Authors Talk: Lesley A. Diehl on The Problem with Cozy Mysteries

3578It is my pleasure to introduce Lesley A. Diehl in the first of my “Authors Talk” series. Today, Lesley reflects on the cozy mystery sub genre.

The Problem with Cozy Mysteries. What a disparaging thing to say about cozy mysteries. I write them, so why would I find them problematic? I didn’t begin my career in mysteries by thinking I’d write mine in the cozy mystery genre. I kind of fell into it by crafting stories that I wanted to read, stories with a lot of humor in them and set in small towns. I had no background in law enforcement or as a lawyer, so I knew my protagonists would have to be like me: nosey women who just couldn’t let go of a puzzle until they solved it. My protagonists would have to be amateur detectives. So, voila! I was writing cozy mysteries like one of my favorite writers of mysteries, Agatha Christie. As for the humor in them? I was unashamedly mimicking Janet Evanovich. (The other day I noted my local bookstore had shelved my books under mysteries, not local authors. I was worried I might lose readers, but then I noted they were alongside Evanovich. That was exciting. I hope her popularity rubs off.) Several books into my publishing career I began to note issues arising in my writing. They’re not ones I alone own. They are common to all cozies. So here are some difficulties in cozies, and how I think they can be solved.

The amateur sleuth and her lack of knowledge about the crime

A writer of police procedurals once commented that she couldn’t understand how anyone could have an amateur sleuth solve a crime when she couldn’t get access to the information about the crime the police could. That is indeed an issue, and one a writer of cozies shouldn’t solve by making the police out to be stupid and the sleuth a genius. The only way around this conundrum is to make friends with the police. Cozies often accomplish this by pairing the protagonist with a police detective as a good friend or a romantic interest. The latter provides an additional source of tension in the story, romantic tension. It’s like getting two for the price of one.

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I’ve taken both approaches. In my Eve Appel mysteries, Eve has a close friend who is a detective for the police, and Eve also is having a fling with a private eye. This is the perfect twosome for Eve to play one off the other for information. Other cozy writers find similar sources of information. Diane Mott Davidson’s protagonist is married to a cop as is Mary Daheim’s protagonists in both of her series. Before she married the town’s chief of police in Mary Daheim’s Alpine series, her protagonist was the editor and publisher of the local newspaper, another good source of information about a crime.

It’s not necessary for an amateur sleuth to have the detailed forensic information found in mysteries where the protagonist is a cop or an attorney because the cozy mystery’s revelation of the bad guy or gal is more about putting together the pieces of the mystery puzzle, and the reader is encouraged to work along with the protagonist. The murderer may be clever, but the protagonist is cleverer and so is the reader who shares in the hunt. Finding the killer is more about the make-up of the killer and less about blood spatter, fingerprints and DNA.

 The limiting nature of first person

Many cozy mysteries are written in first person in order to get close and personal with the amateur sleuth. First person pulls the reader into the thinking, feeling and activities of the protagonist, but it also means both the writer and the reader are limited in knowing about the activities and thoughts of others except through the eyes of the protagonist. There is the danger of being too much in the sleuth’s head.

Having a gal or guy pal, someone the protagonist talks with and works with as well as gets insight and information from is a way of expanding what she knows and what the reader is allowed to know. If the protagonist is a less than reliable source of information, this can be offset by the gal pal. What she says about the protagonist and to her also gives a more complete picture of the sleuth. We may have an idealized view of ourselves, but our interactions with others provide a more veridical view. Because cozies are as much about character as plot for me, developing my protagonist is as important as solving the crime.

51kzq6styllThe reputation of the cozy mystery

The cozy mystery genre or subgenre is usually not viewed as serious literature. Those of us who write cozies are the poor relations of even the mystery genre which is considered the poor relation of main stream literature. The only pat on the back I ever received from someone in literature was from a person running a literature salon who said my books could be displayed there as long as they weren’t romance. Isn’t it interesting how well romance and cozy mysteries sell, yet how little respect even those writing in the genres have for them? We are tarred with the “commercial fiction” brush. As for me, I’d like even more commercial tarring!

There appears to be a phenomenon among writers where cozy writers “evolve” into writers of serious mysteries, those thought to be more literary, more serious, more likely to win awards, or they “graduate” into writers of psychological thrillers or suspense. I admit to having been swayed by the thoughts of being taken more seriously by my fellow writers and have several book ideas which might fall into the psychological suspense category. But who am I kidding? These manuscripts are better classified as noir cozies.

In fact, an examination of many cozy mysteries reveals an abundance of serious themes in them, issues that impact daily lives but are not really considered high impact themes. These include domestic violence, sexual abuse, drug use, human trafficking, sexual harassment and, of course, murder. Their presentation in cozy mysteries is usually more personal and intimate than that found in police procedurals, yet cozy writers insist that these issues belong in cozies. I agree and include issues of family dysfunction, sexual abuse, and human trafficking in the Eve Appel series and in the Laura Murphy mysteries. The use of serious themes in cozy mysteries is important to the development of the characters as well as providing realistic plots for murder and subplots for enrichment of the story. Cozies using these themes probably come closer to the reality of the lives people live than many suspense and action publications, yet we still find cozies the perfect escape literature because the bad guys always are made to pay. Their popularity speaks to what escape literature can provide to feed an optimistic note in an otherwise confusing and upsetting world.

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The use of humor in a murder mystery

What’s funny to me may not tickle your funny bone, so it’s always chancy inserting humor into a murder mystery, yet I do it as do other cozy writers such as Diane Mott Davidson, Nancy Cohen, Rabbi Ilene Schneider and Janet Evanovich. Some of the humor works, other does not.

For some, the aspect of humor paired with murder is an impossible idea, but there are ways to make it work. Funny interactions between characters, odd and unusual descriptions of clothing or other aspects of the environment, unexpected behavior, snappy and quirky dialogue all work to create humor or lighten the mood. What never works is humor around death. The murder of someone is to be taken seriously and respect shown for the deceased. To do otherwise is insulting.

I wish I could say more about how to write humor, but I think it’s not something easily taught. I find it a useful tool to create as well as defuse tension. Laughing is important to our mental health, and being able to create the vehicle to provide that for a reader gives me a feeling of absolute joy. As I said, my sense of humor is not the same as others’, but my litmus test for funny is if it makes me chuckle when I write it. I write humor into my cozies for selfish reasons: I like to enjoy my writing. 51nrf3ak6gl

You probably have other views on cozy mysteries and have considered other issues in writing and reading them. I invite you to share them here.

For more information about Lesley, visit her website at www.lesleyadiehl.com and her blog at www.lesleyadiehl.com/blog. You can find her books at www.Amazon.com/author/lesleydiehl

 

38 responses to “Authors Talk: Lesley A. Diehl on The Problem with Cozy Mysteries

  1. Judy Penz Sheluk

    Thanks for stopping by Augie, and for taking the time to comment.

  2. What an interesting piece, thank you for clarifying cozies vs. the world of mysteries. I love Agatha and all of her well developed characters…the world need more writing in this nature.

  3. Judy Penz Sheluk

    Agreed Elaine. Humor is the best medicine! Thank you for stopping by and taking the time to comment.

  4. Judy Penz Sheluk

    Thank you Leslye, for finding my blog. I often feature Cozy Mysteries on my New Release Mondays, and while my books are not “traditional cozy,” they do qualify, and I’m proud to be part of such a great group of authors. And we have something in common — Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series got me through post-surgery and radiation 8 years ago. I’m planning to release Skeletons in audio in the new year. Please sign up for my newsletter and blog to get the updates! And happy listening.

  5. Leslye Mott-Wright

    I am thrilled to find this site!! I LOVE “COZIES” Mysteries. I must now listen to “books on tape” — and may have just discovered some new authors of my favorite genre!! Diane Mott Davidson is a favorite and so is Janet Evanovich. I have written down some authors and their titles listed here and can’t wait to start listening–I only hope they are on AUDIO! I am now at the age of 66, but, I early on (about age 11-12) read ALL of the Nancy Drew stories…..and discovered Diane Mott Davidson quite by accident after my first bout with cancer (and the chemo)—I could’n’t read, too nauseous–but through a friend who had a blind aunt, i found out that I could listen without side effects!!! God bless all of you authors–keep writing those “Cozies”!! Leslye Mott Wright

  6. Escape from one’s daily worries and problems is also my reason for writing cozy mysteries. And what could be a greater escape than to have a cat protagonist! Thus, Black Cat’s Legacy, Black Cat and the Lethal Lawyer and Black Cat and the Accidental Angel. In my opinion, the use of humor in the cozy mystery is not an option, but a MUST. If the reader is to properly ‘escape’ from reality, there must be laughter involved. I can’t imagine delving into gritty, nasty, creepy murder and the like as a means of escape from daily worries… but each to his own. I’ll stick to cozy mystery, the best mystery genre available. Just sayin’….

  7. Judy Penz Sheluk

    A woman after my own heart! I’m the least romantic person on the planet (my husband will attest to this), so a lot of romance in a novel is just not my thing either! Thanks for stopping by Shalanna!

  8. Judy Penz Sheluk

    Thanks Nupur for stopping by. It’s great to see the feedback Lesley is getting with this post.

  9. What a wonderful defense of the genre! Thanks, Lesley. It takes considerable skill to write a novel that resonates with most people, and I have no patience with anyone who thinks that just because a work is popular, it must be sub-par. Shakespeare was a box-office hit in his own day. There’s a reason his works still resonate with us. It doesn’t matter who you are, you can see yourself in his characters. And I think the same is true of most cozies.

  10. I write traditional mysteries that trend towards cozy because there’s no graphic violence, no really dark stuff, no explicit sex, etc., and I always have a group of friends or friendly acquaintances who are the suspects. I have no objection to humor (my books are funny, and/or have comic relief, just like Shakespeare, LOL) and I like to have lighter moments and flirting. However, MY problem is when the romance overwhelms the mystery, as it does in so many series. Is she thinking about the crime or about keeping safe? No! She’s thinking about how hunky the detective is or kissing on one of the suspects! Hey, hold your horses, girl! This isn’t Harlequin! We are more into friendship and a romp. A bit of flirting and romance is fine. When it takes center stage as it so often does, NO! At least that’s my way about it. There’s a creepy stalker in two of my books, but nothing ever comes of it (MURDER BY THE MARFA LIGHTS and LOVE IS THE BRIDGE, which is more properly a ghost story romantic suspense) and there’s never any confrontation except for funny stuff. NICE WORK by Denise Weeks has BDSM characters, but it’s played more for entertainment, like in that old movie with Rosie O’Donnell (I think). I like it far better when everyone doesn’t turn out to be undercover FBI or CIA and there’s no big conspiracy, so I read cozies.

  11. Judy Penz Sheluk

    Judith, that’s quite a feat. In The Hanged Man’s Noose I write in third person, alternate POV, and in Skeletons in first person, one POV…I have enough trouble keeping that in check. Kudos to you and thank you for stopping by.

  12. Judy Penz Sheluk

    Smart cozies! Great label. I call mine “amateur sleuth with an edge.” There’s a market out there for smart and edgy! Thanks for stopping by, Cherie.

  13. Judy Penz Sheluk

    Thanks Jacqueline for stopping by. I agree, accuracy is #1…

  14. Judy Penz Sheluk

    Cindy, that is wonderful, that your book was able to help someone get through a tough time. You cannot put a price on that.

  15. I am so pleased when male writers of cozies speak about their writing. My husband writes cozies, too, Michael, and Jim Callan is also one of my favorite cozy writers. True escapism with the promise of right winning out. In our crazy world today, that’s a real plus as you have pointed out, Nancy. I’m predicting that cozy mysteries will be even more popular given the meanness of political discourse nowadays. Don’t we all deserve a break and a laugh?

  16. There are so many negative things going on in the world that I think cozies offer an escape for so many readers. My series is a humorous romantic cozy series and my goal is to entertain the reader. My favorite comment was from a new widow who said the humorous scenes in my first book, which she could completely relate to, helped her survive her first Christmas without her husband, Comments like that make it all worthwhile.

    And I love your mysteries, Lesley. They are the perfect mix of humor and homicide.

  17. You’ve done a great job of pointing out the challenges for us authors. In writing my Safe Harbor Medical Mysteries, I place a lot of emphasis on accuracy, both in the way my hero, an obstetrician, thinks and acts, and in police procedure (his best friend is a homicide detective). Humor arises from character and how he and his friends view the world.

    My biggest complaint about some (certainly not most!) cozies is a lack of suspense. There doesn’t have to be a dead body on every page; it just takes careful structuring and pacing.

    Thanks for your insights!

  18. Cherie O'Boyle

    Thank you for everything you shared. Never seen all of the pieces put together in one place and so cogently. Now I feel like I should get over feeling dissed for writing smart cozies. My only consolation: readers, even those who sneered at first, love them once they have read them. Thanks again!

  19. Great post, and very helpful. Love your books. I write cozies in third person. As I started my fourth book (a new series to be released next month) I decided to reach for that closeness with the protagonist that you mentioned is gained in first person. So in my new books, there will be the usual third person (somewhat distant), close point of view, and deep point of view (in the character’s thoughts). I feel this provides all the advantages of third, with the closeness of first. It also seemed to require a great deal more thought, but in the end, I was happy with it.

  20. Judy Penz Sheluk

    Thanks Geoff for stopping by. I agree, this was a terrific post by Lesley!

  21. Judy Penz Sheluk

    I agree, Nancy. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

  22. Judy Penz Sheluk

    Thanks for such a great comment, Michael! I also loved the Hardy Boys, which I read after all my Nancy Drews…

  23. Well-written and educational piece; thanks for sharing. I think that (like all genres), those that are well crafted and intriguing can easily reach a much broader audience — so many of them have.

  24. Thanks for the mention! This is a very thorough discussion. Readers love cozies because they are escapist fiction. If we want to read about serious crimes, we can pick up a newspaper. Murders are in the news every day. But in a cozy, the crook is caught and justice is served. We should be proud of what we read.

  25. I enjoyed this post about cozies very much. When I decided to get away from writing about the topic of war (“write what you know”), I decided to try my hand at mysteries. I’d been a huge fan of the Hardy Boys growing up, collecting their first forty or so books in order (before they were dumbed down and “upgraded” to modern times). Many years later, I began reading Ann George and her “Sisters” cozy series. I had read a few “stronger, more mainstream” mysteries over the years, but not enough to recall. Reading Ann George led me to appreciate the humor and back and forth “bantering” with her sister, “Sister.” And thus was born the Mac McClellan Mystery series. I incorporated a lot of “cozy” humor into the series, but wasn’t hesitant to turn to violence since Mac is a combat retired Marine who knows how to play down and dirty if the situation calls for it.
    All that to say this: I believe “cozy mysteries” have a vital and continuing place in the overall spectrum of the “mystery genre” as a whole. They may be a far cry from “hard boiled” or “noir,” but cozies have certainly earned their place and respect in the genre of “mystery.” 🙂
    –Michael

  26. I’m so pleased that there are so many cozy readers and writers weighing in here. Not only do I write them, but I love to read them also. For me, they are the ultimate in escape literature, yet at the same time, they feel so familiar, comforting, and exciting. Thanks for pointing out the long shelf life of Agatha Christie’s works. She was the second writer of mysteries I read after I went through all of the Nancy Drew books as a girl. Of course, the fast pace of them has really spoiled me for most mainstream literature.

  27. Judy Penz Sheluk

    Thanks for stopping by Vicki! Romance, comedy, mystery. A perfect combination in my mind!

  28. For all the parts that are problematic, that is why I write romantic comedy mysteries. Why should all reading be in third, be dark, be procedural? Life just isn’t that way nor can I write like that. Congratulations to you and your lovely books.

  29. Judy Penz Sheluk

    Thanks for stopping by Jim. “Not enough ‘girl’ in it?” Sigh…perhaps you will save that for your “serious” novels!

  30. Good blog, Lesley. But they always are. I have one series (The Father Frank Mysteries) that are definitely cozies. They sell well, and no one complains. That is, no one who reads them complains. But
    some have asked if I write “serious” novels. I once had a New York editor tell me my manuscript didn’t have enough “grit” in it. I think he didn’t like the language I used. Anyway, thanks for a good discussion on cozies.

  31. Judy Penz Sheluk

    Thanks for stopping by Leslie, you make some excellent points!

  32. Judy Penz Sheluk

    Thanks for stopping by Patricia. I agree, this is a terrific post. Lesley really took her time with this one.

  33. Well, said, Lesley! I’ve wrestled with all these issues in my cozies, and it’s nice to know I’m not alone. The line between cozies and “traditionals” is often blurred, but we as a species love to categorize. As for the snobbery towards cozies, this always seems to happen when something is extremely popular (hence, the snobbery towards “pop” music, LOL).

  34. Judy Penz Sheluk

    I agree, Susan! Cozies get a bad rap, but they are comforting and often funny.

  35. A fantastic post, Lesley!
    I’m a mystery/suspense reader (and writer) who enjoys reading books in all the sub-genres. Although my books are not technically considered cozies, they have many of the same elements.
    Cozies provide escape (the humor is a bonus) and isn’t that one of the reasons we all read?

  36. This is a note in praise of cozies. They have saved my sanity more than once. When I was doing anthropological field work in a small town in Mexico, I read cozies at night as a reward for slogging around town asking nosy questions and for living in a place without amenities. My loneliness and discomfort vanished as I immersed myself in a good cozy.

    More recently, I had knee replacement surgery, and I read A LOT of cozies during my recovery. When people ask me how I got through the ordeal, I tell them it was by reading cozy mysteries. (My husband and cat Amelia also helped.)

  37. Judy Penz Sheluk

    I agree Victoria. There is still some genre snobbishness but as you say, the cozy is one of the best selling genres and for good reason. They are entertaining!

  38. vweisfeld.com

    Thanks for this interesting post, Lesley and Judy! Some of the disparagement of cozies may just be sour grapes. Not only do they sell awfully well, but ones like Agatha Christie’s have had such a long shelf-life and inspired theater, movies, tv series . . . tremendous impact! Jane Marple is no less realistic than Jack Reacher.