Friday, February 7, 2014

What Feels Cozy to You? More Discussion about the Cozy Mystery

Nice to see others publicly perplexed about just what really constitutes a "cozy" mystery.

Lawrence Block?

P. D. James?

Cozy or Gory?
since the publication nearly thirty
years ago of A Taste for Death
editions have stressed the
grisly killing razor and blood
as the main design motifs
P. D. James talks a lot about her love of structure and order in life and how her books offer a measure of comfort in that some form of order is restored at the end, but such an order this is!

The existing order in P. D. James novels is one where most people seem pretty miserable most of the time. I don't find misery "cozy" personally. Not to mention the murders often are horrifying, with all manner of unpleasant details.

I suppose James' later books, when she allows Dalgleish some measure of personal happiness, are cozier.  Also there are elements in the books that I see as cozy, like lots of detail about old English architecture and interior decoration; "well-bred" English people who invariably speak in long sentences of impeccable grammar; and, of course, tea (Ovaltine, even!).

I do recall a cat in one--although it was strung up by the murderer to try to lure its owner outside her (cozy) cottage to be killed as I recall.*

*(note to concerned cozyistas: I think cat and owner both survived, happily--TPT)

The pair in the youtube clip above, Jim Parsons and Craig Ferguson, both seem to agree that Agatha Christie is cozy.

Yet even there, I don't know.  Is And Then There Were None cozy (it's definitely an isolated community)? Ordeal by Innocence? Endless Night?  Even a village mystery like Murder Is Easy I wouldn't call cozy (multiple murders of nice people and then the murderer turns out to be....well, read it for yourself if you haven't). Maybe there should be a "cozy-ish" category.

Though this may be too limiting, I guess in my mind I often tend to think of "cozy" more as "cutesy," which would be something like, I think, this book by Ellery Adams.  Okay, I'm judging a book by its cover, but from that cover it's seemingly got about everything you would want in a cutesy-cozy:

Now this looks cozy!
Come in and sit a spell....
it has a playful title (not a pun, but it rhymes; for a bad pun see the previous book in the series, Pies and Prejudice)

it involves food (better yet, it's dessert; ideally there should be some recipes in the text too)

it's part of a series (a charmed pie shoppe mystery we're told--extra points are given for giving the word "shop" a ye olde English spelling--this gives readers series characters with whom they can identify in book after book)

it has an animal (I suppose ideally it should be a cat, but other animals are permissible I think, as long as they're cute as the dickens)

there is a pretty pastel cover design (I'm reminded of those M. C. Beaton Hamish Macbeth covers that always make me want to go to Britain immediately to live in a thatch-covered cottage)

It's also authored by a woman (despite the ambiguous name), which probably helps.  Do men really write real cozies, at least under their own names?  There's Dean James, who books sound genuinely cozy in the strictest sense, but he writes them as Miranda James.

I'd love to think that Ian Rankin, say, secretly writes cozies under the name Isidora Ramekin.

I'm planning on tackling a couple by Carolyn Hart books next week, so there will be more on this subject, since she is seen as sort of a modern cozy founding mother.  I've been busy this week trying to get an article on another author done for CADS, but I expect to be back on track next week.


  1. "the existing order in P. D. James novels is one where people are miserable most of the time"
    Surely that shows how important order is to her. Better even an order like that than none

    1. Yes, I always see it as stoicism. Admirable, but not cozy!

    2. I suspect that she's rewritten her own memories of her earlier books. At least in the Cordelia Gray books I don't remember order being restored by the end.

    3. Well, there's the satisfaction of solving the murder, except, like you say, the resolution of Skull Beneath the Skin is pretty ambiguous as I recall. But even in the ones where Dalgleish nabs his quarry, I often don't feel a great Auden-like satisfaction. There are a lot of unhappy people at the end, usually. Unhappiness is part of James' world order. That's realism, not coziness. Of course I doubt James herself has ever categorized her books as cozy.

  2. Curt,

    On the JDCarr forum, I once joked someone should write a series of cozies about Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett, in which their motivation for writing hardboiled mysteries is to escape from the dreary, everyday reality of continuously being involved with poisonings at garden parties and murders in libraries. A pastel colored cover bearing the sub-title, "A Cozy Mystery Starring Raymond Chandler," will be a hoot!

    I define a cozy as one of those contemporary, women-and character oriented novels with a thin coating of crime and usually with a gimmick like intelligent cats or hobby/work tie-ins. They're usually pawned off as modern-day whodunits in the stores and found them even over here a couple of times. Some cozy set in Maine and something about a puffin, rubbing spines with the best selling thrillers/police novels of the day. Not Block and Pronzini, of course, because that would make me leave a bookstore happy and that just can't happen too often. That's another reason why I miss the bi-annual, original police-mysteries by Baantjer.

    In defense of one cozy I read, long ago and forgot the title, there was a clever bit where you read the thoughts of the animals and they deduced the death of a human wasn't due to an animal attack because there wasn't an animal smell on the body (or wound). That's about all I can remember of the book, but if a writer knows how to plot, mislead and clue, you can even marry the cozy with the traditional detective story - like Stout did with the hardboiled and cerebral detective.

  3. I've seen "cozy" defined really broadly as any mystery eschewing explicit sex and violence, but that just seems too broad to me. I think there are a lot of mysteries that have cozy elements, but I wouldn't really call them cozies.

    G. M. Malliet's current "season" series might be what I would call cozies that are cozies without being "cutesy." I reviewed the first one at Mystery*File a couple years back, gave it a rave. Of course it also had some sharp satire, which I associate more with Robert Barnard (don't really think of him as cozy).

  4. The trouble with cozy murder mysteries is that murder is inherently non-cozy. Whether it takes place in the vicarage or in the gutter it's still pretty non-cozy. Even if it's played for laughs there's still the problem that there aren't too many laughs for the poor old corpse.

    1. I would imagine in a true cozy you would need to make the murder victim rather unattractive to start with, so that his/her expunging does not raise the emotional stakes for the reader too high. That's what G. M. Malliet did in her first book. The truth is, life in the village is better (though duller) without her.

      You're right of course, murder isn't cozy, which makes the whole convention kind of odd. It is true that emotions are played down in the classical clue puzzle murder story, but, on the other hand, I don't believe anyone was calling the books "cozies" back in the Golden Age. Murder was still supposed to be a serious matter.

      Actually, in the true cozy, as I see it, emotions are emphasized, but it's more humor and relationship issues, things that would have been seen as extraneous in a classic clue puzzle.

  5. Men who do write cozies under their own names: J. J. Murphy, Phil Rickman, and the King of the male cozy writers -- Alexander McCall Smith. You don't get much more cozy than the Precious Ramotswe books. Amazingly, no recipes or craft patterns!

    I visited that cozy mystery website. Block is there because of the Burglar books as I suspected. But that's only a very small portion of his immense output. I'm sure the creator of the website would be horrified to discover the man who invented Bernie Rhodenbarr also wrote explicit lesbian erotica under a female pseudonym as well as the very perverse and disturbing novel MONA (aka GRIFTER'S GAME). And yet... whoever is in charge of that site lists not only cozy writers but very violent crime writers like Michael Connelly and Harlan Coben and says they are included "even though they aren't cozy" because the owner of the website likes them. What's the point of calling the website if it's going to include *anyone* who writes a mystery or crime novel?

    If you listen carefully when Ferguson accuses Agatha Christie of not writing "gritty" murders Parsons vehemently replies, "No, no, no, no, no, no!" I was ready for him to talk about the brutal murders she created but instead he goes into his Googling and his discovery of the term "cozy" at the website. Had he never heard of the term in relation to Agatha Christie until then? Apparently not! Rather remarkable, I think. And yet Ferguson knew the term and was ready to jump on him for calling Block *and* James cozy writers. So it made me think Parsons had only recently became a mystery fan while Ferguson has probably been a lifelong reader of crime fiction.

    1. Alexander McCall Smith, King of Male Cozy Writers! I guess I should have thought of him, but then I guess I thought of him more as a "place" writer. I think I must have too restricted a notion of "cozy."

      PD James likes AMS, by the way. I guess you could add the Bradley's Flavia mysteries too,

      I loved Ferguson miming the horrible murders in James' books. It does sound like Parsons is new to mysteries, which is interesting. He's not too far our own ages, I think, and people my age who read Christie usually picked her up when they were young--kids often--and kept with her for life.

  6. There are books and stories by Agatha Christie that I find too grim to reread: And Then There Were None is one. There seems to be a modern "cozy" genre - are people projecting the modern genre back onto writers of the 20s and 30s? (Miss Marple occasionally mumbles knitting patterns aloud - "Let me see now, two plain, three purl, yarn over, that's right...", but it's a BLIND! And sometimes recipes feature - but they contain coded messages!)

    1. Lucy, I think the point about projection is great. I don't believe people were calling Christie, Sayers, Allingham, etc. "cozy" back in the day. In fact, if you had told Sayers her book were "cozy" she probably would have thrown one of them at you (let's hope not Gaudy Night, that could really hurt!).

      Which isn't to say you can't get cozy satisfactions from Sayers' books. Sayers herself did, as did P. D. James. But there are other things going on too!

    2. I'm conviced that the term cozy was invented by a paperback marketing department back in the early 1980s. I wish I could prove this. I also vaguely recall an American book reviewer using the term to disaprage the traditional mystery. There might be an article in MURDER INK, published in 1975 or 1976, where the term first crops up. But even if we can't pinpoint the origins of the term I agree with Curt. It's a fairly recent term used to describe a certain type of traditional msytery with less violence and no gratuitous sex. We can thank Berkeley Prime Crime and other similar imprints and paperback houses and the Malice Domestic mystery convetion for perpetutating the contemporary cozy and the use of the term to be applied retroactively, as it were, to writers of the past.

  7. I have been frustrated with trying to come up with a definition of a cozy mystery; I guess everyone has their own definition. And I agree with you, based on the most common descriptions of cozy mysteries, Agatha Christie doesn't always fit. I would go so far as to say, often doesn't fit. And some people (including myself at times) describe some police procedurals as "cozy-ish" if they are not too gritty and dark. Anyway, I loved that discussion between Jim Parsons and Ferguson, even if Parsons is relatively new to mysteries. Ferguson may be more knowledgeable but doesn't know much about "cozies."

    1. TracyK, I think we may be on to something with "cozy-ish"! A lot of the mysteries I like clearly have cozy elements or aspects, but I don't know that I would call them pure "cozy."

      I guess I have to admit one thing that always makes me hesitate about designating a book "cozy" is that then it's immediately in the same category as the recipe and craft mystery books, which are just too cozy by half for me (or probably more than half, lol). Those are the ones I call "cutesy-cozy."

      I think the thing for me is, a lot of "cozy" mysteries don't seem to be just pure escapism, they actually do have something to say about the world. Christie's books have a lot of bad people in them, really, when you think about it. Wicked people. And who they turn out to be can be quite unsettling--at least to me.

      I guess you could say it's poetic justice for PD James to get classified as "cozy" herself, when she's always making Christie sound so anodyne!

      I thought Parsons was great and I'm glad led him to PD James, even if she's not really cozy. Would love to have an interview with him here about mysteries!

  8. I am very glad that you want to review some cozy mystery books. This sub-genre has been disregarded/looked down by some of the fans of mystery without them actually read any cozy mystery books and yet they are frusrated when other people judge their favourite sub-genre mystery and make a general and swapping statement about all the books in cozy mystery category. They label ALL cozy mystery books as books with weak plots that emphasize more on the characters without them reading any cozy mystery or just read one or two.

    1. Yes, I'll be adding some more thoughts on cozies next week, I hope. Fascinating topic, I think.

  9. As usual, Curtis, you've provoked a good deal of thought in me; so much so that it has engendered about 4,000 words of burble on the topic of "What is a cozy?" at my own blog at Thank you for the inspiration!

    1. Wow, that's great, will check it out. That Jim Parsons really started something!

      For people who read this blog, Noah's is one linked on the right.

  10. I'm an old cozy reader from way back but I'm not much for what I call 'manufactured' modern cozies, i.e. the cover of the one you post with the dog and the table of deserts - though it's a wonderful bit of art. Lots of these johnny come lately cozies are just too precious for me, plus the writing isn't always what it should be. I think this is because there's a mistaken impression around that cozies are easy to write.

    A lot of Agatha Christie is cozy to me. Also, Jo Dereske's Miss Zukas books (library cozy), Alexander McCall Smith, Delano Ames, Michael Innes (literary cozy), Rex Stout (hardboiled detective cozy), Aaron Elkins (forensic cozy), Elizabeth Peters, Susan Moody, Dorothy Sayers, Mary Roberts Rinehart (had I but known, cozy), Georgette Heyer (village murder cozies) and so on and so on. As for definition I'll just say I know a cozy when I read one. Great topic.

    1. Yvette, going by your list I am definitely a cozy fan! I am looking forward to writing something on Carolyn Hart, when I get the time. I am finishing a CADS essay on a forgotten women mystery writer, soon to be reprinted, who just might be considered cozy!

  11. Cozy is any descendant of “Murder. What fun!” I think that was Chandler's phrase for A A Milne's book — which is cozy indeed. But I think that phrase sums it up exactly.

    Some names not mentioned: Richard Hull, C H B Kitchin, Nicholas Blake.