How I Learned to Relax About Being a “Cozy” Author and Just Write the Damn Books–Part III

Barb here, sitting on her front porch in Maine and writing on an flawless summer day

Back in February, I started a series of posts about how I came to terms with being a cozy writer. The first one talked about why this designation was an issue for me in the first place. The second, in March, was about how I came to be comfortable as a person with an identity as a cozy author.

Then life intervened. In April-May-June I was hit successively with Crime Bake website deadline-knee crisis-book deadline. But, though as a person I have many, many flaws, I am, at the end of the day (and usually literally at the end of the day), a completer. So herewith is Part III.

So when we left our intrepid heroine, she was happy to be writing a cozy series and comfortable adopting the image of a cozy author. Only one small issue remained.

Yes, I am going to say it.

Cozy mysteries often get no respect.

(She said it!)

There are a few reasons for this.

One is, there’s a bit of a hierarchy in fiction writing, and it looks something like this.

  • The literary fiction writers look down on the mystery writers
  • The mystery writers look down on the romance writers
  • The romance writers look down on the poets
  • The poets look down on the literary fiction writers
  • (cycle starts again)

Of course this is a weird, crazy exaggeration, but you know it’s there, right? And if I were more clever, I could probably fit lots more genres–horror, fantasy, YA, westerns, etc.–into the hierarchy. I remember vividly being at the Key West Literary Seminar and hearing just about every top name in the crime fiction world asked some version of the question, “So did you ever want to write a real book?” (My imperfect memory is that only Benjamin Black–who as John Banville is a renowned literary writer–and Joyce Carol Oates escaped this question.)

So there’s that.

There’s also a weird hierarchy within the crime fiction realm. It’s not as clear, but for sure “literary” crime fiction is at the top, followed by thrillers, traditional mysteries, noir, procedurals and suspense (in some order or another), with romantic suspense and finally cozies at the bottom.

So the question for me was not, can a mystery be good literature? [As pondered by so many, like Edmund Wilson in “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” (The New Yorker, January 20, 1945), Raymond Chandler in “The Simple Art of Murder” (1950) or even Dorothy L. Sayers in her Introduction to the 1928-1929 Omnibus of Crime.] That’s another discussion for another day.

The question was, can a cozy be good crime fiction?

Was it a reasonable question? I think it was. After all, a cozy has never won an Edgar® Award for Best Novel and most cozy writers believe one never will. So why would I want to work this hard at something a whole lot of people–to be clear, people whom I like and respect as writers–think can never be “good?”

Let’s take this apart. To do so, first we have to agree on what a cozy is. The most common definition I’ve seen is that a cozy is a mystery, usually, but not always, featuring an amateur sleuth. The cozy will offer a crime, usually a murder, and a solution, usually the identification of the guilty party and bringing of that guilty party to justice. The reader will meet the guilty party and all the suspects in the course of the book. The mystery will be anchored in a community, and the sleuth, suspects and guilty party will be a part of the community in some way -ie not just there to murder or to uncover a murderer.

Aside from the amateur sleuth bias, and perhaps a bit more emphasis on setting, I’ve just defined a traditional mystery. And no one would argue that a traditional mystery can’t be “good” or even “literary.” (Okay, a lot of people would argue that, including the aforementioned Wilson, Chandler and Sayres, but again, this is not about that. The point is, there’s no reason within our genre, cozy mysteries can’t be good.)

To that definition, many people append, “In a cozy mystery, cursing is kept to a minimum and most sex and gore are kept ‘off the page.'”

I personally chafe at this definition. But not because I have the slightest interest in writing something very gory or explicitly sexual. I don’t wander to my desk in the morning thinking, “Drat! Another day of not torturing children. I feel so restricted.” Because, believe me, I don’t. I just hate it that my subgenre is defined by so many people by what’s NOT in it. If what were important is what’s not in it, I could hand 350 blank pages in to my publisher and be done with it.

Is that final restriction why cozy mysteries can’t be “good?”

After all, if cozy authors deal with murder at such a remove that we can’t describe the horror or the sorrow, and can’t evince those emotions in our audience, then can we really be writing something “good?” I would argue we can, because I have seen many cozy authors very skillfully evoke the horror of unexpected, violent death by focusing on the reactions and emotions of the characters, rather than the blood and the guts. If anything, I think that’s harder and requires more skill.

So that’s not a reason a cozy mystery can’t be “good.”

Is it that cozies can’t be good because there is too much formula required? I don’t think so. Most crime fiction has to contend on some level with audience expectations as to form. As does most prose fiction. As did Shakespeare in his comedies, histories, tragedies and sonnets.

Nope, audience expectations don’t mean cozies can’t be good.

Slide12Is it that cozies usually deal with the small and domestic? Can a book that ignores the vast sweep of history or the maelstrom of current events or the conundrum of the human condition be “good?”

Well, first of all, most cozies don’t ignore those things. Almost all take place in a certain place at a certain time. While they might look at human issues from the inside out, or from specific to the general, instead of the other way around, that doesn’t mean they ignore them.

But also, lots of people have written lots of great, great literary fiction about the domestic realm. In fact, making big events real by showing the way they affect specific people is one of the hallmarks of great fiction writing.

So that’s not the reason cozies can’t be good.

So now let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Both of the subgenres at the bottom of the “respect” heap in crime fiction-romantic suspense and cozies– are primarily written by women for women. Is that why cozies can’t be good?

That is, of course, ridiculous. Or I wish it were.

For me, the best books transport me. They take me to a place outside of myself. When that happens, my problems, petty and serious, recede for a time, and the lives of others, the lives of characters, become primary. I learn about professions, human communities and places I can’t learn about from my friends. And I care what happens to the characters.

This is what I think of as the four Es of reading fiction–escape, entertainment, education and empathy.

You don’t need all four in every book, but you probably need three for a book to be satisfying. Or I do. I also need a level of complexity of prose, structure, plot and character  to engage me. I can’t be transported if any of those elements are so simply rendered that I can still mentally balance my check book while reading.

That’s my definition of a good book. Is there anything in my personal definition of a good book that says cozies can’t be good? Nope, not seeing it.

So that’s how I got comfortable with spending my time, blood, sweat, and tears writing cozies. And that’s why I say it loud and proud whenever people ask me what I write. Because there is no reason on earth someone can’t write a cozy that is also a good book.

John T. Irwin described literary mysteries as ones you can re-read and get something new out of each time, even though you know the solution. Do you think that could ever happen with a cozy?

I know I haven’t achieved it, but the fact that it is “out there” means there is something to aspire to.

Readers, have at it. Do you think cozies can be “good” books? Why can’t they get any respect? Does it matter? Does it matter to you?

Unbearable Lightness of San Francisco

john-nardizzi-book-cover-640x1024Today we welcome author and private investigator John Nardizzi to Wicked Cozy Authors. We met John at Crime Bake last fall.  Telegraph Hill is John’s first crime novel.

Crime novels are sold in neatly sliced sub genres: Hard-boiled, Cozy, Historical, Nordic noir.  These artificial boundaries are a construct of the book business to help sell books.  But many writers blur those lines–or at least mash up a few of them.  Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley is considered a classic of crime fiction.  Highsmith set the book in the Italian fishing town of Mongibello, in the city of Venice, and other locales.  The detectives looking for Ripley are professional policemen, but the story (told in the third person) is from an amateur perspective–Ripley himself.  Ripley might be said to be a detective in reverse: an amateur sleuth obscuring his crimes with the frenetic energy of a first-timer.  There is little gore, no sex, yet Ripley’s convoluted sexual identity colors the book with repressed tension.  Highsmith’s book rumbles across the artificial boundaries of the crime genre.

I worked in San Francisco as a private investigator in the 1990s.  After I returned several times on cases in 2002, it was clear that the San Francisco I had known was rapidly changing.  I had written poems and short pieces about the city but felt a powerful need to explore it again in a crime novel.  The book features my San Francisco, not the one others might remember—a city colored with my images, biases, and memories from cases that I had worked on as law student and PI.

telegrphHill500Among the famous hills of San Francisco is Telegraph Hill, a gorgeous section of San Francisco where small cottages dot the hillside alongside Spanish-style homes.  A flock of wild parrots twitter in trees overhead as the neighborhood denizens make their way downhill for a coffee in the North Beach caffes.  I walked countless times from Telegraph Hill to Nob Hill, where cable cars stopped at the famous Mark Hopkins Hotel as fog rolled down California Street to ice the night.

Scan10003But the underworld of San Francisco was never far away.  Standing on the tip of Nob Hill at California Street, you could look down Jones Street to a different section called the Tenderloin–one of greatest mixes of wealth and poverty in the U.S., separated by just a few blocks.  The Tenderloin took its name from a section of old New York City.  In the late 19th century, a New York cop was promoted to midtown, where gambling & prostitution were rampant  He told a reporter that he had been “eating rump steak down in the Fourth precinct, but now I have a chance to eat some of the tenderloin.” People took this as a reference to taking bribes to look the other way, and the name came to be used as a pejorative for the city’s red light district.  To this day, San Francisco’s Tenderloin district has struggled to match the rest of the city’s growth.  In the 1990s, Turk Street glittered in the sunlight from dozens of shattered bottles.  Drug dealing went on openly in Boedekker Park and prostitutes worked the streets at all times of the day and night.  It was a far cry from the top of Nob Hill, which was just a few blocks away.

Scan10004All these San Francisco neighborhoods were populated with fantastic characters.  As I walked, I picked up the vibrant dialogue on the streets.  There was a homeless man named Billy, who rose out of his cardboard boxes each Friday night to read poetry at the Yakety Yak Cafe.  A pool hall down the street, Hollywood Billiards, where you could shoot some stick with unemployed hit men.  Within minutes of walking past bars like The Driftwood or the Coral Sea, I would stride by wealthy homes on California Street, then into the North Beach neighborhood near the base of Telegraph Hill, where the guys at Florence Ravioli Factory fired carom shots off the customers in an all-day comedy fest.

telegraph_hill_picAll of this was crammed in tight confines.  Japanese tourists who stayed downtown at Hotel Nikko would sometimes ignore the doorman’s warning and turn left out the door into the prostitutes, drug dealers and rough trade.  They looked dazed—how could a cozy $500 per night room be so close to . . . this?  I suggested to them some contrasting sections of San Francisco—Nob Hill and Telegraph Hill were just a short walk of street poetry away.

So the city of San Francisco was unique– or was it?  Cozy on Telegraph Hill, noir down in the Tenderloin.  You can find inspiration just a few blocks away in any place if you look hard enough.  Great settings always offer a contrast between heaviness and lightness, and the authors we come of love present us with a bit of each.  In my novel, the detective reflects on the mixed blessings of the city, the poverty that exists in plain sight of opulent wealth.  While troubled by the contrast, he knows that he is in love: “Even when you see her grimy face and wasted ways, you love her like a woman—the endless promise of California.”

What is your own private California?

johnnauthJohn Nardizzi is an investigator, lawyer, and writer. His writings have appeared in numerous professional and literary journals, including San Diego Writers Monthly, Oxygen, Liberty Hill Poetry Review, Lawyers Weekly USA, and PI Magazine. His fictional detective, Ray Infantino, first appeared in print in the spring 2007 edition of Austin Layman’s Crimestalker Casebook. Telegraph Hill is the first crime novel featuring Infantino.

In May 2003, John founded Nardizzi & Associates, Inc., an investigations firm that has garnered a national reputation for excellence in investigating business fraud and trial work. His investigations on behalf of people wrongfully convicted of crimes led to several million dollar settlements for clients like Dennis Maher, Scott Hornoff and Kenneth Waters, whose story was featured in the 2010 film Conviction.