Thursday, December 6, 2012

Cozy vs Traditional: Not a fight to the death, but please don’t say they’re not different

Elizabeth Zelvin

Announcing my new traditional e-novella, DEATH WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE, from e-publisher BooksBNimble, available on Amazon.

At a recent meeting of my local chapter of Sisters in Crime, a highly successful literary agent who describes herself as a “mainstream” agent in spite of the major mystery and thriller authors she’s represented requested elucidation on the definition of “cozy.” She didn’t know she was opening a can of worms. The discussion got, if not squirmy, a little, er, heated (okay, let’s abandon the metaphor without getting any more graphic). A Sister who’s very knowledgeable about the industry and a damn fine talker started explaining with an air of great authority that cozy and traditional mysteries appeal to the same group of readers. She wasn’t actually saying that the terms are interchangeable, but that was a subtlety I was afraid would be lost on the agent and/or any newbies present who might not yet have their own conviction about what makes a cozy a cozy, or not. And I could not keep my mouth shut.

I can tell how passionately I feel about this topic, because I stated my opinion more than once, which is something I really try not to do. (An old boss of mine, bless him, used to say, “I heard you the first four times.”) So here’s my soapbox, and I’m going to tell you what I think about the difference between cozies and traditional mysteries. (You’re welcome to disagree, and like all the Deadly Daughters, I love it when you post comments.)

I am really, truly not using the term “cozy” pejoratively. The half-dozen cozy writers I know best, including one of my blog sisters here, are as committed to their craft as any writers I know. They’re also more successful than most of us who started out at about the same time, ten years ago or thereabouts. They have multiple series contracts, enough readers to make the New York Times bestseller lists for paperbacks, and have received a considerable number of major award nominations. I’m just saying that to define a mystery as a cozy in 2012 is to fit it within a more tightly defined category than used to be the case.

The present-day cozy is not merely any mystery that's not hardboiled. It’s not just one with an amateur-sleuth protagonist and one or more murders that take place within a limited circle of people known to one another. It’s not merely one that eschews gratuitous violence, explicit sex, and four-letter words. The quintessential cozy is the kind published by Berkley Prime Crime, which actually breaks out the categories of Culinary, Hobbies, and Pet Lovers on its mystery list. The titles run to puns and word play on the series theme. In addition to the story, readers are offered recipes, patterns, or some kind of household tips. Typically, the amateur sleuth is a woman, but early in the series, she begins a romance with a man in law enforcement—the investigating detective, sheriff, or chief of police. If they are adversaries rather than lovers, that makes them no different than the hero and heroine of a romance novel, who will probably get together in spite of, if not because of, the flying sparks.

I don’t write cozies. I write traditional mysteries, and I admit that I prefer reading traditional mysteries. My mysteries are character driven, and I’ve taken on some challenging and even controversial themes. Cozy characters grow over the course of a series, and there’s certainly an arc in their relationships and changes in how they live their lives. They have issues to deal with that might include illness, death, divorce, family conflict, and financial insecurity. But it seems to me that in cozies, there has to be some kind of cap on how bad things get or how controversial the themes can be. I’m not saying cozy writers are too fastidious. Whatever the limits are, I believe they’re set by publishers’ perceptions of what readers of this kind of mystery want to read. I think writers of traditional mysteries have permission to dig a little deeper.

I don’t consider Agatha Christie my literary progenitor. I claim descent (I hope not too presumptuously) from Dorothy L. Sayers, who revolutionized the detective story when she turned Lord Peter Wimsey from a flat to a rounded, feeling character in the middle of her series. Some of the themes in her later novels that I’d call passionate are the whole feminist exploration in Gaudy Night and how deeply she takes us, at the end of Busman’s Honeymoon, into how traumatic it is for Lord Peter to feel responsible to sending someone to the gallows.

Another terrific exemplar of the traditional mystery is Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne series. Now there’s an amateur sleuth, a clergywoman, who takes up with a law enforcement guy. But there’s nothing cozy about the difficulties they have to overcome to be together—including his marriage, her ethics, and their guilty feelings even when the barriers are removed, not to mention her deployment to Iraq and the trauma that she and her fellow soldiers bring back with them. There’s tremendous passion in that relationship as well as in the way Spencer-Fleming handles the material, such as environmental issues, around which she weaves her mystery plots. And they’re not the kind of stories that leave the reader hoping for recipes.


Edith Maxwell said...

Excellent delineation of the two, Liz. My first mystery, Speaking of Murder, is definitely in the darker traditional camp. I love all of Spencer-Flemings books and agree completely that they aren't cozy.

My Local Foods Mystery contract is for a cozy series and I have to struggle to keep the writing light enough to satisfy Kensington Publishing. My editor liked the one I turned in at the end of summer, so I guess I made the cut, and am now writing the second one. By default I just tend to write darker, though.

When I am able to ditch the day job and write more than one series, I plan to continue with the linguistics professor in the traditional vein. And maybe even start a new one!

Sheila Connolly said...

I can't disagree with anything you've said, Liz. At the risk of biting the hand that feeds me, I could even say that many cozies are "cute"--the covers are pretty and colorful (no bodies or blood allowed); there is usually an adorable pet lurking somewhere, as well as a ditsy sidekick for the amateur sleuth protagonist.

My agent and I have discussed this, and we agree that I write "dark" cozies (as opposed to "lite" cozies). It is a challenge to stay within the genre--not to mention keeping the editors happy--and still inject some real-world issues and create characters who are complex and maybe even conflicted.

Both Dorothy Sayers and Julia Spencer-Fleming set a high standard. Sayers is an excellent example of the growth of the characters over the span of the Lord Peter series: they went from flat to achingly real. Something to aspire to.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Happy to hear these responses from two writers who oughta know. :)

Edith Maxwell said...

I am ever heartened by Sheila's dark cozies!

Sandra Parshall said...

Another great traditional mystery writer is Nancy Pickard. Margaret Maron's books also tackle some deep issues. I think readers are more than ready for additional dsrk traditional mysteries. They will still have plenty of escapist fare when they want it.

Leslie Budewitz said...

Liz, I largely agree with you. The difference seems to me to be a mtter of tone -- as Sheila said, some cozies are downright cute, while others do delve a little more into darker issues and emotions. Like Sheila and Edith, I've got a cozy contract but have to remind myself daily "Keep it Cozy!"

The one element you've identified that I don't think is essential to a cozy is the sleuth's relationship with a cop. It's one of the elements I've been tracking in my cozy reading, and they've been evenly split between LEO and "other" -- and in a couple of series, the protag doesn't seem to be getting, or staying, involved at all.

Thanks for raising a good topic!

Edith Maxwell said...

Speaking of covers, I was surprised this week when I saw mine for A Tine to Live, a Tine to Die (Squee! Check it out here: and it wasn't one of the cute covers. It doesn't even have the farm cat on it (which I had suggested to them) or the barn. It's gorgeous, but I wonder what the message is, if any.

Barb Goffman said...

We at Malice Domestic face this issue continually. We often are called the "cozy convention," which leaves an inaccurate impression. While we love our authors who write in the cozy subgenre, we celebrate the traditional mystery, which includes a much broader range of books than simply cozies. Last summer I wrote a detailed post on the DorothyL Listserv about the differences between traditional mysteries and cozy mysteries. Anyone interested could search their archives for it.

Gigi Pandian said...

Liz, this is a great break-down. One of the challenges is that definitions are constantly changing, so you're right that current cozies have a very narrow definition.

It's also so interesting to hear that some readers consider my debut mystery a cozy, while other readers vehemently disagree!