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.
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.
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.
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.
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.