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.

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