Friday, December 7, 2012

What a Cozy Mystery Means To Me

Over a decade ago we were tossing around definitions of various subgenres of mystery, and when it came to the cozy, people got tangled up with specific rules nobody could agree on: every "rule" anyone came up with had numerous exceptions from classic mystery.

Everybody knew a cozy when they saw it, but nobody could agree on what made it a cozy.  So I gave my definition, and we all had to agree it fit:

A Cozy Mystery is: "Murder all in good fun."

Murder mysteries by nature are about violence, sex, greed, hatred, psychopathy, and all manner of scary, horrible things.  In life, we control these things via the rules of society, law, and enforcement... and vigilence.  And crime fiction of all kinds is about these topics -- whether it's the silliest cozy or the darkest of realistic police procedurals.

A cozy mystery is a crime story which explores these things without leaving your comfort zone.

Given that everybody has a different comfort zone, that leaves a pretty large gray area.  But even if you restrict it down to stories with a very safe buffer inside the comfort zone, you really do find a nice variety of titles inside it.

And that's why I prefer it over more rule-based definitions, like: "It has to take place in a small town and have an amateur sleuth." (Whoops, that lets Poirot AND Nero Wolfe out.)  "No bad language." (Bye-bye, Lord Peter!)  "It must be a puzzle/whodunnit." (So long, Columbo.) "It must not have moral ambiguity - no criminal heroes!" (Nice to have met you, Simon Templar, Raffles and Arsene Lupin.)  "The detective needs to be a nice person." (Uh, have you actually met Miss Marple?)  "No sex." (Sorry about that, Sarah Kelling and Max Bittersohn.)

I don't mind that the Cozy has become more and more restrictive lately.  Even if it does end up excluding the classics of the genre.  You can still call those "mystery" -- and in this day and age, where anything goes and serial killers can be heroes, it's really nice to be able to draw a line between the comfortable and the uncomfortable.

It's just that, to me, when I think of the term "Cozy Mystery," it doesn't conjure up a completely safe and risk-less environment.

What it conjures up, for me, is a dark and stormy night.  I'm sitting, warm and comfortable in a chair, wrapped in a nice quilt, with a cat on my lap and some hot cocoa on the side table, reading something thrilling.  Something that's dangerous, but only in the way good gossip is dangerous.  It's like that news story about that horrible thing that almost happened to that puppy, but you know the puppy survived and has found a great home with the fireman who rescued it.  And you know from the tone of the story that's how it's going to end, even if they keep you in suspense about how it's going to end.

So for me, the thing that makes a cozy really super cozy is that the subject (murder, crime) threatens my comfort, but it doesn't challenge my comfort.

And the thing that originally set apart "cozy" from "hard-boiled" was realism.  In hard-boiled fiction, the point was to see all the dirt and grime and sweat, and that the puppy is most likely gonna die, because that's real.  The point of hard-boiled fiction is to challenge your comfort zones.

And that's okay.  That's good. We should never become complacent.  Challenge makes you act.

At the same time, constant challenge and disruption and discomfort can be paralyzing.  It triggers the irrational part of your brain and keeps you from actually processing what is right, what you should do.

One of the very best places to process a dangerous and disturbing concept -- like murder and injustice -- is in a safe, controlled and cozy place.  With a quilt and a cat and some hot cocoa.

See you in the funny papers.

Check out cozy mysteries by Camille LaGuire:

The Man Who Did Too Much, a small town Michigan mystery suspense. Available in ebook form at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple's iBookstore, Kobo, Sony, Diesel, and Smashwords, and Amazon's international bookstores UK, Germany, France, Italy, Spain. (Paper coming soon.)

Have Gun, Will Play, a mystery western. Available in ebook and paper at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple's iBookstore, Kobo, Sony, Diesel, and Smashwords, and Amazon's international bookstores UK, Germany, France, Italy, Spain.


Rémi BILLOIR said...

I rather like your description.

I've spent a good long while reading not many mysteries, barring yours (and Anna Dean's Dido Kent, which certainly fall under "cosy" and are quite good, and Boris Akunin's Erast Fandorine, which I thought of as "adventure" but really are intended as mysteries), and suddenly I've come across Connie Willis's To Say Nothing of the Dog, that sent me to Dorothy Sayers (the pinball reader, that's me). So I have Connie Willis to thank for the pleasure of meeting Lord Peter, but that's besides the point.

Anyways, there always have been a few cosy mysteries in my (reading) life, and so I find I agree with you.

The amazing part is that many cozy mysteries were written for a very different period, with significant values dissonances towards our own. Yet they still read cozy. Isn't it strange to find comfort in a literature in which racism was not even challenged, or hardly so ? To say nothing of, well, homophobia, colonialism, sexism, and so on and so forth.

Well I'm white, so I might not take personally the general suspicion towards black persons (The Unpleasantness at Bellona Club) or foreigners (Have His Carcase), yet I would take offense at such attitudes if I were to meet it out there (and I don't mean to say Dorothy Sayers is racist in any way, only that she sets her novels in a deeply racist England). In a similar way, I remember Arsène Lupin doing some heinous things (defacing the Cagliostro, conquering Maroc all by himself and selling it to Gallimard for 48h of freedom, inflicting torture in several occasions). Only, Lupin actually went beyond my comfort zone.

So there's a funny thing : I'm still mostly comfortable reading about characters whose opinions I'd rather not surround myself with.

The Daring Novelist said...

That's a wonderful point, Remi!

That relates indirectly to my point here, but something I'd like to talk about.

So often these days, you hear from people who want cozies to be specifically conservative or Christian. They want them to espouse the "values" of the past -- but they don't really look at what those values are, or what they were in comparison to the values of the time.