Thursday, December 6, 2012
Cozy vs Traditional: Not a fight to the death, but please don’t say they’re not different
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.