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.
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