Saturday, May 22, 2010


By Sheila Connolly

Recently I returned from the Malice Domestic conference in Arlington VA. It's primarily a celebration of the traditional mystery, gathering together fans, writers, librarians and booksellers for three intense days of swapping stories and skills, and just plain having a good time.

Unlike the much larger mystery conference Bouchercon (in San Francisco this October), Malice Domestic focuses on a single genre. The characteristics of this genre have been debated often and I won't go over them again, but very broadly, a true traditional mystery (often called a cozy) features an amateur sleuth, and limited violence, sex and profanity. There is a crime, but it's often off-screen, and the culprit is caught in the end–that's the equivalent of romance's Happily Ever After ending.

Certainly it's a familiar genre–Agatha Christie is the most-often cited example, and her books are still selling more than thirty years after her death. Obviously they must have an enduring appeal, since multiple generations have enjoyed them.

But as in any genre, there are internal cycles and trends. This year at Malice I heard similar opinions voiced by two well-informed people (an agent and a multi-published writer): readers and publishers of cozies are looker for slightly rougher protagonists.

If we were to sketch the demographic profile of the typical cozy heroine, she comes out as pretty bland: between twenty-five and forty; educated (usually college, but sometimes with an advanced degree); employed; from a comfortable background. She's white-bread, vanilla, what we used to call "upper-middle-class." Of course there are exceptions: protagonists may be older, may have unusual physical features, and their professions may vary widely (although there is currently a lot of emphasis on "crafts," often traditional women's pursuits such as sewing, knitting, or cooking).Basically they're white-collar, not blue-collar. Is this changing? Should it?

Romance Writers of America, with over 10,000 members, conducts surveys of romance readers annually and publishes their demographic analysis on their website. The representative contemporary romance reader:

–is female
–is aged 31-49
–is involved in a romantic relationship (and more likely than the general population to be married or living with a partner)
–is a book buyer, both new and used, from mass merchandisers and book superstores, independent bookstores and on-line sellers
–prefers mass market paperbacks to hardcovers or e-books
–reads at home and while traveling

There is (to my knowledge) no comparable data collection for mystery readers. I'll go out on a limb and guess that the profile for cozy readers is not much different (although for other mystery genres, there are probably more male readers). This is not a scientific analysis, after talking with a lot of readers, both on-line and in person at signings and conferences.

One theory is that readers want to be able to identify with the characters they read about. They want to be able to envision themselves in the heroine's shoes, even if they never plan to solve a murder or take up a new craft. So the question is, have readers become bored with the "nice" protagonists they've been lapping up for so long, and now crave something edgier? Is that why Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum and Sue Grafton's Kinsey Milhone have been so popular? Of course, both of those role models are professionals–they don't track down criminals with a knitting needle or saute pan in hand (although both make good weapons). But are cozy readers tired of sanitized, fairy-tale stories where everyone is clean and friendly and sincere? Do they want just a bit more reality, some authentic grit?

Or have our readers changed? There are so many demands for our attention these days, and that includes our leisure activities. Do we watch television, or movies on television? Do we make something, build something? Where does reading fit? And what does a book have to offer in order to compete with all the other attractions?

Maybe the genteel heroine just doesn't cut it any more, even as a diverting fantasy. Maybe she's just too removed from the real world to be believable.

If this is a real trend, the market will let us know, through book sales. There's nothing wrong with an amateur sleuth who gets sucked into crime-solving, wanting nothing more than to return to her ordinary and unremarkable life. But maybe women's lives have changed, and they want and expect more. In any case, a little variety can be a good thing.


Katie O'Sullivan said...

I think a good story is a good story. here's room in the genre for all kinds of protagonists - maybe that's the true message here. You don't have to write Miss Marple; your protagonist can be a single mother waitress with real life problems, and oh, a dead customer.

Great post!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sheila, I have trouble believing in 49 as the high end of the age level of either romance or cozy readers. And I don't draw the genre line where you do but distinguish between traditional and cozy mysteries. For me, the difference is publisher-driven. The craft-focused, vanilla-protag mysteries come mostly from Berkley, some from NAL (not to knock them, and I consider yours among the best and most rounded in the genre). The traditionals have more grit and depth without being dark, violent, or erotic--Julia Spencer-Fleming is a good example--and descend from Dorothy L. Sayers rather than from Christie. A lot of mysteries from Minotaur fit the category, though they publish cozies too, eg Donna Andrews, who's a huge Malice fan favorite. Another sign of the true cozy: recipes or knitting tips included. As you know, Berkley actively solicits such material.

C.C. Harrison said...

I would think that if the character in a cozy was too edgy, it would no longer be a cozy. I enjoy stories where ordinary people find themselves in extraordinary circumstances, but if the character is too "kick butt" that makes it a different kind of story entirely.

Sandra Parshall said...

I agree with CC: if the character is too edgy, the book isn't a cozy. Certainly Evanovich's books aren't cozies. A cozy is a particular type of book, and a huge fan base still exists for that kind of book, so I don't think they'll fade away. Cozy writers are providing entertainment for their audience, just as thriller writers are. The crime genre is huge, and there's room for everybody and every kind of book. If we have readers who enjoy our work, we should be proud of what we're doing, instead of complaining that some other author who writes a different kind of crime novel is getting more sales, more starred reviews, more awards, etc.

We should also remember that editors and readers are very different people. Just because an editor gets tired of publishing cozies with "vanilla" protagonists doesn't mean readers are tired of reading them. As we all know, publishing companies don't have the slightest idea what readers want, and they make little effort to find out. They throw stuff out there, hoping some of it will stick, and just scratch their heads and move on when a heavily-promoted book that got a huge advance falls flat in the marketplace. What editors/publishers care about is sales. Dear readers, the only way to keep your favorite writers in print, regardless of what they write, is to BUY THEIR BOOKS.

Sheila Connolly said...

You're all right, of course. Actually I was surprised to hear two different people voice similar opinions within a short period.

I think what pushes the genre over the line from cozy to something else is the on-the-page violence and sex. The original comments I heard and commented on focused more on "blue-collar" versus "white- (or pink-) collar," something I hadn't given much thought to.

While Berkley and NAL do focus on a particular niche--and they must be making money at it to keep doing it, even though individual books or series may not catch on--there is a broad spectrum of other mystery subgenres out there: people of color, religious/inspirational, gay/lesbian. Each has a market or they wouldn't exist.

This is certainly a case of "vote with your pocketbook." If you like an author or a type of book, buy a copy! Ask your library to buy it! Give copies to your friends and relatives. Publishers are in business to sell books, and the financial bottom line is what they look at when making decisions.

Anonymous said...

A friend of mine once described reading a cozy as "chewing the same piece of gum for three days." I have to admit, I've picked up and put down a lot of soft mysteries lately, because I didn't find them challenging or particularly interesting. I'm seeking out more character-driven stories that are buoyed by fresh descriptions and surprising observations. For me, it's all about the writing.

Marilynne said...

I often read a cozy following my reading of a blood, gore, too many details mystery. As a young 70 reader - a voracious reader - I love to read mysteries and vary my choices. I think I'm saying that I don't want the same heroine, the same murder, the same depth of fear in every book I read. I like the variety. Perhaps I drive the publishers wild, but that's how I do it.

For example, I like Charlaine Harris's Aurora Teagarden mysteries, but not the popular Sookie Stackhouse series because I'm turned off by vampires. But at the same time, I may be reading Help followed by a non-mystery. No wonder the publishers have problems.

lil Gluckstern said...

I agree with the bloggers who said a good story is a good story. I think of cozies as comfort food, important to have, but I can't eat too much of it. I also wonder about the designation of "cozy." Louise Penny's books are not comfortable. but elegant and certainly have a hard psychological edge, and she just won the Agatha. I must also admit I am liking my characters to be a little less white bread, but struggling a bit with life. Real life is hard right now for many of us, and it is nice to read of those who work at it (and solve a mystery or two) and manage to make it through with a little grace.

kathy d. said...

Thankfully, there are many mystery genres and books vary even within genres.

I love women protagonists, be they private eyes or other types of detectives, favorites being V.I. Warshawski, Sharon McCone and Kinsey Millhone, but so many more.

Violence is varied too. While I can deal with what happens, let's say, in the books starring the characters above, I cannot deal with blood, guts, gratuitous violence, torture and sadism or be in psychopaths' minds; I can't read books with those elements, like Karin Slaughter's, Chelsea Cain's or Tess Garritson's, to name a few as well as many male writers.

There is so much variety today, which should suit every reader's needs. But everyone should vote with their purchases or pressuring the local library to purchase particular books so that all of the genres are available for all readers' tastes.

Unknown said...

Stopped in to read the comments. No one has mentioned the appeal of cozies from the point of plot development (a good puzzle) that intrigues the reader to find out whodoneit and why.
The why is imperative because random killing is too common with so many profuse serial killers. My personal definition for them is "the random killing machine."
My two cents for what it's worth.

Allene said...

Seems your post stirred a lot of interest. I like cozies - especially the Miss Marple type because it removes me from the hard and fast life of modern society. I think readers still want to escape via books and as Pen N. Hand wrote figuring out the mystery is part of the charm. I won't read graphic serial killer novels - just watching the evening news on T.V. is all you need there.

JudyinBoston said...

I have not been able to sell anything with a heroine who dabbles in adultery on the side. That seems to be the one absolutely forbidden "vice." I think a serial killer would be easier to sell.

This weekend I was talking to a "literary" author and telling her about cozies (she was clueless), and said they sounded like fun. WFIW. Don't know if she'll go out and buy some. She kept asking if the word "cozy" was an acronym, and the more I explained what they were the more puzzled she looked. So some people, even writers, are unaware of the sub-genre.

kathy d. said...

I'm with everyone who said, "no serial killers," "no gratuitous violence," and to me, no getting into psychopaths' minds, including in the preface.

Yes, the puzzle is the thing, but, to me, also the character development, thinking and good dialogue, as well as plot development.

Can't deal with nonstop action without character development and thinking, and, of course, a good puzzle.

I like legal mysteries, too, but I just read one with great characters and dialogue, but then all of the suspects were killed and there was no courtroom drama or dialogue. What a disappointment and it ended up with too much violence, a drag.