You may recall I did a little poll last week concerning the nature of the term “cosy” when it comes to crime fiction. I was going to wait a little while to collect my thoughts, but I’ve been listening to an interview where Laura Wilson interviews Martin Edwards and Richard Coles – it’s a bit odd, it’s like a tag-team event where Martin gets ten minutes to talk about the Crime Classics range and then Richard gets tagged in to talk about Murder Before Evensong. Anyway, at least twice now, Laura has used the word “cosy” as a euphemism for “Golden Age”, and I think it’s time to put an end to this confusion once and for all. I just wish that I could.
The term “cosy mystery” – technically “cozy mystery” as sources seem to indicate it started in the US – first appeared in the late 20th century and seems to, in theory, cover mysteries where:
- any violence, sex or profanity occurs off-page
- the sleuth is an amateur
- the sleuth often has a specific job – bookseller, cheesemaker, White House chef
Also, more often than not in the titles that I’ve read
- the sleuth is having a relationship with the local sheriff; and
- the title is a god-awful pun
These books profligate in the US as a response to the hard-boiled genre but never really had much success over here in the UK. That hasn’t stopped the term “cosy mystery” from crossing the Atlantic however…
Nowadays, it is often used to describe anything that tackles the first criteria listed. But just because the author doesn’t describe any of those things, doesn’t mean that the book in question is light and fluffy. So let’s take a quick look at the results of the poll I conducted.
|The Appeal||Janice Hallett||83%||17%|
|Gallows Court||Martin Edwards||94%||6%|
|Magpie Murders||Anthony Horowitz||81%||19%|
|Brother Athelstan||Paul Doherty||86%||14%|
|Brother Cadfael||Ellis Peters||65%||35%|
|The Thursday Murder Club||Richard Osman||83%||17%|
|The Bernie Rhodebarr Mysteries||Lawrence Block||83%||17%|
|The Hollow Man||John Dickson Carr||94%||6%|
|And Then There Were None||Agatha Christie||92%||8%|
|A Murder Is Announced||Agatha Christie||56%||44%|
|The ABC Murders||Agatha Christie||80%||20%|
|The Hound Of The Baskervilles||Arthur Conan Doyle||95%||5%|
So in the eyes of the expert witnesses (i.e. you good readers) none of these books are cosy mysteries.
You might question my choices, but there’s a method in my madness. The Appeal is a well-disguised traditional mystery with clues and stuff. But that doesn’t make it cosy. Gallows Court is set in the Golden Age. Not enough either. Magpie Murders, similarly, is two very traditional mysteries in a new setting. But clearly a new setting is enough to stop it being cosy. Cosy mysteries need familiarity.
Brothers Athelstan and Cadfael were then enlisted, partly to see the contrast. You see, I thought Cadfael might tick the image of a cosy. He fits a lot of the criteria (although I don’t think he’s in a relationship with the Sheriff) whereas Brother Athelstan is a ray of light in a distinct grubby London where his creator never shies away from some grotesque (but true) imagery – the dismembered head with the victim’s nether regions shoved in its mouth is an image that had never left me (and now will never leave you – sorry). Quite frankly, I’m amazed 14% thought he was cosy.
Richard Osman’s book being so non-cosy surprised me, I have to say, given that I’ve seen it described as such many times. Lawrence Block’s Burglar books however… now the only difference between the basic set-up of those books and most US cosies is the lead being male. So again, this one surprises me. Any insight on these two would be gratefully received.
The Hollow Man and The Hound Of The Baskervilles were there for contrast, but the most interesting results are the Agatha Christie books. Namely, Miss Marple (or at least A Murder Is Announced) is the closest book in the list to having a majority of cosy votes whereas Poirot and And Then There Were None didn’t come close. Is it Miss Marple herself? Is it the village setting? If I’d picked The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd (set in a village, Poirot is now an amateur), might that have come close? Probably not.
So what have we learned? Well, none of these books are cosy mysteries. There are such mysteries in the UK these days, but they tick the same boxes as the US traditional cozies, such as Murder At The Dolphin Hotel by Helena Dixon, Faith Martin’s Jenny Starling mysteries etc. But these are books where, I’m 90% sure, the author would admit that they have set out to write a cosy mystery.
Certainly just being written between the wars does not make a book cosy. As you know, dear reader, Golden Age crime fiction covers a multitude of styles of books – even if you only read Agatha Christie – so trying to paste a generic “cosy” label over them is generalising to a ridiculous extreme.
There’s nothing wrong with a good cosy mystery (apart from the fact that one with clues in it is pretty rare) – for example, you really should check out Chef Maurice And A Spot Of Truffle and its two sequels by J A Lang. But we could really do without tagging anything going with the label as it does put some people off a book if that label sticks.
Have I reached any useful conclusion? Not really, apart from the fact that people use the term incorrectly, and I knew that already. But how about that we don’t use the word “cosy” to describe a book unless the author does so first? Or if it involves a haunted yarn shop?
Here’s something that you might find interesting: I recently heard Richard Laymon, an American cult horror writer, described as “cosy”. Laymon wrote books filled with so much disgusting sex and violence that he kind of defined a genre known as “splatterpunk”. So why are his books cosy? Because they’re easy reads and don’t require any intellectual engagement.
As for cosy mysteries, I like Charlotte MacLeod, but that’s about it, and I see her as more comedic than “cosy”. It feels like a term that’s used to denigrate light-hearted writing by women, in a sense.
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I feel that the term “Cosy” was invented by women, particularly the kind of blood bespattered harridans who wrote a lot of gory but poor books in the 90’s and early 2000 ‘s I would name one but those I read made little or no impression on me.
I have been surprised by the inclusion Of Agatha Christie in this genre .I have always felt there was a pretty steely core to most of her work , Don’t misunderstand me,I always felt she was a second rate writer of books and an excellent writer of puzzles, but that’s just me,
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That’s a fair point. Christie I think was a functional as opposed to a poetic writer, by and large, but she wrote excellent entertainment and also had some strong ideas about morality.
A recurring idea in her books, definitely not PC now, is “moral retardation”, meaning a lack of understanding of right or wrong. There’s a character in And Then There Were None…, for instance, who killed two children in a hit-and-run while driving dangerously, but feels no guilt not because he’s evil, per se, but because he was raised without morals. That’s certainly not a “cosy” idea!
The last major bookstore chain in America is Barnes and Noble. If you go into any of its branches and make your way to the Mystery section, it always begins with rows and rows and ROWS of cozy mysteries. They fulfill your criteria, PD: the puns fly fast and furious, and a lot of hunky sheriffs are celebrating their wedding day to the sleuthing baker/quilter/candlemaker.
I hate ‘me all!
It’s interesting that the closest Christie comes to being labeled “cozy” in your poll is A Murder Is Announced, which not only is most certainly not cozy, but totally belies the commenters here who dismiss Christie as a functional writer who crafts good puzzles. Her take on post-War village life and the plight of middle-aged and elderly women is incredibly moving. Her killer is a pathetic monster. Characters undergo immense loss and change. There is nothing “cozy” or “merely functional” going on here.
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I hope I didn’t seem like I was denigrating Christie when I described her work as functional. I meant in relation to the prose on a sentence-by-sentence level. I like her work a lot! And I agree with you about how thematic some of her work can be. A Murder is Announced is one I’ve been meaning to read for a while. Crooked House is another one with a darkly moving ending.
Just fyi, Lawrence Block’s was one I haven’t read, so I just went by the blurb when voting. I did say ‘A murder is announced’ was cosy, because it’s closer to cosy than the others you mentioned, I think it’s that feeling of a close society, almost hemmed in together. Not so much because they are in a village but just because the circle of acquaintence seems so small, which applies city or country. But it definitely has more depth than the archetypical cafe-based fluff…
I, too, ticked A Murder is Announced as ‘cosy’ (damn, there I go using the wrong spelling for my geographic location again) only because it was about the closest thing I saw on the list (other than Osman’s book, which I actually think does come closest because it’s so darn cuddly). But, yes, I agree on that list of “must haves,” and there aren’t any GA that I think really fit that. There’s always at least some profanity because, hell, otherwise the dialogue would sound fake. Even hunky sheriffs swear. Maybe the Lockridge’s could be called ‘cosy,’ but I’m not sure the constant drinking would work. I had someone tell me after reading a small clip of one WIP that she loved my writing but wouldn’t read any more because I used “profanity.” Couldn’t remember doing so in that little bit so checked and found I used the word “darn.” Now find that woman again and ask to see her reading list—bet that would be a perfect list of ‘cosy’ mysteries.
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If any vaguely classic style mystery gets called a “cosy” then what do we call the cupcakes-and-crime type books??
I may have just answered my own question.
Exactly. Cupcakes and crime is cosy – pretty sure they define it as such themselves – and nothing else is. Now we just need a way of separating mysteries with clues in them from those without…
This is a good summary and my views are very similar to Puzzle Doctor’s. I think ‘traditional’ mystery, although not perfect, is a better term than ‘cosy’. Some of my books have been described as ‘cosy’ and whilst I’m not cross about it, I am somewhat baffled. To my mind, there’s nothing cosy about Gallows Court, even though it does play around with many Golden Age tropes. One of the practical drawbacks of the term ‘cosy’ is not just that it lacks meaning, but that it leads to books so described being regarded as inferior and that can’t be a good thing.
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Exactly. I dangled Gallows Court into the mix to disprove “set in GA equals cosy”. I wish I still had the poll subscription to try a few more cosier titles – like Simon Brett’s Feathering series – to see what react they get ..
I so enjoyed PD’s five points that create a cozy, including the god-awful pun in the title! The fact is that, even though there are cozies that are well-written, amusing, and entertaining, there are so many “fluffy” ones out there that having one’s book labeled cozy has become an insult, at least as far as I’m concerned. I can think of very few, if any, well-known Golden Age mysteries that I’d consider cozy by PD’s very good definition (and I agree with Jo Chern that, on PD’s booklist, Osman comes the closest but isn’t there.) I actually think the word “thriller” is another overused word that has started to lose any true meaning. My recently published police procedural, PESTICIDE, is neither a cozy nor a thriller; when I was offering it to agents, I tried using the terms “soft-boiled” and (as Martin suggests) “traditional” to get across, first, that it’s not deliberately brutal and, second, that it focuses on solving a puzzle. One sub-genre that does seem to be very clearly defined, by the way, is domestic noir.
I’d modify your third qualification a little. It isn’t just that the amateur sleuth has a specific job, but that the job gets as much attention from the author as the mystery does. Your fourth qualification is one of my pet peeves!
It’s interesting that the Murder is Announced is considered the “cosiest” of these mysteries, given that two of the three murder victims are arguably very likeable. With one of them actually dying onscreen (or onpage) in a very grisly manner.
To the 5 points listed I would add that there is usually a cat on the book cover, and often the protagonist has moved back to her small hometown to take over the family business after a stint in the big city.