Thursday, October 17, 2013

Stretching the Boundaries of a Cozy Mystery

Sex. Violence. Profanity. Agatha Christie might be rolling in her grave (or secretly chuckling) as the modern world shoulders its way into the cozy mystery genre.

Cozy mysteries are also referred to as traditional mysteries. The Malice Domestic conference defines a traditional mystery—books best typified by the works of Agatha Christie—as mysteries which contain no explicit sex or excessive gore or violence; and usually (but are not limited to) featuring an amateur detective, a confined setting, and characters who know one another.

The term cozy mysteries came from the tea cozy, a cloth cover for a teapot which insulates the tea, keeping it warm while it sits on the table next to a reader ensconced in an easy chair reading a traditional mystery. Jessica Fletcher, the heroine of the television series, Murder, She Wrote, typified the type of amateur sleuth found in a cozy mystery. For a more lengthy description of the cozy mystery genre, along with a list of authors, go HERE.

Many current traditional or cozy mystery writers (myself included) have stretched the boundaries of the genre to include a bit more of the grittiness of the modern world. I'll use my own books in the Claire Hanover gift basket designer mystery series to show how we’ve expanded the genre.

Sex – The bedroom door has cracked open a bit, allowing brief glimpses of a breast or a bare bum, but long descriptions of the sex act itself, with plumbing details, are still not tolerated by readers. As an example of walking this line, an underlying subplot in To Hell in a Handbasket, the second book in the Claire Hanover gift basket design series, is Claire's daughter's propensity for appearing just when Claire and her husband decide to get amorous, stopping the action and being grossed out by what she sees.

Violence – Descriptions of the murder victim often have become more graphic, as in my upcoming November release, A Basket of Trouble, the third book in the series, where mention is made of blood, flies, a smashed nose and a leg bent at a unnatural angle. The total description is still limited to just one paragraph, though. Also, fight scenes and shoot-outs can be included in a modern cozy, but prolonged torture or on-screen rape scenes still aren’t tolerated.

Victim – While in the past, the cozy murder victim was someone who “deserved to die” (thus giving us lots of suspects with motive) and was not someone to be mourned, that's no longer always the case. For example, in To Hell in a Handbasket, the first murder victim is an innocent young woman, a friend of Claire's daughter, who still had her whole life ahead of her.

Profanity – Just as modern society has become more tolerant of some foul language, so has the cozy form. An occasional four-letter word is allowed when strong emotion demands it, but it's usually spoken by a male character or a hardened female character, and rarely by the sleuth herself. In A Real Basket Case, the first book in the series, it's usually Claire's husband, her embittered friend Ellen, or one of the criminals involved who, overcome by emotion, let slip with a brief curse.

Confined setting – Often this is interpreted to mean the setting should be a small town or village, but the important aspect here is that most of the characters know each other so when the sleuth interviews them, they divulge information about each other. This can be accomplished by giving most of the characters a common pursuit, even though the book is set in a large city. An example is the staff and clientele of the same Colorado Springs gym in A Real Basket Case.

Issues - Cozies nowadays often tackle political, environmental or ethical issues that may have only been touched upon in the past. For instance, A Basket of Trouble explores the issue of illegal immigration, from the often ignored perspective of the small business owner who tries to do the right thing.

The one feature of the cozy mystery genre that is usually not stretched is that the sleuth is an amateur. Why is this? Because if professional police forensics such as DNA analysis are used to solve the crime versus the interviewing of witnesses, the finding of clues, and deduction of motives, then the puzzle aspect of the books is lost. Then the readers don't have the enjoyment of trying to figure out who the killer is themselves.

Regardless of how the boundaries are being stretched, I will continue to be a fan of cozy mysteries in all their forms, reading them while ensconced in an easy chair next to a pot of warm tea.

Do you have any limits for what you’ll read? If you're a cozy mystery reader, what do you like best about the genre?

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