01 June 2013

Cozy vs Traditional: Not a fight to the death, but please don’t say they’re not different


by Elizabeth Zelvin

In certain mystery circles, you can’t mention the definition of a cozy without opening a can of worms. The discussion can get a little, er, heated, if not squirmy. And woe betide anyone who calls a book a cozy to the author’s face, if the author does not herself (or himself) define the work as a cozy.

I am really, truly not using the term “cozy” pejoratively. The dozen or so cozy writers I know well are as committed to their craft as any writers I know. They’re also more successful than most of us who started out at about the same time, ten years ago or thereabouts. They have multiple series contracts, enough readers to make the New York Times paperback bestseller lists, and have received a number of major awards and nominations. However, “cozy” nowadays is a tightly defined category that does not apply to all traditional mysteries or even all amateur-sleuth whodunits.

The present-day cozy is not merely any mystery that’s not hardboiled. It’s not just one with an amateur-sleuth protagonist and one or more murders that take place within a limited circle of people known to one another. It’s not merely one that eschews gratuitous violence, explicit sex, and four-letter words. The quintessential cozy is the kind published by Berkley Prime Crime, which actually breaks out the categories of Culinary, Hobbies, and Pet Lovers on its mystery list. The titles run to puns and word play on the series theme. In addition to the story, readers are offered recipes, patterns, or some kind of household tips. Typically, the amateur sleuth is a woman, but early in the series, she begins a romance with a man in law enforcement—the investigating detective, sheriff, or chief of police. If they are adversaries rather than lovers, that makes them no different than the hero and heroine of a romance novel, who will probably get together in spite of, if not because of, the flying sparks.

I don’t write cozies. I write traditional mysteries, and I admit that I prefer reading traditional mysteries. My mysteries are character driven, and I’ve taken on some challenging and even controversial themes. Cozy characters grow over the course of a series, and there’s certainly an arc in their relationships and changes in how they live their lives. They have issues to deal with that might include illness, death, divorce, family conflict, and financial insecurity. But in cozies, there has to be some kind of cap on how bad things get or how controversial the themes can be.

I’m not saying cozy writers are too fastidious. Whatever the limits are, I believe they’re set by publishers’ perceptions of what readers of this kind of mystery want to read. I think writers of traditional mysteries have permission to dig a little deeper. Nor is their language censored. I no longer need to go to the barricades over the right to use the F word, but lately I’ve noticed characters in Berkley cozies limiting their expletives to “gosh” and “darn,” which makes them unrealistic for the 21st century that I live in.

In my mystery series, my main theme is alcoholism and recovery. That means it’s inevitable that such issues as drug addiction, domestic violence, and sexual abuse and trauma come up now and then. I also write about Jewish characters. So far, the theme of anti-Semitism has come up only in my historical stories set in 1492, when the Inquisition was in flower. But at any time, a character might take me down that road, and I don’t want any roadblocks in the way.

I don’t consider Agatha Christie my literary progenitor. I claim descent (I hope not too presumptuously) from Dorothy L. Sayers, who revolutionized the detective story when she turned Lord Peter Wimsey from a flat to a rounded, feeling character in the middle of her series. Some of the themes in her later novels that I’d call passionate are the exploration of feminism in Gaudy Night and how deeply she takes us, at the end of Busman’s Honeymoon, into how traumatic it is for Lord Peter to feel responsible to sending someone to the gallows.

Another terrific exemplar of the traditional mystery is Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne series. Now there’s an amateur sleuth, a clergywoman, who takes up with a law enforcement guy. But there’s nothing cozy about the difficulties they have to overcome to be together—including his marriage, her ethics, and their guilty feelings even when the barriers are removed, not to mention her deployment to Iraq and the trauma that she and her fellow soldiers bring back with them. There’s tremendous passion in that relationship as well as in the way Spencer-Fleming handles the material, such as environmental issues, around which she weaves her mystery plots. And they’re not the kind of stories that leave the reader hoping for recipes.

9 comments:

Janice Law said...

I'll have to look up Julia Spencer-Fleming!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Janice, she's won just about every award.

Wolfgang A. Mozart said...

Well done, Liz. I'm a bit confused about all the sub-genres under "mystery," and you've cleared up (for me) the difference between traditional and cozy.

Now, can you tell me where soft-boiled fits? Can a mystery be both soft-boiled and traditiona?

Wolfgang A. Mozart said...

Oops, left off the "l" in traditional.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I think soft-boiled is more likely to be used when the protagonist is a PI. Parnell Hall's hilarious Stanley Hastings is soft-boiled, though I don't know if most people think of him that way. Just my opinion, but if you look at the women, Kinsey Millhone and Sharon McCone could be called soft- or medium-boiled, V.I. Warshawski not so much: sometimes she seems to go out looking for a beating.

Fran Rizer said...

Liz, didn't a recent email you sent out rank your e book release in the cozy listings?

Anonymous said...

I think even writers of traditional mysteries can claim to be heirs of Christie. Some of hers would never get a Berkeley cozy contract.

Louis A. Willis said...

I've understood exactly what a cozy is. Now that you have given me some idea, I must read some to add to my knowledge of the many mystery sub-genres.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Fran, during the free promotion of DEATH WILL GET YOU SOBER, it went up to #1 in the Amazon free for Kindle rankings overall and in BOTH the cozy and hardboiled categories. Amazon makes up the list of mystery/thriller subcategories, and my publisher chose which ones to put me in--in this case, both, because my books are both/neither/in between. I was tickled that it did so well in both. :)