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.