by Sheila Connolly
Recently a friend who writes cozies said that she had received a number of critical comments, both on panels and in blogs, about the pets who appear in cozies.
I recognize that cozies are kind of a middle child, often ignored in the greater mystery community, despite their continuing strong sales and the steady emergence of new writers with multi-book contracts from established publishers. Writers keep writing them, and readers keep buying them. Why the reading public and even some peers think that it is more worthy to write about violence and gore and destruction is beyond me. As far as I'm concerned, all mystery genres offer the reader a chance to escape the humdrum or even unpleasant realities of ordinary life, and give them a satisfying conclusion (which is often missing from ordinary life). It's only the details that vary, and there's room for everyone.
But to attack the pets in our books is hitting below the belt. Maybe a few of them are kind of odd, like the ones that claim to be psychic or solve crimes on their own, but most are ordinary non-verbal friends and companions to our characters.
What's wrong with that? Take a look at some statistics. The ASPCA reports that over 60% of American household have at least one pet. There are about 75 million dogs and 85 million cats in these households. The Humane Society adds that there is at least one dog in 39% of U.S. households (the average is two per owner), and at least one cat in 33% of households (the average is 2.2 per owner). The bottom line is, a majority of households, and presumably most readers, have pets.
In fact, as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2010 out of 117,538,000 households, only 60,384,000 or 51% included a married couple, so you could say that more households include a pet than a legal spouse.
Since pet ownership is something that many people share, a fictional pet should provide an immediate kinship for the reader. In addition, the character's relationship with that pet as defined by the writer can be a factor in establishing the character's, well, character. Villains kick dogs; heroes and heroines rescue them and take them home.
I'll concede that restless soldiers of fortune or wandering knights would have trouble caring for a pet. After all, if they don't have a fixed address, how can they take care of a companion animal? And we also need to recognize that animals possess varying temperaments as much as humans do, so the writer must be careful in pairing character to pet. I can't see Jack Reacher with a miniature Chihuahua, nor can I see Miss Marple with a Doberman or a pit bull. A cozy does not require a resident pet, but a pet does require a cozy: a small, settled town or neighborhood; a place where if the pet strays, someone will recognize it and return it to its proper owner.
I think a part of the puzzle is what readers want from a book. I see two broad categories: on one hand, you have the crash-bam-boom suspense/thrillers, where readers can be swept up in the breathless pace and at the end, heave a sigh of relief that it didn't happen to them; on the other hand, there are the cozies, with safe and recognizable settings, disturbed by a crime that sets the story in motion, until at the end order is restored. Two very different kinds of book, and different kinds of readers.
So, you grumpy mystery writers, don't sneer to us when we include "warm-and-fuzzy" friends in our books. We've got plenty of pet-loving readers.