Recently I had the pleasure of reading an entry in a great blog by Curtis Evans, an excellent writer who is also, like me, interested in the general area of the Golden Age Mystery. I strongly recommend his books to your attention; I’ve learned a lot from Mr. Evans and he always makes me think!
His recent post was on the topic of the “cozy mystery”, and contained an interesting video clip featuring Jim Parsons and Craig Ferguson talking about what, to them, constitutes a cozy. Curtis’s post and its attendant comments section have piqued my interest enough to provide me with material for a post of my own on “what is a cozy?”, and I have to acknowledge my debt to his work. I’ve actually mentioned cozies in my own reviews lately, suggesting that Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s Asey Mayo mysteries are “proto-cozies”, as is Craig Rice’s “Home Sweet Homicide”. (“Proto-cozies” meaning books that came before the invention of the term “cozy” but which seem to fall within the boundaries of that term.) But when push came to shove, I couldn’t come up with a definition of the cozy with which I agreed unreservedly — save perhaps “I know it when I see it.” This hearkens back to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio, in which he commented on pornography:
“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”
Nevertheless, definitions can be useful tools for deciding whether one is dealing with good art or bad art. For instance, it is not legitimate to criticize hard-core pornography for being sexually arousing, since that is what it sets out to do for an audience which wants it to do that. It is certainly possible to criticize it for being bad art since, to quote another court case, pornography “appeals to the prurient interest” and lacks “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific values”. I believe there are many similarities between pornography and cozy mysteries, strangely enough, although they seem superficially to be polar opposites. If pornography is the display of sex without love, one might say that cozy mysteries display murder without emotional investment … one might suggest that cozies are a pornography of mystery. I don’t think this is a particularly useful definition of the cozy, just one that appeals to me. I speak of cooking shows as being “food porn” and soap opera as “relationship porn”, so you can take it within that broad context. Most often, I merely know a cozy when I see one and have not given my understanding of the term much thought.
in the process of understanding a literary term, it’s best to find a common definition and examine it critically to see where one agrees or disagrees. I found a definition on the internet that seemed like a good place to start.
“Cozy mysteries are light mysteries, usually without strong language or graphic violence. The main character is an amateur sleuth who lives in a small town with other people you could envision having as neighbours or friends.”
Well, I can agree with this up to the word “sleuth”, in a broad-strokes way. Although the small town form is common, it is not universal; I’m sure there are urban cozies. I think what this definition is trying to get at is that the action of the book takes place in a small, closed community, but I’ll suggest this closure is more about social aspects than mere geography. For instance, a murder that takes place involving all the highly expert knitters in a large city would qualify; an expert knowledge of knitting would be the defining factor. This definition will do for a start, but there’s certainly more to investigate.
The Wikipedia entry for “Cozy mystery” is mostly useless since, unusually for Wikipedia, it relies on idiosyncratic and unprofessional writing in a single blog for most of its definitions. (cozy-mystery.com is principally marked by enthusiasm for the sub-genre, not any kind of critical analytical skills.) It does, however, point us to a New York Times article, “Murder Least Foul”, by the intelligent if occasionally misguided Marilyn Stasio; here, she raises a number of fascinating ideas. First she outlines some loose boundaries for the genre (I have paraphrased):
- No gore. Violence is kept to a minimum and described discreetly.
- Amateur status is preferred in a sleuth, who is often a woman with an interesting occupation.
- The crime takes place close to home, or within a confined community in which the victim, suspects, and sleuth are all known to one another.
- The settings are never sleazy; the atmosphere is designed to give pleasure and comfort.
- The characters are driven by personal motives.
- The hero does not get beaten up during the investigation, although romantic entanglements are permissible. Cozy sleuths have a clear mandate to get involved in complicated personal relationships, but authors are even more discreet about sex than they are about violence.
And she then competently disposes of the “article of faith” that the cozy is an updated version of the traditional British detective story. Stasio accurately (at least as far as I’m concerned) pinpoints that Golden Age mysteries are about plots and “In the contemporary cozy … deduction takes second place. … By oversimplifying the plot through the elimination of its trickier puzzle elements, cozy authors have also reduced the complexity of the crime-solving process and diminished the detective’s intellectual role in that cognitive process.” I believe this hearkens back to a classic observation by the eminent critic Mrs. Q. E. Leavis, to the effect that the writing of Dorothy L. Sayers presented the appearance of intellectual activity to readers who would very much dislike that activity were they forced to actually undergo it. One might call this “thought porn”, to continue my earlier theme. My experience of modern cozies is that they rarely allow the reader the opportunity to think about the plot and characters in an analytical way; instead, they summarize that thought as having occurred in the mind of the detective and the reader thinks, “Oh, yes, that’s exactly the way I would have worked it out if I had bothered to think about it.” Except it isn’t, because these readers rarely would have bothered to think about it or would have been capable of the logical process had they so bothered.
What Stasio appears to be saying, in my terms, is that cozies de-emphasize the plots and punch up characterization — usually, the personal life, business life, and romantic entanglements of the protagonist — and “story-telling”, by which cozy aficionados apparently mean the purveyance of huge gouts of information about largely irrelevant topics. I agree that very little detection is actually left in the cozy mystery. The detective has an intuition, or the criminal blurts something out that only the guilty party could know, or her cat keeps miaowing whenever it passes the door to the root cellar. And John Dickson Carr spins in his grave again and again.
Modern cozies are usually “about” something. I have in the past distinguished the sub-genre of the “information mystery“, whereupon an author who knows (or has researched) a great deal about, say, glassblowing creates a book where the detective and victim and all the suspects are immersed in the milieu of glassblowing, and only a glassblowing expert will be able to solve the mystery. Superficially, many — perhaps most — cozies are information mysteries, or purport to be information mysteries. The classic such cozy is Carolyn Hart’s creation of her “Death on Demand” series, where the protagonist is the proprietor of a murder mystery bookstore. (Since I used to do precisely that work, I have to say that Ms. Hart’s version is highly romanticized and relatively uninformed, but what the heck, it’s making her much more money for romanticizing the work than it used to make me for actually doing it and I wish her well with it.) These days, though, cozies appear to be about … well, women’s things. Handicrafts, needlework, cooking, clothing design, interior decoration, household economy, and the supervision of preternaturally intelligent dogs, preternaturally intelligent cats, and pesky children. The problem has become, for me, that the provision of information per se has largely turned to the provision either of elementary tutorials or unsubstantiated opinion. You either get something like basic knitting 101 (accompanied by a smattering of language from the higher levels to give you the idea that there is more to learn and the author knows all about it) or you get the author’s opinion on how best to run a bed-and-breakfast, nursery, or small-town newspaper (with the same smattering of higher-level language). In the same sense that cozies assume the form but not the function of the puzzle mystery, the information cozy assumes the form but not the function of the information mystery.
So if it doesn’t have plot, and it doesn’t have information, what does the modern cozy have? It’s only rarely appropriate to make a sweeping generalization about an artistic topic, but I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that the modern cozy’s readers would suggest that “it’s the people. You know, you really get to care about [fill in name of spunky lovable heroine] and her chubby best friend and her Weimaraners, Agatha and Dashiell.” This is what the reader seems to think — at least, that’s what I used to hear again and again when I stood behind the counter at an equivalent to “Death on Demand”.
And in this respect I think there are two things going on here. I think there is a considerable dash of wish fulfilment going on. The typical middle-aged female reader wants to believe that, were it not for the accidents of birth, finances, geography and genetic inheritance, she would be perfectly capable of running a cunningly-decorated yarn store in a quaint rural village, trying to decide romantically between the police chief and the editor of the local newspaper while she solved volume after volume of mysteries that had some implausible relationship to yarn. And, I have to say immediately, there is nothing wrong with reading as a form of wish fulfilment. Any reader who is presently guffawing at the implied insult to middle-aged women should remember that very few middle-aged male aficionados of the private-eye novel are capable of beating someone up, or even walking around the block quickly. And mystery writers have to put food on the table the same as the rest of us. If they have found a fertile vein of ways to separate middle-aged women from $7.99 two or three times a month, who can gainsay them? (Hardcover cozies are 99% for the library market, I think.) So the reader gets to fantasize about what it’s like to run a small business without having the skill or ability or backing to actually do so. She gets to be vicariously sassy and flirty and well-spoken, perfectly dressed and coiffed, to have handsome romantic suitors, obedient intelligent and well-adjusted children, and telepathic and helpful pets. And apparently she enjoys this exercise so much that she repeats it obsessively. Cozy mysteries make up a huge volume of the approximately 11% of the new-book market labeled “Mystery” in publishers’ catalogues — perhaps as much as 50%. That’s because, as my experience tells me, middle-aged women who buy cozy mysteries buy a LOT of them.
Before I get into my second reason, let me segue for a moment. I think I have an original observation with respect to the purchasing of mysteries that is known to publishers but not articulated by readers. If you look at the cover of, say, the latest Carolyn Hart mystery, it always says clearly that this is “A Death on Demand Mystery”. Inside the volume, you will find a chronological listing of all the ‘Death on Demand” novels in the series. You will find many readers of these volumes suggest that they prefer novels in series because of the chance to get to know the characters over time, watch how they grow and change, etc. What I have never seen mentioned is the possibility that this preference is a kind of small-scale symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Many, many times I have observed middle-aged book-buying customers who insist that they simply must acquire every single volume in their favourite series, seemingly for the sake of “completing the set”. I have occasionally heard them suggest that they really don’t even LIKE the particular series any more, it’s just that they’re in the habit of buying and reading the latest such-and-such, so they keep hoping they’ll get more interesting … Other publishers directly label the volumes “#6 in the blah-blah series”, or helpfully provide tick-boxes beside each volume in the interior list so that you can be sure you have all 6, or 11, or 28 volumes of the saga. I’ve known men to be like this too. I myself have a strong aspect of not wanting to rest until I’ve tracked down every, say, Perry Mason novel. But with women customers and cozies I recall it as more frequently and more distinctly OCD-like. I can’t prove it, but it’s interesting to think about.
The second thing that the modern cozy has, in a way that delineates the boundaries of the genre, is more difficult to pin down, but I may have identified an underlying factor. Commentators cited above have identified factors like the lack of on-stage violence and the “pleasure and comfort” to be obtained from the physical surroundings. Superficially these might be considered as facets of the wish-fulfillment fantasy aspect I noted above, but I think there’s a little bit more to it than that. Certainly these aspects are ways in which the reader wishes the world would revolve around her, or arrange itself for her pleasure. But I think there’s even something deeper going on.
Years ago, I read a 1975 science-fiction novel by John Brunner, The Shockwave Rider. In it, he casually tosses off in a sentence the idea that a character’s job is superficially to run an educational service, but the underlying sales concept is that the educational materials are meant to reassure middle-aged and elderly people that the world has the same values it did when they were young adults. That idea stuck with me and I think it has a broad range of validity — certainly it explains the existence of Time, Newsweek and Fox News to me.
I think this idea also explains part of the appeal of cozy mysteries; that they are meant to communicate to readers that the moral landscape is still the same as it was when they were younger. Graphic visual representations of violence on the evening news? Not in cozies. Widespread sexual diversity and rejection of traditional family structures? Not in cozies. Women’s achievements devalued, the role of domestic household manager mocked? Not in cozies. Women in traditional roles and family structures unable to predict, manage, or control events in the world around them that have strongly bad effects on themselves and their families? Not in cozies. Everything in cozies is the same way it’s always been; everything is manageable and all mysteries and problems are solved in 192 easy-to-read pages.
In cozies, the female protagonists have an implicit understanding of the rules of their world that is shared by all the “good” characters but not the bad. Most of these implicit understandings have to do with the value of women in society; specifically, the value of unmarried women with careers, the value of women as breadwinners and sole family support, and the value of women as the axis of their (traditional nuclear) families. It’s not an accident that the adventures of Kinsey Millhone are set 15 or 20 years before their publication date. And one common theme in the fairly large sub-genre of Victorian/Edwardian era cozies is a ridiculous grafting of modern feminist principles into antique contexts. “This is the thinking and courage that I would display if I were a Victorian upper-class lady,” we are meant to think, “I would FIGHT to be taken seriously by men and have a profession and treat the servants as equals,” when actually that behaviour would have had the woman in question packed off to a lunatic asylum. But it makes a good wish-fulfillment fantasy.
Marilyn Stasio suggests that (a couple of specific cozy authors) “deserve credit for opening up the domestic mystery to major social issues like child abuse, rape, and mental illness.” Those authors certainly did that, but I think Stasio here has hold of the wrong end of the stick. The authors in question used those themes, certainly, just like “straight novelists” and even earlier mystery writers did before them. It’s not unusual in the slightest to use powerful crimes as the basis of murder mysteries. Murder is a serious business. But it seems to me that cozy writers used those situations in order to tell their audience the way in which to think and, more importantly, feel about these issues — passing on the extension of traditional values to a new generation without making it seem unusual or exotic. We should feel violently angry with people who abuse children, we should feel like taking revenge upon rapists, and we should feel sorry for the victims of mental illness. White middle-class women should feel that middle-class people of colour are their complete equals. Women should feel equal to men, they should feel like competent guides of their children and feel as though they are on a level playing field in business with men. And the way in which these feelings are engendered in the reader is as sub-text. The housewife-detective who runs a yarn store has a best friend, store helper and neighbour who is Korean-American. We’re not told that the protagonist feels her to be equal, that attitude simply permeates their interaction. No one has to explain that it is crucially, vitally important to identify who in the neighbourhood murdered a neighbour — because every reader knows that anything that is potentially dangerous to the family is an absolute priority to eliminate. In the modern cozy, we don’t identify mentally ill people so that we can put them in an asylum, we get them into treatment and courses of pharmaceuticals.
I’ve remarked elsewhere that I dislike the modern cozy because it treats murder as something that happens off-stage, non-violently, and without upsetting the reader. The “light mystery”, as Stasio puts it, to me is repellent because it’s communicating that although the fact that a murder has been committed is felt to be bad and necessary to “solve”, one doesn’t need to ground one’s outrage in the mere fact that someone has been violently killed. It’s sort of understood that murders are regrettable but it’s kind of fun to investigate them. I draw the line between the “light mystery” and the “comedy mystery” — I don’t get worked up about the victims in, say, Craig Rice or Alice Tilton novels, because it’s clear that all that’s intended is humour. But I really want there to be more moral outrage expressed that someone in a modern cozy has stabbed a local gossipeuse, however repellent and morally unsound she may have been. This to me is a major flaw of the modern cozy. The sub-text is saying that it’s okay not to have to look at the dead body of a crime victim, probably because you would find it upsetting and nauseating. But I’m saying that you have to look at the body because it is precisely that act that will fill you with the moral outrage necessary to want to take an active hand in solving the crime. 99% of the time in the modern cozy, the victims are evil, wicked, morally unsound and frequently criminal. And 99% of the time in the real world, those people are punished, if at all, by the legal system. I believe we have to hate the fact that someone takes that law into their own hands, and so I think the cozy is contributing to a world in which the taking of the law into one’s own hands is overlooked or even condoned.
It would be fair to comment here that I seem to be defining the cozy mystery in terms to suit myself because it’s pretty clear that I don’t really like cozy mysteries. It’s a common practice to set up a straw-man definition and then find reasons why the thing you’ve defined is a bad thing. I admit there’s a certain part of that which must ring true, because it’s clear that I don’t really like cozy mysteries. I’ll be fair and say that they are not written for me, or even remotely like anything that I am accustomed to read for pleasure. I like lots of plot and little characterization; these are the opposite. But I think it’s also fair to say that cozy mysteries have something that underlies them that, if carried to its logical conclusion, is bad for society. It is bad for us to think that violence must take place off-stage so that we won’t be offended or revolted by it; if violence happens in front of us, we will do more to stop it. It is bad for us to absorb our moral values from the sub-text of commercial fiction without any context that makes it clear that we are doing so. It is bad for us to think that we are thinking when what is actually happening is that we are feeling.
And quite personally, I think it is bad for society to take the useful and diverting process that is the puzzle mystery — something which trains people to think logically, solve puzzles, look beneath the surface, deduce, and punish crime even at great cost — and suck the life out of it, leaving nothing but meretricious emotional displays, an ability to pretend that reality is much more pretty than it actually is, and a complete lack of thought. So I will not accept, as Stasio also refuses to accept, that the modern cozy is the updated version of the traditional Golden Age mystery. Instead, I am more confirmed in my now-examined belief that the modern cozy is “mystery porn”.
Postscript: It used to be in the 1990s that you could unerringly spot a paperback cozy on the stands because its cover art was some sort of domestic scene that had a skull worked into the picture in some cunning way, as a trompe l’oeil piece of some sort or simply plunked in the corner. If it weren’t for the fact that tastes in artwork have changed, we could have simply pointed to “books with skulls on the cover” and I wouldn’t have had to produce 3,800 words on what is a cozy. Drat.