crime Bake.
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