When it comes to mysteries, are you cozy or are you creepy? Me; I like them with a little bit of creep but not too much blood and guts – but I’m comfortable with cozies too. That’s part of the reason I like stuff by writers like Sara Paretsky. It’s a little bit gritty but not too much so.
So, what’s a cozy mystery? Well, a cozy can be defined as a nice, ‘soft-boiled’, non-violent, non-erotic mystery story that’s typically set in a small town or a very specific location (like a locked room puzzle). The mystery may involve murder and it may not but, if murder is in the plot, it typically happens offstage and, whatever the crime, it’s always solved by an amateur sleuth.
Long before we had cozies we had what were known as ‘traditional mysteries’ a la the work of Agatha Christie and the Ellery Queen novels from the Golden Age of mystery fiction at the turn of the 20th century and into 1930. Meanwhile, hard-boiled detective/mystery fiction was the 1930s to 1950s forerunner to modern detective fiction done in a thriller or suspense style for a mass market audience. It’s roots stemmed from the pulp magazines of the era and extended to a novel format that was then popularized by writers like Dashiell Hammett who created the Sam Spade private detective character and Raymond Chandler with his Philip Marlowe detective character.
Britannica defines ‘Hard Boiled’ mystery fiction as: “A tough, unsentimental style of American crime writing that brought a new tone of earthy realism or naturalism to the field of detective fiction. Hard-boiled fiction used graphic sex and violence, vivid but often sordid urban backgrounds, and fast-paced, slangy dialogue.”
In 1947 mysteries started to evolve again when Mickey Spillane introduced Mike Hammer to the world in I, the Jury. The Hammer stories went beyond hard-boiled into the realm of blood and guts. By the early 1960s though, television was changing everything. Cop shows were changing the way we read and the hard-boiled and the blood and guts stuff mixed with police procedural writing styles to give us the darker, more sinister suspense thrillers we know and love today.
But wait, though they’re quite popular, not every author publishing today writes creepy, brooding, dark mysteries…What about popular mainstream authors like Janet Evanovich, Dick Francis and Sue Grafton? They sell millions of books with each new release but their work could hardly be described as dark and brooding or even hard-boiled. In fact, their work led the way for what we know as the ‘cozy mystery’ today which is the ‘traditional mystery’ of yesteryear. They continue to publish and straddle a line between what is now common and what is a throwback known as a cozy. In fact, Evanovich’s first Stephanie Plum themed book, One for the Money, heads the ‘Best Cozy Mystery Series‘ list at Goodreads.Cozies are indeed a throwback to the golden age style of writing without violence, gore and sex but with a modern, present day (usually) twist. Today’s popular mainstream mystery fiction comes from all three of the aforementioned writers and darker writers like Patricia Cornwell, Michael Chrichton, John Grisham, John LeCarre, Sara Paretsky Robert Parker, James Patterson and so many, many more. All out cozies – those that meet the non-violent and non-sexual criteria and that feature amateur sleuths – come from a wide variety of writers who have mostly (but not always) come from the indie ranks. They self publish in paperback and digitally and, though their names aren’t on the tip of every mystery lover’s tongue…yet, many will get there. Some of the best known names are Joanne Fluke, Victoria Laurie, Alexander McCall Smith (The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency), Lillian Jackson Braun (Cat Who… Mysteries) and on, and on. There are tons of great cozy authors out there and the list is growing.
Back in May I wrote this post: Cozy Mystery? Yeah or Nay?. I was going back and forth with a friend then about writing cozies as opposed to more mainstream mysteries with a little blood and guts and, ahem, maybe a little sex too. My friend told me I already wrote cozies. I pointed out why my books were no such thing. She challenged me then to write a cozy and I told her I would consider it.
As a reader, I am both. As a writer, I lean slightly toward creepy but I’ve decided to stretch my wings and attempt a cozy. My fourth book, Hitched and Tied will be out within the week. It includes a recurring character and a new character that will get their own case in book five. If it works and finds even a small bit of an audience, the two characters will get their own spin off series.
How about you? Are you cozy or are you creepy?