Back Away From My Cozies and No One Gets Hurt

Broken tea pot fixed
Honey, I fixed the teapot.
Yes, I read cozies.

No, I don’t own a cat or an antimacassar. I don’t grow roses, I can’t knit and I once owned a teapot, but it broke. I prefer coffee anyway.

Crime fiction readers feel it’s their right, if not their obligation, to malign cozy mysteries in the same way that genre fiction readers scoff at romance novels. But cozy mysteries aren’t romance novels—at least not all of them; definitely not the ones I read. Don’t judge me by my book covers.

I’m really not interested in the seamy side of life, which most crime novelists don’t depict realistically anyway. You can keep your hard-boiled, whiskey-slugging, foul-mouthed, careworn head cases with their taciturn personalities and humanizing quirks. (He’s a bristly cuss, but man can he whip up a lemon soufflé. Truly?) Give me a good locked-room mystery set in the urbane environs of Lord Thusandsuch’s estate any time.

I prefer my criminals to exercise restraint. Your noirish torture methods, blood spatters, and alternate uses for common household appliances don’t interest me. Discussing your character’s sexual prowess strikes me as unseemly and beside the point. Your use of profanity only reveals an inadequate vocabulary and a limited imagination. True, the words that occasionally come out of my mouth are far from “cozy,” but if I were writing dialog in a mystery novel I’d take the time to think of something more interesting to say.

What’s my definition of a cozy? For me, it’s like hard-core pornography: I know it when I see it. Two criteria are mandatory however: no explicit sex and no excessive gore or gratuitous violence. That’s what Malice Domestic Ltd. uses as a rule of thumb for its annual Agatha Awards for traditional mysteries, and it’s fine by me.

There are those who would argue that a true cozy protagonist cannot be a professional detective, but that would leave out Precious Ramotswe of Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, and no one is cozier than Mma Ramotswe. It would also exclude Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, and Agatha is the author most closely associated with cozy crime. Not much sex, not many drugs and no rock and roll to speak of, but plenty of nefarious doings.

Miss Marple
Her mind goes to dark, dark places.
 Why would anyone be down on cozies in particular? When you think about it, just how cozy are they? How cozy would you feel tucked away in your pristine English country village, at your church potluck supper or your Tuesday evening quilting circle, with neighbors dropping dead all around you? Honestly, if they’d stopped to consider the body count she leaves in her wake, the people of St. Mary Mead would have locked Miss Marple in her house and never let her out.

You can pretty much figure that the wild-eyed guy your protagonist encounters in a meth lab in L.A. is going to be trouble. The pituitary gland cases who stand like bookends cracking their knuckles on either side of the crime boss? You know they’re going to whack our hero over the head with a two-by-four about two-thirds of the way through the story. But the mousy little kitchen maid sullied by the footman? Where’d she learn to wield a Luger like that? (And such a clean shot, too! Nary a mark on the Chesterfield sofa.) He never saw it coming.

That’s the thing about cozies—they’re easy to underestimate. So even if I choose to think of noir first as the proper shade to wear to a funeral at Cimetiere du Père-Lachaise, don’t assume I don’t know my way around a crime novel.


Leslie Gilbert Elman blogs intermittently at My Life in Laundry. She’s written two trivia books and has a few unpublished fiction manuscripts in the closet to keep the skeletons company

Comments

  1. Thomas Pluck

    I grew up on Agatha’s cozies; left her for Hammett. But I still like the cozy and think it gets short shrift. Heck, Winter’s Bone may qualify. What do you think?
    I love Lawrence Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr mysteries. I hope he’s cozy enough.

  2. Laura K. Curtis

    I like cozies that aren’t TOO cozy. Someone had a lovely post here a while back about the level of “twee” in a book. I like my books not to twee, but I really, really dislike the “torture porn” I’ve been seeing taking over the thriller genre in the past few years. I don’t read knitting cozies or scrapbooking cozies or cat cozies, but I love cooking cozies, and other, less “crafty” cozies. Right now, I am reading Ellen Byerrum’s latest “crime of fashion” cozy. Not “twee” at all, but still definitely cozy.

    So, yeah, keep your hands off my cozies!

  3. Katrina Niidas Holm

    Yes!! Well said. Bravo.

  4. Leslie Elman

    Tommy, I think there’s a reason you grew up on Agatha Christie, and a lot of successful writers did too. Her books are tight, smart and sound. She knows how to tell a story economically yet satisfyingly. I confess I haven’t read Hammett (I know, I know…), instead I “graduated” to Rex Stout, who was covered here quite eloquently not long ago.

  5. Leslie Elman

    Laura, yes! “Torture porn.” I don’t understand it and I don’t want to. I’m with you on the twee thing too. I like a good puzzle and I don’t find that gore or saccharine sweetness enhances the experience.

    And thank you, Ms. niidasholm! 🙂

  6. Esri Allbritten

    That’s exactly how I feel — in fact, I’ve even used the word “twee.” I also don’t want horrible physical details and unremitting gloom. I want character development and some laughs, all strung together with a mystery that pulls the plot forward. Given that, you guys might want lo check out my upcoming book, Chihuahua of the Baskervilles, coming out July 5. Add a .com to the book title and you’ll be at the website. There’s an excerpt, and everything.

  7. Nancy Bradford

    BRAVO from me too.

    I LOVE MY COZIES!!!! And I too don’t knit, scrapebook, drink tea, have a cat or dog but sure love these things in my books!

  8. Clare 2e

    I love reading about people with habits I could never keep–is that weird? People with well-developed hobbies or passions that I never had are always fascinating to me. And I love a good laugh.

  9. Brian Kavanagh

    I’ve just read Josephine Tey’s ‘A Shilling for Candles’. I doubt if many of the hard boiled crowd could write so entertaining and well crafted a mystery. Cozies Rule!
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  10. ScottDParker

    Here’s a funny thing: I, too, was one of those readers who tended to scoff at the cozies. One day, I realized, as I was riveted to a recent BBC mystery, that I was, in fact, enjoying a cozy. But I had never read one. Cue the publication of Joelle Charbonneau’s Skating Around the Law and the tour stop here in Houston. I took home the book by my fellow Do Some Damage writer intending to read it as a fellow blogger aiming to just muddle through the novel. I blazed through it and absolutely loved it. Now, I’m searching for some good cozies. True, I still would likely not read a knitting cozy, but “hard boiled cozies” are for me.

    Any recommendations?

  11. Clare 2e

    My personal shorthand for those, Scott, is “Cozy, but not Sweet.” They’re still not graphic in sex or violence. That happens off-page, so they’re genuinely soft-boiled, but they are showing adults reacting to adult situations, and frequently with very-recognizable emotions and depth–they’re not trying to be pink angora sweaters to swaddle the soul.

    Under that definition, the Thin Man Movies would all be Cozy, but not Sweet. You don’t have to be afraid if your kids catch you watching, but there’s an entire subtext of sex jokes and grown-up information, communicated especially in the wonderful dialogue, that younguns won’t grasp at all.

  12. Laura K. Curtis

    Scott –

    Try Margaret Maron, though she’s not as humorous as Joelle. Hers are what I would refer to as “soft boiled” rather than cozy (The first is Bootlegger’s Daughter).

    And the woman who introduced me to cozies, Diane Mott Davidson, who writes culinary cozies. (The first is Catering to Nobody.)

    Susan Kandel’s books are kind of fun, too, as they’re all related to mystery writers or mystery characters (I Dreamed I Married Perry Mason, etc.)

  13. leslieelman

    Scott, I heard Joelle Charbonneau read in New York last summer around the time her first book came out. She was terrific.

    Clare, I like your definition of “cozy, but not sweet.” I think what appeals to me is “traditional” mystery, not too cute and not too grim.

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