Monday, October 31, 2011

The Magic

The last installment of my “What is a Cozy?” series touched off a few memories that I wanted to share: the months I worked at Barnes and Noble.

It was the summer of 2003, after my freshman year of college. I cashiered, shelved, and located books until my brains nearly fell out. And, as much as retail can be, it was a wonderful experience.

I remember the customer complaints. “Why don’t you have an entrance over here?” one asked, as if I were the building’s architect. “When I opened this book, the spine broke. What piece of crap!” another pointed out.

We had customers who would leave sex books in the kids’ section, and a man who tried to return a book six months after he purchased it.

I recall the non sequitur humor of my co-workers, one of whom said that Erica Jong “must suck”—because her books were in the fiction section.

I didn’t much enjoy pushing B&N’s discount card on customers. ($20 a year for 10% off. Very few of our customers spent the $200 on books per year they would need to just break even.) Bizarrely, one customer grew angry when I didn’t pitch it to him. He only grew angrier when I told him the details.

But what I remember most from that summer was Harry Potter night. Yes, I worked the midnight shift and helped release Order of the Phoenix into the book-reading wild.

I wasn’t a Harry Potter fan before that. I’d never even read the books. But seeing my name on the schedule kicked my rear into gear, and I read all of the first four books in about a week or two. What started out as a simple YA tale unfolded into something more magical. The customer service kiosk held a countdown calendar (which I still have), and I enjoyed ripping off the page at the start of each day.

The night came. Children came dressed as their favorite character. They made wands. They sang songs. They had their faces painted. They stood next to a cardboard cut-out of Harry Potter and had their picture taken.

Then they lined up. I stood behind the counter, a box of open books at my feet. All of us counted down until midnight, and when the clock struck, we triumphantly held the books aloft to cheers from the crowd. I felt, in a rare moment, like I was really wrapped up in something bigger than me.

I got so caught up in the excitement that I only sold one copy to the first family in line, when their pre-order had entitled them to two. They were so happy to get their copy, they didn’t notice either. I’ve felt bad about it ever since, and I want to take this time to apologize. Sorry, folks! Hope you didn’t have to wait too long to get your extra book. I can’t imagine how much you fought over who got to read it first.

I haven’t bought a book from Barnes and Noble in years. And I don’t feel bad about it, either. eBooks and online ordering from Amazon have made my book-buying experiences easier than ever. But if there’s one thing I’ll miss about the brick and mortar stores, it’s things like the Harry Potter nights. I love my Kindle. I love the new things happening in publishing. But part of me will miss the magic.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

What is a Cozy? Chapter 2

This is a post in a series on Katherine Hansen Clarke's dissertation, What is a Cozy? 

Clake's second chapter details the influence that book retailers have on the mystery genre. What's really interesting to remember is that this research was conducted in 2004, before the e-publishing boom we're seeing now.

According to the author, writers have minimal control over what books get put in which stores, and even libraries that once were depositories now are cutting back on book buying. Readers can only buy or check out books that are available and that they know about.

“In June 2004,” Clarke “spent three weeks surveying the mystery section of Borders Bookstore in Westlake, Ohio.” This section of the dissertation has a number of details on the number of books in the section, as well as how they were displayed.

On a personal note, I found this amusing: “Fronting is another retail term, which means placing a book lengthwise on a shelf so that the cover rather than just the spine can be seen. Fronting is a significant practice because it takes up a great deal of space (which is at a premium), so deciding what gets fronted and what doesn’t can be an important marketing decision.” I worked at a Barnes and Noble in 2003, and often did the work of “facing” novels. This wasn’t a marketing decision at all. We faced books where we had to in order to make them fit on the shelves. Such is the randomness of life, I guess!

In any case, Clarke’s point in this section is that cozies are rarely, if ever, promoted in the same way that thrillers and hardboiled novels are. “Despite not being promoted,” she says, “cozies sell well. If cozies were to receive a push from the booksellers at Borders and other chain stores, I suggest that the sales would increase substantially.”

She then describes part of the history of Borders, a story that is eerie to read in light of the chain store’s bankruptcy. “Until 1995, each store’s managers ordered the books that they thought their customers would want to buy. This was also the era of employee picks and recommendations.” The company eventually switched over to a software-based system of ordering titles.

Even with the computer system, “what keeps being bought, and what keeps being ordered at the Westlake Borders, are cozies… Yet despite the shelf-presence of many cozy writers, Borders did nothing to promote these authors, forcing them to sell themselves.” Clarke also laments the difficulty of finding an author’s backlist, which is especially irksome for readers who want to read a series from the beginning. This hurts sales overall, because “if readers don’t think they can get earlier books, then frequently they won’t purchase later ones.”

Clarke then profiles independent bookstores, emphasizing a need to create a connection and symbiotic relationship with the local community in order to stay solvent. Part of this is accomplished through the independent bookstore owner’s intimate knowledge of authors and genre expectations. Cozy categories are notoriously hard to pin down, and knowledgeable booksellers help to guide readers in the right direction. This often can't be accomplished in the chain stores.

The chapter closes with a warning about the closure of independent bookstores, as well as an assertion that things don't have to be as dire as they seem. "This is unnecessary," she writes, in response to the fact that it is getting harder to break out. "When it comes to mystery readers, the more series and more books the better. Publishers lose when they drop midlist writers and when they perpetuate return policies that do not allow newer authors to catch on with the reading public."

V.K. says:

It's still difficult for an author to break out. But what I love about the new era of publishing is that readers are no longer under the sole whim of chain stores and publishers. I have no problem finding an author's entire backlist on the Kindle, and no shortage of recommendations from places like Goodreads and LibraryThing. Though the road to publishing success is still difficult, authors and readers are in a better position than ever to do the things they love.

Friday, September 30, 2011

What is a Cozy? Chapter 1

This is a post in a series on Katherine Hansen Clarke's dissertation, What is a Cozy?

The first chapter in this dissertation describes the history of the cozy genre, starting with Cicero, the tale of Susanna in the Apocrypha, and a story in The Arabian Nights. Clarke says something about the crime genre that hadn't occurred to me: "Before detective fiction would be acceptable... the public needed to be on the side of law and order." And for that to happen, the law itself needs to be just and not "arbitrary, oppressive, and brutally administered." It wasn't until justice became more just that detective fiction could really flourish.

After a few of the forefathers of the genre (William Godwin, Edgar Allan Poe), Clarke arrives at Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone. This novel foreshadows the modern cozy because it features an amateur sleuth and emphasizes "the importance of domestic relationships." The books also contains the trope "that the police are unable to solve crimes when the crime occurs outside their usual milieu." The usual police and detective forces in a cozy mystery are useless because the crime was committed in a place that requires "specialized knowledge," like "a dog-grooming salon, or in a bed and breakfast."

Clarke discusses the undeniable influence of Sherlock Holmes on the genre as a whole, including the observation that Holmes is a "model of later eccentric detectives who do not rigidly follow rules of the state or of a class." This segues into a history of the Golden Age, from about 1920-1940, and including such authors as Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Nicholas Blake, S. S. Van Dine, John Dickinson Carr, and Ellery Queen. "In a Golden Age novel, reason reigns supreme, which leads in many Golden Age works to the primacy of plot over character... Golden Age novel writers also felt the need to create narratives that would engage the readers intellectually, and they saw the mysteries as puzzles... The goal was to have the reader be surprised by the ending, and pleased at not figuring out the solution..." Golden Age mysteries set precedents still seen in the cozy, such as the murders being "sanitized" as to not be so disturbing, and the famous "drawing room" scene where the detective explains the solution to all the other characters and justice is upheld.

Other conventions developed which eventually proved problematic for the genre: If the sleuth is an amateur, how do they keep getting involved with murder? If we expect the victim to be unlikeable, and the villain to be the least likely person, how can authors keep the readers from guessing their identities? Clarke goes on to detail several ways in which Golden Age authors broke the "rules" to continually surprise the reader.

The next few sections of this chapter detail the rise of the hardboiled detective novel and its differences from the traditional mystery. One of the most striking differences was that hardboiled novels were not intended as escapist novels, and often do not have happy endings. "Hammett's mysteries are not reassurings but warnings."

Golden Age mystery declined in popularity after World War II, replaced by hardboiled fiction, the police procedural, and the psychological crime novel. "Golden Age novels... seemed to be from another time, a backwards time, a fantasy time."

The term "cozy" first appeared in 1958 to describe mysteries which were lighter in tone. Many authors didn't want to be associated with a genre that was seen as "frothy and unimportant." However, pioneering cozy authors Amanda Cross and Jane Langton "showed... that cozies could be relevant and promote new and progressive ideas... examine relationships between men and women, recognize oppression, and sound alarms about harm to the environment." Publishers, however, were worried that the public wouldn't buy "lighter" mysteries. By the mid-70s, "it wasn't clear if cozies would continue."

This is where Clarke's dissertation ends for now. Next time, we'll look at Chapter 2, a discussion of cozy distribution in bookstores and libraries.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

What is a Cozy? Introduction

Not too long ago, I was doing some research about cozies and people who read cozy mysteries. I eventually came across something really surprising--a doctoral dissertation about cozies called What Is a Cozy? It turns out to be 362 pages of commentary and analysis of the entire cozy genre, including a discussion of who cozy readers are and what they look for in a cozy.

In this series, I'll be taking on the task of reading the whole thing and summarizing the sections. I'm hoping others, who don't necessarily have the time to read the entire dissertation, might be interested in at least knowing the more interesting parts of the paper. I also hope that other authors will find this useful to better connect with cozy readers and their expectations.

This week, then, I want to focus on the introduction.

Katherine Hansen Clarke, the author, begins by pointing out that while the hard-boiled genre has historically gotten a lot of attention from academics and big publishers, the cozy has been ignored in comparison. She also argues that publishers don't promote cozies nearly as much as other mystery sub-genres, which she feels is a mistake.

First, some definitions. Cozy mysteries:

  • Deemphasize sex, violence, and profanity
  • Lack unpleasant surprises, like torture or gore
  • Tend to be light and humorous
  • Normally have an amateur as the protagonist
  • Have a female protagonist
  • Emphasize relationships

Of course, these boundaries are hazy, and Clarke explains that many of these rules have been blurred over the years. The cozy genre is one that's very hard to pin down.

And we need to pay attention to the cozy. Why? Because cozies sell. Of all the mystery subgenres, "cozies are the bestselling." Surprisingly, Clarke has found that "while the mystery genre has been and is being studied by researchers, no work at all has been done on the cozy subgenre." This is an omission that she hopes to correct in the rest of her dissertation.

One of the areas that she really wanted to explore was who the cozy mystery reader was. She began by interviewing bookstore owners, who concluded a cozy reader is usually: "female, over the age of 30, usually professional, usually politically liberal, and usually someone who enjoys reading anything." Then Clarke set out to find if this was true.

Chapter 1 will deal with the history of the genre, followed by a chapter on book distributors and the effects they have on the mystery market. Chapter 3 explains how the "how the cozy not only survived, but thrived," despite opposition. Chapter 4 is the really interesting bit, which dissects who mystery readers are based on a survey conducted by the author. Chapter 5 talks about how technology will affect the mystery genre.

I hope you'll come along with me over the next few posts as we tackle the cozy!

If you're impatient or want more detail, you can always read the dissertation yourself.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Book Review: Murder on the Rocks by Karen MacInerney

In this cozy mystery, Natalie Barnes establishes the Gray Whale Inn, a bed and breakfast off the coast of Maine, when an unscrupulous land developer tries to move in and destroy the natural beauty of the island and the inn along with it. Of course, the developer meets an untimely demise, and Natalie is off to prove her innocence.

One of the big draws for me was the setting. I live in Arizona, and as the years go on I've been fantasizing about moving somewhere with water. (My wife and I went on a vacation to Seattle this summer and I just fell in love with the place.) This book (and series) is set on Cranberry Island. MacInerney does a wonderful job of establishing place in the novel, from the patter of the coastal rain to the smell of the sea. I was looking for an escape from the summer Phoenician heat, and Murder on the Rocks really delivered.

The characters here are likeable, and I admired Natalie Barnes' entrepreneurial spirit. All of us, I think, want to uproot and start anew in some romantic locale, and so I could relate to her in that sense. There are also recipes in the back, for those of you who like some function with your fiction.

There were a few times when Natalie did things that seemed a bit unbelievable (like withholding evidence from authorities for no good reason) and the cliched "villain-reveals-everything" scene at the end did bother me a bit.

Though not without flaws, I found Murder on the Rocks to be an enjoyable cozy mystery, and one worth picking up if you're a fan of the genre. On a technical note, I have to say that the formatting of the Kindle version was very professional. Some e-versions of books have numerous OCR errors, but this book seemed to have been converted with care and attention.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Book Review: Gone, Baby, Gone by Dennis Lehane

I actually got into Dennis Lehane through the movies--I watched Gone, Baby, Gone years ago (liked it), as well as Mystic River (liked it up to a point) and Shutter Island (loved it). So when I was looking for a new mystery series a few months ago, Lehane’s Kenzie and Gennaro series seemed like a good choice.

I might go back and review the first three books in the series later, but Gone, Baby, Gone is the one freshest in my mind. If you want to keep score, though, the previous books in the series are: A Drink Before the War (loved it), Darkness, Take My Hand (well-written, but I didn't enjoy it as much), and Sacred (my favorite in the series so far).

What I really like about the Kenzie and Gennaro novels are how the events in the previous books continue to haunt the private detectives. By this novel, the pair have seen their share of violence--this series is very hard-boiled, even bleak--and want nothing more but to kick back and just take the easy cases. But then, of course, a new case (the kidnapping of a child) forces them back into dark territory. I really liked how the two struggled with even taking the case in the first place, even knowing where it could lead.

The two main characters are also extremely likable, and the mystery itself was intriguing. I also like, in general, how Lehane takes the detective novel and turns it into something literary, even poetic at times. There are some turns of phrase and metaphors that seem almost magical. The English major in me is happy with these books.

Unfortunately, I do think that the writing got carried away. At 500+ pages, it felt overwritten in many places, with what felt like pages and pages of description and inner monologues from Patrick Kenzie. It slowed the pace down much more than I prefer in a mystery novel, and especially due to the subject matter--violence against children--it felt like too much.

I'm still very much a fan of Lehane's writing, and I'd unequivocally recommend the first three books in the series. Though I'm still attached to the characters, this book was a bit of a chore to slog through. I'll be taking a bit of a break before moving on to the next book in the series, preferably with something a bit lighter.

Any other Lehane fans out there? Which book of his is your favorite?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Can You Trust Eyewitness Testimony?

Eyewitness reports play a key role in crime fiction, especially legal fiction. Two guys say the other guy did it, and our intrepid sleuth has to figure out which one is telling the truth. Fortunately, after a fair amount of detecting, he or she is able to find a witness to the crime, and the case is solved--until the witness refuses to testify, of course. Or suffers an untimely death at the hands of the killer.

In any case, the importance of eyewitnesses, and their memory, is undeniable in our stories. That's because of how important it is in real life. Often, the only evidence a detective has to go on at first are eyewitness reports. In trials, eyewitness testimony is seen as the "smoking gun" by many juries.

But how reliable is our own memory?

As it turns out, not very.

We sometimes think of memory like we're playing back the video tape of what we experienced. In truth, researchers say, we rebuild our memories each time we recall them, more like a box of Legos than a recording. In fact, it's more accurate to say that we don't remember events--we remember the last time we remembered them. And each time, we have to build them "from scratch, and if much time has passed you stand a good chance of getting the details wrong. With a little influence, you might get big ones wrong."

This leads to something called the misinformation effect. With a little bit of prodding and poking, researchers can get people not only to misremember things that actually happened, they can easily implant new memories like getting lost at a shopping mall or shaking hands with Bugs Bunny at Disney World (Bugs Bunny is a Warner Bros. character and wouldn't be found at a Disney park).

Elizabeth Loftus summarizes what we know about memory by saying: "If there were three words that I would come up with to to describe what memory is, I would say memory is suggestive, subjective, and malleable."

Remember that the next time you listen to eyewitness testimony. Or when you remember anything.

Or think you remember.

Recommended Reading
Slate series on manipulating memory
YouAreNotSoSmart: Misinformation Effect