Is Restoring the Status Quo Enough?

Barb, writing this in her hotel room at the New England Crime Bake where Wicked Edith Maxwell/Maddy Day is doing an amazing job as co-chair, along with Friend of the Wickeds, Michele Dorsey.

Post-Bouchercon (The international conference for people who love all types of crime fiction) author Laura Lippman started a thought-provoking thread on Twitter.

You can read the thread here, or at least I think you can. (I’m not that good with the Twitter machine.) But Lippman’s basic argument is this: In the traditional mystery novel (of which cozies are a sub-genre, as are PI novels, Lippman’s primary focus), we make the assumption that a satisfying resolution is to restore the status quo.

But what, Lippman asks, about the people for whom the status quo is not so great? What about the marginalized, the oppressed, the under-represented? Is restoring the status quo good enough for them? For us all?

Naturally this made me think about my work, and the work in my particular corner of the crime fiction universe, the cozy mystery. We always say, we all say, the stories are satisfying because justice is done, situations are resolved, questions are answered. This makes the books very unlike the messy business of real human life where justice and resolution are often elusive goals and many mysteries remain forever. Our books are for people who need to step away from their real lives from time to time, especially at times when real life has become too real.

At first I thought, if the world sucks at the outset of the book, and when the story is done and the crime is solved the world still sucks, isn’t that noir?

But of course that’s a glib answer.

Then I thought, the worlds portrayed in cozy mysteries are already idealized worlds. I always think of cozy towns as fantasies. So restoring the status quo in these towns by definition restores a more perfect society. And by more perfect, I mean more just, not more white and more wealthy, though looking across the genre, particularly at the established authors writing long-term series, one might assume that.

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit this is something I think about. Particularly with my Mrs. Darrowfield series. Jane Darrowfield, Professional Busybody is my homage to Jane Marple, the sleuth I loved in adolescence, who is arguably the most responsible for my love of amateur sleuth fiction. I’ve moved Jane to the U.S. and the twenty-first century. I’ve made her divorced not a spinster, and given her a long, successful corporate career in which to observe the vagaries of human behavior, instead of the village of St. Mary Mead. I also posit that old isn’t so old anymore.

But like her inspiration, my Jane is a comfortable, privileged white woman. Of course being an old woman comes with its own set of challenges, but unlike many, Jane has the resources to meet most of them.

Sometimes I do wonder, why am I writing these books? More to the point, why am I writing them now?

You write the books you have standing to write. And do I ever have standing when it comes to writing about comfortable, privileged old white women.

I think what Lippman is saying in the full thread is that we need to make room, particularly in the traditional mystery genres, for new voices–voices that maybe don’t think the status quo is worth restoring. Lippman writes about how women are infusing new life in PI fiction. Cozy mysteries have always been a pink collar ghetto, which comes with its own set of challenges, but we sure could use new perspectives and casts of characters whose stories haven’t been told. We’ve made progress in the last decade, but it’s baby steps. We can do a lot more.

As for the rest of us old white women writing traditional mysteries, maybe if we thought in terms of fixing instead of restoring, fighting instead of discovering, it would breathe new life into our stories, too.

Readers: What do you think? What stories do you yearn for that aren’t being told?

27 Thoughts

  1. Brava, Barb! Such a thoughtful essay. Mac Almeida on the Cape has worked in the local soup kitchen and food pantry in each of the first two Cozy Capers Book Group Mysteries. I’m writing book three now. Maybe she needs to get deeper into trying to fix some of the problems in her community. Giving it thought. But first I’m off to find Lippman’s twitter feed…

    1. The Cape is such an interesting place to set books because it has all kinds of people and the off season experience is so different from the tourist season.

  2. I’ll read any type of mystery that tells me a good story. It doesn’t matter to me who the character is, what their ethnicity is or what their particular cause happens to be as long as the mystery is still the main focus of the book. I don’t pick what I want to read in order to check off boxes on a list.

    I’ve read a book here and there that comes off more as a diatribe about some societal ill rather than the mystery revolving around that ill. That makes it for problematic reading because I struggle to get through it. It lacks the ability to make me get into the story in full.

    Yes, I suppose that the majority of my reading probably centers around a white guy or a white woman, but I read stories that feature “old” people, people of color, people of differing sexual orientation, etc. Again, what matters to me is that the author tells me a good story. If you can’t do that, I don’t feel a need to include your books on my To Read List.

    1. Jay, I completely agree with you about diatribes. One of the strengths of fiction, particularly crime fiction, IMO, is that it can deal with society in a context and without being preachy. I hate being preached at.

  3. Bravo, Barbara. Let’s all give thought to including and valuing diverse characters and a wider range of experiences in our work. Each one of us has an ethnicity,and at least one diversity of our own. We can have our characters live into theirs.

    1. I like where you’re going with this, Kathy. It involves each of us looking inside our creative selves and then at the stories we can tell.

  4. Well said, Barb! What we can’t change is that we are old white women, what we can change is being good allies for those who don’t walk in our shoes. I love this blog! I’m going to be thinking about this for days.

  5. Like Jay, I don’t care if the characters are black, white, male, female, straight, gay, American born, foreign born, or whatever. They must be believable characters. I’m not surprised that most protagonists are white women. That’s who writes the books. It is very difficult to be authentic when writing about someone who is different from yourself. Saying this, I have read some excellent books written by “others”. And even if the main character is an old white woman, it doesn’t mean all the other characters must also be. Having a diversity of friends, relatives, co-workers, and neighbors can add a lot to the mix. If people were more blended, there would be fewer problems to fix.

    1. I think offering diverse characters is a worthy goal (though I must say some writers do this well and some poorly). But working toward a more just society feels to me subtly different than including diverse characters, though both are in line with presenting an idealized community that feels real–which is the line we cozy authors walk.

  6. At the risk of being a broken record (at best) and being called names (not by you, Barbara)….

    I read fiction to escape from the world around us. I also watch TV to escape from the world around us. If I want to plunge into issues like this, I will read or watch the news.

    It is very rare that I find something like you are describing that doesn’t come across as preachy. If something has diverse characters, it can work. But if we start getting sub-plots about the diverse characters and their issues, it feels preachy. Every single time.

    I think the reason for this is because it is there to preach. The only reason we see those storylines is to raise awareness.

    I’m not saying there isn’t a place for those stories. But it isn’t what I am looking to read for entertainment.

    As anyone who knows me knows, I have been a fan of the Arrowverse shows on the CW for years. Right now, the only reason I am still watching all these shows is because of the upcoming crossover starting next month and the end of Arrow in January. Otherwise, I would have dropped a couple of the shows this fall. Supergirl being the main one since it has become extremely preachy. Heck, the writers turned a gaping plot hole into a lecture last season. I will be reevaluating these shows come January and seeing what if any of them are worth continuing.

    1. You know I 100% agree with you about preachiness, Mark. In my view it’s a test of skill for the author. On the one hand, it’s crazy to spend a year writing a book if you don’t have something to say. On the other hand, if you can’t say it without getting preachy, you’re better off not attempting it at all.

  7. I absolutely agree with you and try to do the same in my own work…fix the problems that led someone without options into a horrible mess. Create a town in which those victimized in the story have more options.

    But…I’m getting weary of cozies being considered “the pink ghetto” when a) plenty of men write similar stories and b) crime fiction as a genre was created by the cozy mystery.

    A) David Rosenfelt writes books with a small community of friends righting wrongs with dogs in tow. Cozies, right? Yup, but because he’s a dude, his books get different covers and different marketing. Stephen King’s Haven novels about a tiny Maine town trying to hold the line against evil are indisputably horror, but it’s no coincidence that they were easily used As the basis for a paranormal cozy TV series. And there are lots of other examples.
    Cozies are only called cozies when women write them. Otherwise, they become “traditional” or some other genre.
    B) Cozies invented Crime Fiction. The first full length detective novel was The Moonstone, a country house mystery full of modern themes like the dangers of opioid addiction, racism, cultural appropriation, religious extremism, poverty, etc. The mystery is solved only when all those within the country house compare notes and join forces.

    Agatha Christie, the so-called grande dame of the cozy mystery, wrote books that were gobbled up by men and women, had lurid covers, and have outsold every other book in every fiction genre. But today they get pink and yellow covers.

    I get that the gentle covers help our very loyal readers find us. And I get that they are finding new readers and gaining attention. But I absolutely reject that they are anything other than the Venerable Ancestor of ALL crime fiction.

    And now I guess I have to write my own blog post.

    Great blog, Barbara! My rant is not directed at you but at those who want to paint us as some cute new thing for the ladies. I actually read a post this week by a guy who claimed cozies were invented recently to lure women into reading crime fiction. Sorry dude. We were here first. We’ve outsold every other subgenre. More movies and TV shows have been made from our books than any other subgenre. And our authors have been knighted. So…there.


    1. Oh my goodness, I’m glad I didn’t read THAT post. I would have gone crazy. And yes, you need to write your own. The points you raise here need thorough discussion. When I learned my series would be categorized as cozy, I decided to embrace it. But I hate it that it’s assumed in other quarters that all cozies are formulaic and poorly written. I hate it that a cozy has never won an Edgar. (Except for Dick Francis, which kind of makes your point, and a few historicals.) That’s why I keep telling people that my book Stowed Away which won the Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction this year was the first cozy to win and the first paperback original to win in any category ever. It’s obnoxious, but I’m making a point.

      1. You have every reason to brag! And you get your point across that cozies are real writing, too.

  8. What a thought-provoking blog, Barbara. I’m glad authors in all genres are writing about other cultures, other ways of thinking and living. Diversity and fascinating differences are built into the natural world. People are worth knowing and understanding. Life is incredibly precious. I want my novels to reflect the real world, not an idealized one. Bad stuff happens, people are marginalized and mistreated, unpopular thoughts are not only decried but vilified. And yet there is bravery, courage, compassion, and wisdom. We have a lot to write about.

    1. I agree with you, Connie. Many people write to me to say they read to learn about the world. Fiction takes us to new places and different experiences and ways of being in the world and builds empathy and understanding.

  9. This is a FABULOUS post. Like Sherry, I’m going to be thinking about it for days. In my 3rd Garden Squad they are dealing with the upcoming 400th anniversary of Goosebush, and wrestling with the challenging history of the small town. The good old days weren’t so good for a lot of forgotten folks. Thanks, Barb.

  10. I’m a white old lady but my friends are from Laos and the Caribbean. I like diversity in the characters but I think expecting a mystery, cozy or otherwise, to solve the world’s problems is unrealistic. If everyone in the town is healthy, wealthy, and wise, that’s not real. A lot of cozies include stories about drugs, human trafficking, and other problems now.

    1. “I think expecting a mystery, cozy or otherwise, to solve the world’s problems is unrealistic.”

      I agree. I wasn’t aiming nearly that high!

  11. I hope cozies don’t change too much. I read them to escape, and the perfect small towns make me happy. I’m also an old-ish white woman, turning 60 on Thanksgiving, but highly immature. My idea of a a fun day out is to go to the county fair, eat my weight in junk food, play the games & ride all the rides. Or go to an old fashioned arcade & play pinball.Only my body feels old. (congestive heart failure).
    All that being said, a favorite new cozy series for me are N. C Lewis’s A British Seaside Cozy Mystery. Here’s a snippet of my review of book 4,Deadly Vestige.
    This is book 4 of the series & the 3rd one I’ve read. Somehow, I missed #3 & am definitely going to have to go back & read it. The 3 I’ve read have all been 5 star reads.
    Doris Cudlow is our amateur sleuth. I love how N.C. Lewis seems to have broken all the cozy rules in creating Doris. She’s not young,pretty, or have several men competing for her attention. She also didn’t inherit a house & business. She’s middle aged, slightly overweight & rents(when she can afford to pay!) a room in a boarding house. She divorced her husband because of her drug/ alcohol problems, but still loves him. And she’s constantly under or unemployed. In other words, she’s real. But she doesn’t dwell on these things.
    But, like another commenter wrote, it’s the story that matters.The mystery, the relationships.I think you write what you know, and if your readers are happy isn’t that what matters most? I guess I’m saying, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it There are other types of books for those looking for them..

    1. Hmm. Interesting thoughts. I do think cozies have to evolve. I wouldn’t like to see them trapped in amber. I will look for N.C. Lewis’s books.

  12. Thanks for the thoughtful post, Barb. I’m struggling with my first novels (none yet published) and have really been thrilled by the authors I’ve met through my baby steps into the community (Bouchercon in Toronto [where I met you, Barb, in an elevator with Jenn McKinlay], Writers Police Academy and several Sisters in Crime events in Chicago). They include women and men of color who share a common interest in crime fiction and have helped me peek outside of my white old woman status. One thing I think i’ve learned is that if I try to write a character whose life is different from my own, I can always ask them to help me make sure I’m getting it right. This is a great, supportive community that I think will continue to adapt as we grow and learn, even as how we perceive and present justice also changes.

    1. I remember that elevator ride! A few years ago, I took a Sink into Great Writing class at New Orleans Bouchercon focused on diversity, and “just ask someone” was the over-riding message. I was thinking beyond diversity as to whether a drive for change could be the engine of one these stories instead of a drive for the status quo.

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