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!