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D Level Paper American Literature DATE: June 7, 2012
Cozies & Their Successful Sleuths
A Study of Mystery’s Contemporary Subgenre With Emphasis on Central Genre Conventions and Gender
Supervisor: Elisabeth Herion Sarafidis
Table of Contents
Abstract ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………. 2 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. Introduction ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………. 3 The Term “Cozy Mysteries” …………………………………………………………………………………………….. 4 Historical Development of the Mystery Genre ……………………………………………………………..... 7 Traditional Mysteries and Cozies: Plot and Characterization …………………………………………… 9 Central Features of Cozies ……………………………………………………………………………….……………. 11 The Role of Gender and Successful Sleuths …………………………………………………………………… 25 Conclusion.………………………………………………………….………………………………………………………... 36
List of Works Cited ………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….. 39
This paper is a study of the contemporary mystery subgenre called cozy mysteries. First the paper describes the terminology behind the subgenre, and then a brief historical background of mysteries is provided, along with a comparison of traditional and cozy mysteries. Examples are given throughout from a selection of cozy mysteries, supported by several scholarly sources that have studied mystery from a historical or gender perspective. The main portion of the paper identifies common conventions or features of cozy mysteries, including their emphasis on setting and a theme, and serialization and characterization. A historical and gender perspective is provided. Finally, this study presents my claim, that it is the protagonist in the role of successful sleuth that is one key reason for the appeal of the contemporary subgenre.
The classification “cozy mysteries” refers to a contemporary subgenre of mysteries that has become immensely popular in recent years. Mystery is the fourth best selling genre in the United States and cozy mysteries is the best selling subgenre within the mystery genre. 1 Marilyn Stasio writes that “in a recent survey of the marketplace, the trade journal Publishers Weekly reported that cozy mysteries, especially those with female protagonists, are the new publishing rage, outpacing crime novels that feature male private eyes and police detectives. Mystery bookstore owners say they are shoving their hard-boiled titles aside to make more shelf space for these softer, gentler novels.” Yet surprisingly, despite its growing popularity, the term “cozy mysteries” is still not very well-known. An avid reader myself, my interest in this subject was piqued when I began to read mysteries again a few years ago, and stumbled upon the term “cozy mysteries” on a hand-written note, tucked away on a small shelf in a local bookshop. Intrigued, I began reading. I had not read mysteries for years—only sporadically as an adult, although I had a girlhood love of Nancy Drew—since I generally thought that mysteries were something my father read. However, the more I read cozy mysteries, the more interested I became. I noted that the mysteries shared common characteristics and were more similar to novels I had been reading; yet they were clearly mysteries. Also, most of the protagonists are female, and I suspected the books are written with a predominately female audience in mind. But how did these mysteries develop historically? Compared to traditional mysteries, what makes cozy mysteries special? What lies behind their enormous popularity? I wanted to learn more. In her thesis What is a Cozy?, Katherine Clark Hansen claims to be the first to have discussed the genre in a scholarly fashion. However, older, traditional mysteries have been studied extensively, as have hardboiled and crime. My secondary sources include books
See Katherine Clark Hansen’s dissertation, What is a Cozy? pp 3-4
that focus on the mystery genre in general; several trace the genre’s historical development, and others focus on a gender perspective in historical or contemporary mysteries. For my primary sources, in order to gain as great an understanding as possible for the genre, while still keeping the amount of reading manageable I have read about 40 cozy and traditional mysteries; this selection will serve as the basis for this study. The aim of this paper is to study the cozy mystery subgenre through identifying common conventions or features of cozy mysteries, mainly considering the genre’s emphasis on setting and a theme, and serialization and characterization. First and foremost, this will be accomplished by studying the books themselves, but also by bringing in a broader, historical, and gender perspective through the secondary sources. A historical background and comparisons between traditional mysteries and cozies will also be presented, and gender will be discussed. Finally, in this paper I seek to demonstrate my claim, namely that although the genre is clearly read for entertainment, it is the protagonist’s role as successful sleuth, and emphasis on interpersonal relationships, that is a key reason for the appeal of the genre.
2. The Term “Cozy Mysteries”
The term “cozy”, referring to a book, first appeared in 1958, in a book review in the London Observer (Hansen, 58). Today the classification is generally used in reference to cozy mysteries. However, there is debate about the term, and debate about whether or not it should be used to classify the books to which it refers. That debate, however, mainly seems to engage writers and publishers; therefore, I will use the term “cozy” for this study, as it is not the term itself that is significant for this paper; it is the contemporary subgenre to which it refers. In order to avoid confusion between traditional mysteries and contemporary cozy mysteries, I will hereafter refer to contemporary cozy mysteries as “cozies.” One reason that the term “cozy” is widely unrecognized (or in some cases, debated) is that amongst publishers, booksellers, and readers, there are identification problems. Perhaps because of its quite recent
rise in popularity, there is confusion as to what technically denotes a cozy. Hansen states that “the cozy is fraught with boundary problems, and no one seems to be able definitively to state what a cozy is” (3). I also think that the reason there is a debate about the term “cozy” is that the word is generally associated with things traditionally considered feminine, since the word can be associated with home, or something homey, and domestic traits and pursuits are not typically studied in scholarly work. Jordan Foster writes in Publisher’s Weekly: “While the vast majority of cozy mysteries are written by women and focus on traditionally female pursuits—crafts, gardening, home decorating—the term is sometimes viewed as demeaning by authors who think it denotes a lack of substance” (2009). Another reason for the genre confusion is simply the lack of a clear definition, including within academia. Even within the literature studied for this paper, different authors describe cozy mysteries with varying terminology. In Nice and Noir, for example, Richard B. Schwartz refers to these books as “English mysteries or cozies…English mysteries (often set in American locales…)” (5). Other sources have discussed them as “traditional mysteries.” In her thesis, however, Katherine Clark Hansen calls the traditional mystery the “forerunner to the cozy” (x) and addresses the terminology confusion when she writes that they are “also known (incorrectly) as traditional mysteries” (2). I believe that the subgenre’s sudden rise in popularity, the variations within the genre, and the terminology differences all contribute to the genre confusion. I agree with Hansen, that cozies have developed from traditional mysteries but are different in many ways; therefore the term “cozy” is helpful. Cozies are entertaining reading. They have a mystery plot—specifically, a murder—that takes place in an atmospheric setting, where violence is never the focus of the story, and where setting, characterization, and humor are paramount. The protagonist, usually a woman (although this seems to be changing), is an amateur sleuth with a profession other than one in law enforcement. Her profession, hobby, and geographical location often create a
theme for the books. Focus is not only on the mystery plot, but also on interpersonal relationships. Cozies are almost always series fiction. In her dissertation, Hansen defines the genre as “a sub-genre that suggests gentility and manners. Cozies deemphasize sex, violence, and profanity, and are written for readers who want to avoid unpleasant surprises…. Cozies are escapist. The reader trusts that the protagonist will emerge safely from events” (3). As I will demonstrate in this paper, even though within the genre there are commonalities, there is also a range of differences; this is certainly contributing to the “boundary problems” to which Hansen refers. For example, although many cozies take place in a village setting, others are set in large cities. Another example is that while dating and sex are frequently a part of a subplot, the sex usually takes place off-stage or is not focused upon too greatly. However, even here there are vast differences and these also appear to be changing over time; the protagonists studied in my selection range from a handsome stay-athome dad to a Catholic nun, to young women in romantic relationships, where encounters are described in more detail. Hansen also comments on this: “over time, some of the rules for cozies have changed. For example, many readers now accept premarital sex for cozy protagonists, as long as it is alluded to and not depicted” (3). Although cozies in general do “deemphasize sex,” there are variations as to which degree of focus is on character relationships. Clare Cosi’s dating life in the “Coffeehouse Mysteries” is frequently mentioned; in other novels such as those featuring protagonist Theodosia Browning in the “Tea Shop Mysteries” romance is hinted at, and a subplot, but not presented in detail. However, in almost every cozy studied romance and romantic relationships are at least mentioned. Even in Bad Faith, Sister Agatha, the protagonist, was in a romantic relationship before she became a nun. Frequently the protagonist is a single female, although there are also cozies available where the protagonist is married. These examples illustrate that cozies all focus on characterization and relationships, yet the degree to which dating, sex, and relationships is addressed can vary
widely within the genre, and this variation could be seen as contributing to the “boundary problems” Hansen mentions.
3. Historical Development of the Mystery Genre
Studies of traditional mysteries often begin with a detailed history of the genre, from attempting to pinpoint its birth, to tracing its historical development from author to author and book to book, as if listing a family genealogy. Authors attempt to trace mysteries as far back as possible. But as this paper’s focus is on cozies (that are much more contemporary), my information will begin where it is most relevant, emphasizing the most significant contributions to the mystery genre’s historical development leading up to cozies. Edgar Allan Poe is often referred to as the father of the modern mystery, with his story “The Murder at the Rue Morgue” from 1841.2 A few decades later, the first female detective, a character by the name of Mrs. Gladden, was created in 1864 by Andrew Forrester (Klein, 18). Since this paper studies the protagonists of contemporary cozy mysteries, all of them amateur sleuths, another influential mystery worth mentioning is The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (1868). Some sources credit him with creating the first amateur sleuth (Hansen, 32).3 One of the most famous detectives in mystery followed, Sherlock Holmes. The influence of Conan Doyle’s character is described by Kathleen Gregory Klein in her book The Woman Detective: Two publications in 1887 marked the popularity of detective fiction on an international basis…. However, this is insignificant when compared with the phenomenal creation of Arthur Conan Doyle, whose first Sherlock Holmes detective adventure, A Study in Scarlet, was published the same year. Holmes’s appearance revolutionized the detective story, and his popularity in both England and the United States kept Conan Doyle writing the four novels and
Kimberly J. Dilley writes in Busybodies, Meddlers, and Snoops: “Stories have always been told about crime, violence, and murder, but Poe structured his story about one man’s, the ‘detective’s,’ investigation of a murder” (1).
Katherine Clark Hansen mentions that both T.S. Eliot and Dorothy L. Sayers considered The Moonstone to be “the greatest mystery ever written” (32).
fifty-six short stories of Sherlock Holmes for forty years, long beyond his own inclinations and interest. (53) One of the most important historical periods for mysteries is often referred to as the “Golden Age,” from about the 1920s to the early 1940s.4 During this period mysteries thrived, and Golden Age authors of the time, including Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, greatly influenced the genre. Kimberly J. Dilley describes the Golden Age and the influence of female authors in Busybodies, Meddlers, and Snoops: The Female Hero in Contemporary Women’s Mysteries: “The 1930s and 1940s were the original Golden Age. The form [mysteries] experienced significant growth and expansion during these early years. Women authors were among the genre’s most prolific and economically rewarded, as well as critically acclaimed. Many of the conventions of the modern mystery novel developed during this period” (xi). Historically, therefore, one can see that between the two world wars, “detective fiction flourished” (Klein, 95). Golden Age mysteries were immensely popular and are still being read today. But Klein’s observation in The Woman Detective is noteworthy: “Although women writers dominated the period…their detectives were all men; so were the heroes of the male writers” (96). Although Miss Marple comes to mind as a counterexample, most of the readers and detectives portrayed in mystery fiction were indeed men. Yet historical studies of mystery often become intertwined with a gender discussion. In Foul and Fair Play: Reading Genre in Classic Detective Fiction, Marty Roth states that “my controlling assumption is that in detective fiction gender is genre and genre is male; Jane Marple and Modesty Blaise are feminine notions that perform a masculine function” (xiv). Scholars, then, have contradictory notions regarding detectives, at least when the detective is a female. While Klein states that
Different sources state different years for the Golden Age of mystery fiction. For example, Kimberly J. Dilley’s book states that it refers to “the 1930s and 1940s” (xi) but Katherine Clark Hansen says that it is “roughly 1920 to 1940” (40).
most detectives are male, others have pointed out Miss Marple and a few other counterexamples; however, Roth maintains that even if there were occasional female detectives or sleuths traditionally in mystery, their role was still that of a male. Mysteries’ popularity declined after the Golden Age, and in the 1960s and 1970s, other genres became popular instead. “Spy novels boomed in the 1960s and almost killed off the private investigator in the 1960s and 1970s,” Dilley writes (18). But after this period of decline, mysteries rose in popularity again. “Many popular fiction critics designate the 1980s and 1990s as the ‘Second Golden Age’ of the mystery novel” (Dilley, xi). This rise is often attributed to the changing gender roles in society through advances for women. Dilley also states that “The 1960s and early 1970s were also a time of great change for women, and indeed, most of the women mystery authors who emerged in the 1980s and 1990s credit the contemporary women’s movement for their success” (18). Along the same lines, in The Woman Detective Klein claims that “Detective fiction, like popular fiction in general, follows rather than parallels social change” (57). This statement has great significance for explaining how traditional mysteries have changed and evolved with time, and the popularity boom of cozies because it can help explain why cozies have seemingly suddenly become so popular: women’s roles within society have changed, and mysteries have therefore adapted. Now readers can choose between either traditional mysteries or cozy mysteries, and the cozier offshoots correlate with readers’ literary and societal expectations.
4. Traditional Mysteries and Cozies: Plot and
Traditional mysteries, such as those by Golden Age authors including Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, may at first glance appear to be the same as cozy mysteries. However, there are differences between the two that need to be addressed in order to more fully
understand why cozies are a distinct subgenre. Hansen calls traditional mysteries a “forerunner for the cozy,” and it is therefore valuable to specifically focus on traditional and cozy mysteries, before moving into a more in-depth discussion of cozy mysteries in particular. A principal difference between the two types of mysteries is that in cozies there is a shift away from plot and the solving of the mystery puzzle, to increased focus on the protagonist’s world where she (usually a professional female) and her day-to-day life and her relationships are more emphasized. Jordan Foster describes this change in Publisher’s Weekly: “The shift in emphasis from puzzles to characters and atmosphere is a key element in differentiating the cozier offshoots from their more traditional predecessors and contemporaries” (2009). In The New York Times, Marilyn Stasio offers similar conclusions: Cozy authors do, indeed, draw from classic models; their declarations of admiration for the novels of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, in particular, have a heartfelt ring. But to view the cozy mystery as the continuation of an earlier tradition is to ignore its many modifications on the original golden-age mystery of the 1920’s and 30’s and to overlook some of its brand-new tricks. Whatever its superficial resemblances to the classic detective story, the modern cozy is a hybrid mystery with a life of its own. (1992) In traditional mysteries it is the logic behind the puzzle—the mystery plot itself—that is clearly the focus of Christie’s novels. “The de-emphasis of the puzzle plot is surely the most important … For Sayers, Christie and other author-architects of the classic form, the essence of the detective story was its well-designed plot, one that posed an intellectual puzzle whose solution turned on the logical principles of deductive reasoning. In the contemporary cozy, however, deduction takes second place,” writes Stasio. There is indeed a substantial emphasis shift regarding plot, and some may agree with Stasio that “deduction takes second place” in cozies. However, the mystery plot is still integral to the books and cannot be disregarded. In all of the cozies I have encountered, the protagonists become involved in a mystery plot (usually murder), and that is the main plot in the story. But the amount of space allotted to the main plot differs widely from the more
traditional mysteries. In cozies, a significant amount of space is also dedicated to characterization, more so than in traditional mysteries. Still, I do not completely agree with Stasio’s claim that the mystery takes second place; rather, I have found that the mystery is balanced with characterization in the story. Both plot and characterization are important, and although within the genre there are variations as to which degree each is emphasized, generally I have found that neither plot nor characterization is more in focus. Both are important. Without the mystery plot, cozies would of course not exist. On the other hand, however, without the increased emphasis on characterization that is a defining feature of the genre, I do not think that they would be so immensely popular. Stasio also writes, “The strongest article of faith held by champions of cozy mystery is the belief that it is an updated version of the traditional British detective story” (1992). To consider the cozy an “updated version of the British detective story” is a useful description, I think, because it refers to the shift that has taken place, while still acknowledging cozies’ origins in traditional mysteries.
5. Central Features of Cozies
“…the modern cozy is a hybrid mystery with a life of its own.” --Marilyn Stasio Although there are clear similarities between traditional and cozy mysteries, cozy mysteries have evolved so much that they are now a separate subgenre. Stasio’s claim that “the modern cozy is a hybrid mystery with a life of its own,” indicates this change. In my reading I have found that there are defining conventions that are central to the genre, and these will be discussed here: the importance of setting and theme5, and seriality6 and characterization.
By “theme” I am referring to the fact that the protagonist’s profession, hobby and/or geographical location and details of the setting often create a particular type or theme for cozies. Cozies could be animal-themed, food-themed, craft-themed, religion-themed, etc.
In hardboiled mysteries and crime, the setting could be depicted in a way that would increase suspense. Negative aspects of the city and characters would be emphasized. However, in both traditional mysteries and cozies, the setting is generally described in positive terms. Richard B. Schwartz addresses this difference in his book, Nice and Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction: “In real life, these people didn’t bathe and they had stale gravy beneath their fingernails. The English mystery writer situates them at the tea table, while the crime writer opts for the stale gravy, along with some grit and a little blood” (20). Although setting is important in both traditional mysteries and cozies, in cozies setting is even more central, and described more vividly, than in traditional mysteries. protagonist in Cleo Coyle’s French Pressed, describes her setting as follows: The Village Blend occupied a four-story Federal-style town house in New York’s historic West Village. To my customers, however, the Blend was more than just a java joint. It was a dependable oasis of calm in a crowded, expensive, stress-inducing city that routinely stripped its occupants of their dignity. The place was my oasis, too. Behind my espresso bar, I felt capable and in control. After that knife-wielding episode in Solange’s cutthroat kitchen, I was relieved to get back to some comfortable, familiar, sane surroundings, if only to lock up for the night and head upstairs for a fresh pot of joe and a warm vanilla bath. (26) In this quotation, Coffeehouse Mystery protagonist Claire Cosi has returned home to the Village Blend, the coffeehouse she runs and where she lives in the apartment above, after just having witnessed a murder in the restaurant Solange. Her choice of words is noteworthy; she describes the coffeehouse in words that all hint of “home,” the familiar: dependable, oasis, calm, comfortable, familiar, and sane. However, she contrasts this with a description of New York City as a “crowded, expensive, stress-inducing city that routinely stripped its occupants of their dignity.” Although in this series New York City is generally described as a positive Claire Cosi,
Seriality, a term coined by Karin Molander Danielsson, refers to series fiction, and will be discussed further in the paper.
place for the macro setting, 7 it is also a large urban center where danger lurks. Closer to her workplace and home, however, is the micro setting; it is a village within a city. In this case it is the West Village and specifically the coffeehouse that is her oasis. After the incident at Solange, Cosi longs to go home for a “fresh pot of joe and a warm vanilla bath.” Fresh coffee and a warm vanilla-scented bath are both things that invoke warmth and fragrance for the reader. As these scents are associated both with her workplace and (connected to) her home, this descriptive language adds ambiance to the setting. Setting is integral to cozies. But setting does not only refer to physical location; with the term “setting” I also refer to the emotional and physical environment that is built up throughout the story, such as in the example above. Cozies are often considered to be escapist reading, as Katherine Clark Hansen suggested. Readers can escape into the world within the novel, and in order for this to be possible the setting must be attractive and appealing— despite murder as a plot line. Many of the cozies I have read are set primarily in a place of business or home; this allows the reader to become acquainted with the surroundings and it limits the geographical scope. In the series the “Tea Shop Mysteries,” protagonist Theodosia Browning never leaves the state of South Carolina, and she only rarely leaves Charleston, her home city. When she does embark on an excursion, it is almost always to gather information about the murder, and not infrequently, it is when she leaves the city that she finds herself in danger. Most of the time, the story actually takes place not only within Charleston, but in the Historic District where Theodosia’s Indigo Tea Shop is located. At first she even lived above the shop in a quaint apartment, but later in the series she moves into a little cottage, not far from the tea shop. When the plot predominately takes place in the same geographical area, as in the
I use the terms “macro setting” and “micro setting” to refer to the larger setting (macro), such a city or village, and the micro setting to refer to the smaller area that is in focus, such as a bookshop, tea shop, village within a larger city, etc.
“Coffeehouse Mysteries,” even though the macro setting is actually a large urban area, the micro setting functions as a village within a city. Perhaps because both are small cafés serving hot drinks and tasty desserts, the way Theodosia describes her tea shop and its neighborhood is reminiscent of Claire Cosi’s words. Ordinarily, Theodosia reveled in the oasis of calm her little tea shop afforded. Tucked between Robillard Booksellers and the Antiquarian Map Store in the historic district of Charleston, South Carolina, the Indigo Tea Shop was one stitch in a romantic, pastel tapestry of Georgian, Federal, and Victorian homes, courtyard gardens, and quaint shops. Inside this former carriage house and tiny treasure, copper teapots hissed and bubbled, fresh-baked pastries cooled on wooden racks, and patrons scrambled for a coveted seat at one of the creaking hickory tables. (2) The choice of words here includes: oasis of calm, little tea shop, romantic, pastel, quaint, treasure, fresh-baked, and coveted. The language in this section is overwhelmingly positive and reflects the idyllic surroundings of both the Historic District and the tea shop. In most of Bad Faith, protagonist Sister Agatha spends her time in the monastery8 where she is a nun. But being one of the extern sisters,9 she frequently makes trips into the city, Albuquerque, although outings into the big city are considered by the other sisters to be dangerous. After she acquires the retired police dog Pax as companion, she is always encouraged to bring him for protection when she leaves the monastery. The portrayal of the city as the dangerous place and the monastery as the safe haven is a bit surprising, however, in light of the fact that the murder in the story, of Father Anselm, takes place within the monastery, during Mass. Yet the monastery is still described as a safe and homey place to
Although usually associated with monks, in Bad Faith protagonist Sister Agatha lives in Our Lady of Hope, a monastery.
An extern sister means that she is a nun allowed to have contact with the outside world; most nuns do not. “Few had access in and out of the monastery like an extern sister. It was a privilege that made her feel especially blessed” (4).
live and work. Even the fact that the murder was committed by one of the sisters does nothing to minimize the ambiance of the setting. Although cozies could take place anywhere, they are often set in a small town or a neighborhood within a larger city, as we can see from these examples. Karin Molander Danielsson discusses the importance of setting in her thesis The Dynamic Detective: “Not all American crimes these days are investigated in New York City, Chicago or Los Angeles, but take place in numerous actual American towns, cities or regions which, like the hobbies or professions, usually are close to the writers’ own worlds, and are made to literally occupy space in the texts and to play an active part in the plot” (118). Not even murder can counter the warm, welcoming feeling that readers might experience through the descriptive language portraying the atmosphere when they “visit” the Village Blend or the Indigo Tea Shop. In Bitter Harvest, protagonist Meg Corey’s newly-inherited old house and her orchard are where most of the plot takes place, but it is the macro setting consisting of the village of Granford, Massachusetts and its surrounding area that is the focus of the idyllic description. In the text, Corey and her neighbor and romantic interest, Seth Chapin, are driving a few hours by car to research the embroidered sampler that is the focus of the plot. “They set off early the next morning. It was a blindingly beautiful New England day, the snow still pristine, save for a few animal tracks, the sky an intense and unmarred blue. Meg felt like she’d fallen into a holiday card” (167). Language used to describe the natural beauty of the area includes blindingly beautiful, pristine, and with the sky intense and unmarred blue. In the book, Corey’s previous city of Boston is contrasted with her new life in the country, and the way the descriptive language contrasts the two, one can see that life in the country is considered to be a better choice. Katherine Clark Hanson describes the importance of atmosphere in her dissertation:
Cozies provide a respite from both darker mysteries and from readers’ stressful lives…. Unlike traditional mysteries, cozies are light emotionally and psychologically. A cozy is a safe place to turn. Cozies are positive books with optimistic messages. The ambiance of a cozy is important; they are not poignant and never painful books, and they should never be overly thoughtful or disturbing. It is this ambiance that makes the cozy such a successful subgenre. (245) It could be ascertained, therefore, that there is a correlation between the ambiance and homey setting in cozies, and the readers’ desire to return to the books. As several articles have argued, a feeling of safety, not fear or violence (such as could be an attraction in crime or hardboiled mysteries) is a vital reason why these books are escapist reading. The fact that many take place in a rather closed setting enables the reader to become well-acquainted with the protagonist’s fictional world. But there is certainly another reason for this as well. Already Miss Jane Marple hints at the importance of a village setting in the 1933 novel, The Tuesday Club Murders. “Now, you are laughing at me, my dears,” said Miss Marple placidly. “You think that because I have lived in this out-of-the-way spot all my life I am not likely to have had any very interesting experiences.” “God forbid that I should ever regard village life as peaceful and uneventful,” said Raymond with fervour. “Not after the horrible revelations we have heard from you! The cosmopolitan world seems a mild and peaceful place compared with St. Mary Mead.” “Well, my dear,” said Miss Marple, “human nature is much the same everywhere, and, of course, one has opportunities of observing it at closer quarters in a village” (87). Christie articulates one very important reason here why mysteries are often set in a limited location. When the story takes place in a small geographical area such as a village or functions like a village within a city, it is as if the reader is looking through a magnifying glass; problems and details are magnified to allow greater insight into the characters and the human nature at work in the story.
Other books or series that are set within a more traditional village setting include the “Booktown Mystery” series by Lorna Barrett, set in Stoneham, New Hampshire, where protagonist Tricia Miles rarely ventures out of town; The Walled Flower, where the story follows protagonist Kate Bonner as she solves the murder mystery in the area called Victoria Square, Blackwork, which is set in a small community in Minnesota, and Death of a Kitchen Diva, where single mom and protagonist Hayley Powell mainly stays in the small town of Bar Harbor, Maine throughout the book. In a 2009 article in Publisher’s Weekly, Jordan Foster discusses the role of setting in the genre. A quaint village setting isn’t required for a traditional mystery, but whatever world the author creates is paramount. From Holmes’s flat … to the tiny English hamlet of St. Mary’s Mead where Miss Marple spent her days, the setting and the surrounding community is integral to the story. Broadening this focus on communities, the genre has seen an upsurge in recent years in theme-based mysteries, often called cozies, geared toward gardeners, knitters, and even animal enthusiasts. Foster argues that “whatever world the author creates is paramount,” and I believe this is indeed true. However, the world within the cozy does not only refer to setting. As Foster states, cozies are often based on a theme, and this theme is linked with the setting. The theme enables readers to choose cozies not only for their mystery plot, but also related to a focus, such as food, or a hobby, profession, or geographical area. As escapist reading these mysteries can then successfully transport the reader, at least for a while, to the fictional setting within the mysteries. The fact that cozies are often theme-based is a major shift from traditional mysteries, in which the mystery plot attracted readers. All of the books in my selection have a theme; for several, the theme is dual. For example, many books feature themes related to the protagonist’s profession or hobby, but also corresponding to the geographical setting. In the books related to food, drinks, or an eating establishment, the café or restaurant and its
surrounding area serve as the setting, are important for characterization, and also create the theme. One unique feature in many cozies is that readers can even bring home either information or a souvenir: all of the food-themed books include a number of recipes or caféthemed tips. Food or café-themed books include the “Tea Shop Mysteries” which even include recipes, information about tea, and “Tea Time Tips;” the “Coffeehouse Mysteries” complete with recipes for dishes or desserts mentioned in the books; Eggs Benedict Arnold, a book with three main characters that is set in “the Cackleberry Club café,” and Bitter Harvest, an orchard-themed book, also includes recipes, as does Death of a Kitchen Diva. Even the “Booktown Mysteries” that that are a bookshop-themed series include recipes. (Already on the colorful front cover there is a note that says, “Includes Recipes.”) Take-home tips are provided in other themed books as well, including in The Probability of Murder featuring protagonist Dr. Sophie Knowles, math professor. This book includes intellectual puzzles in the section “Math, puzzles, and games.” Blackwork, a needlepoint-themed cozy, ends with a cross-stitch pattern for readers to recreate at home. One could speculate that these recipes and tips are added to attract readers and therefore increase book sales; however, I also think that these tips function as a link for the readers to the fictional world within the cozies. The protagonist’s profession or hobby of choice is the major factor in determining the book’s theme. The profession, in turn, is also integral to the plot; the protagonist stumbles upon a murder through her job, connections or setting (setting is also determined by the profession—if the profession is a café owner or manager, then of course the setting is related to the café). In Death of a Kitchen Diva the murder victim is protagonist Hayley Powell’s professional competitor, fellow food writer Karen Applebaum. In the themed cozies that take place primarily in a place of business or surrounding area, the murder often occurs either in the business or nearby. Generally the protagonist works in a profession that is appealing to the reader. In several books the protagonist has left a job (often successful, but
not emotionally fulfilling) for a more challenging, probably less well-paying, but more emotionally satisfying profession. For example, in Laura Childs’ Tea Shop Mysteries, protagonist Theodosia Browning had previously been stressed in her job at an advertising agency. She chose to change careers and opened a tea shop instead. Similarly, after her husband’s death, in The Ghost and Mrs. McClure, protagonist Mrs. McClure left an unsatisfying job (and prying in-laws) in the big city in exchange for opening a quaint bookshop in a small town in Rhode Island. In Bitter Harvest, Meg Corey left a successful career in Boston in favor of small-town life and to take over an inherited apple orchard. Also, in Sleeping with Anemone Abby Knight opened a flower shop (and accumulated debt in the process) in her hometown, after giving up her law studies. Although cozies are often set in a real, not fictional, geographical location, such as Charleston or New York City, and are described realistically, in some there is an element of fantasy. Yet even in the case of a fantasy element these are still clearly cozies, and not to be confused with science fiction. In most of the books I have read superstition is not taken seriously by the intelligent protagonists, except of course where religion is the theme in Bad Faith, and when narrow-minded villagers’ superstitions nearly end in disastrous results when their fear of the unknown leads them to distrust Leona Cunningham for her belief and practice in Wicca, in Blackwork. 10 However, in two different examples the fantasy element adds opportunities for characterization, increased dialogue, and humor. In Cat of the Century, the animals communicate with each other and the reader can “hear” this dialogue. But the animals are not only humorous minor characters; they also play a critical role in the plot. For example, at the
Wicca is “the nature-based religion that many mistakenly believe to be sorcery or black magic” (from the back cover of Blackwork).
end of the book, elderly characters Aunt Tally and Inez are in a house, confronted by Liz, the murderer. The animals help save the two older ladies’ lives, killing Liz in the process. As Inez stood up, Aunt Tally moved toward Liz. The cats flew off the sofa to help Tucker [a dog], but Liz fired, hitting Inez in the leg. The old lady fell down on one knee. “I’ll kill you!” Aunt Tally screamed. “You old bitch. You aren’t killing anybody.” Liz aimed at Aunt Tally, who didn’t flinch. Mrs. Murphy [a cat] leapt straight at Liz, deflecting her aim just enough that the bullet lodged in the wall…. Pewter [a cat] walked over to sniff Liz. “Notice the scratch on her right leg? I did that.” “Mighty puss.” Mrs. Murphy [a cat], half in jest, meant it (259-61). Although violence is not the focus of this book, like the other cozy mysteries I have studied, at the final critical moment in the plot a violent attack is often presented. Cat of the Century is one of the few books I have read where the killer is brought to justice, in a sense, by being killed (it is also one of the few books with a gun. The murders in most other cozies happen even more off-stage and happen by strangulation, a violent struggle, or poisoning). In most other cozies, the killer is discovered by the protagonist and then arrested by local law enforcement. In this respect Cat of the Century is a counterexample. During the violent climax, here the language also becomes much coarser than it was in the rest of the book, when the women scream at each other “I’ll kill you!” and “You old bitch.” I have found that although cozy mysteries generally follow the convention of violence taking place off-stage, the degree of violence portrayed varies from author to author, as can be seen in Cat of the Century, where there is a higher degree of violence at the climax of the plot. Even though the animals’ dialogue would be considered unrealistic, other details throughout the book are described realistically. Similarly, in The Ghost and Mrs. McClure, Jack Shepard, the ghost of a law-enforcement official, plays an integral role. Like the animals
in The Cat of the Century, Jack Shepard’s ghost helps provide witty dialogue (and sexual tension). His expertise also contributes to protagonist Mrs. McClure’s investigation. Yet here again the fantasy element of the story—the ghost—still does not push the book into another genre; rather, I think that these elements illustrate how great the potential is for variation within the genre. Other themes include hobby-themed cozies, family life, and other places of business. A frequently-used theme is a bookshop or other book-related profession, such as in One Book in the Grave where protagonist Brooklyn Wainwright is an expert bookbinder, and in the “Booktown Mysteries” that is set in Tricia Miles’ bookstore and its surrounding village. Sleeping with Anemone is a flower shop-themed mystery. Blackwork and The Walled Flower are craft-themed. Related to setting and theme, and so frequently occurring that it must be mentioned, is the abundance of pets and the general lack of children. While surprisingly few children are mentioned in cozy mysteries, except where they are part of the theme, such as in Stay at Home Dead and Death of a Kitchen Diva, or part of the plot such as in Bitter Harvest, nearly every book is pro-animal and almost every protagonist has a pet. The protagonist’s cat or dog (or farm animal if there are other animals in the story) is also frequently depicted in the front cover illustration. I find the general lack of children a bit surprising, considering that the readership is predominately female; on the other hand, the feline or canine companionship depicted in the mysteries seems to attract this audience. Also, pets are another element of “home,” and therefore they function both as embellishing the setting and contributing to a theme. Setting and theme are certainly central to cozies. Likewise, another distinctive feature that also differs from traditional mysteries is seriality. Linked with seriality is increased emphasis on characterization and character development; these two aspects are
interdependent and will therefore be addressed together. “Seriality is my term for the dependence on intraserial references and a chronological, intradiegetic order within the series or set of texts, which has become conventional in latter-day detective fiction,” Danielsson writes (13). As a series continues chronologically, the protagonist and his or her life is described in detail. In Danielsson’s view, “contemporary detective fiction is also typically series fiction, with a number of novels connected to a chronological sequence by a recurring hero whose life story is as foregrounded as the stories of her or his investigations” (11-12). Although Christie had a few recurring characters (Poirot, Miss Marple) and sometimes referred to previous cases in her mysteries, her mysteries were not series fiction; thus, each book’s plot needed to be captivating and needed to stand alone. Characterization was not as important when the reader would not be returning to the same characters in another installment. However, one could say that Christie and other traditional writers, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, served as predecessors for series fiction when they created their famous detectives. Without Poirot, Miss Marple, or Sherlock Holmes, one cannot be certain that Christie or Doyle would have become as successful. I believe that these memorable characters are a major reason that readers continued reading works by these authors; not only did they want the mystery puzzle, once they had come to know the detective or sleuth in question, they wanted to see what would happen to him or her next. Therefore, although they are not series fiction in the way of cozies of today, their authors had begun to focus more on characterization, mainly through the recurring detective/sleuth. One series that has been largely overlooked in academia is Nancy Drew by Carolyn Keene.11 (Perhaps they remain understudied because they are written for young girls.) The “Nancy Drew Mystery Stories” are in some ways actually very early series fiction, in that the main characters and setting remain the same. However, the characters do not develop and
Carolyn Keene is actually a pseudonym; the books were written by several different authors over the years.
change like they do in series fiction in cozies. At the same time, since Nancy Drew is one of the most well-known amateur sleuths, it is worthwhile to mention the mysteries here. Seriality has great importance for cozies. Readers read one installment and then they want to know what will happen next in the protagonist’s life. Series fiction can be compared to other types of contemporary media; Stasio compares cozies to a favorite television series. “Cozy fans might not remember one plot from another in their favorite series, but like television sitcom fans, they follow every wrinkle in the lives of the sleuths to whom they have become attached,” she writes.12 Throughout a series the protagonist evolves; he or she changes homes, develops in her sleuthing skills, starts and ends romantic relationships, learns more about her profession or hobby, grows closer (or apart from) coworkers, and develops a deeper relationship with the local authorities. A comment from the book reviews for Blackwork emphasizes this point: “Not just for needleworkers, this is a series that should appeal to anyone who enjoys a good cozy mystery, populated by characters who continue to grow and evolve.”13 In “The Tea Shop Mysteries,” the Indigo Tea Shop remains a constant and functions as the main stage for the setting, as does the city; however, in protagonist Theodosia Browning’s life there are many changes throughout the series. In the latest installment from 2012, she is currently in a romantic relationship with Max, and despite the conservative nature of this series, Max is her third boyfriend (her second boyfriend, Parker, is the murder victim in this latest book). In the “Booktown Mysteries” by Lorna Barrett, Tricia Miles also develops throughout the series; she changes boyfriends and bookstore personnel, but the setting and characters (the ones who are not murdered in the books) are the same throughout. One
From the article by Marilyn Stasio in The New York Times from 1992 Review listed inside Blackwork by CA Reviews.
important subplot in these mysteries is Tricia’s relationship with her sister, Angelica. Although their relationship is strained and they continually struggle through their sibling rivalry, especially in the beginning of the series, they grow much closer and dependent upon one another as the series continues. Along with reading several series, I have also consciously chosen a few of the books because they are the first in a new series. It is noteworthy that already on the cover on these books it says First in a new series! In these cases, only one book has been published but others are already planned.14 The front cover text advertising that it is a “new series” is clearly meant to capture the attention of potential readers; on one hand, the note indicates that this is new and exciting reading; on the other hand, the reader can already be assured that if he or she likes the book, they will be able to read another installment. If series fiction is indeed what readers want in cozies—because, as I have shown, it allows them to enter the protagonist’s world within the book—then series fiction must also be what the publishers want to publish. Indeed, already in Busybodies, Meddlers, and Snoops: The Female Hero in Contemporary Women’s Fiction from 1998, Dilley describes series fiction’s role as a marketing tool: Series mystery novels developed as a marketing tool. Once an author has attracted an audience for her characters, subsequent books are easier for the publisher to market and sell… This marketing tool allows authors and readers the possibility of exploring complex issues such as maturity, relationships, growth, and the consequences of actions on the future. Characters and their situations are dynamic rather than static, as in the single occasion detective novel. The characters live lives that continue after the book ends…. The literary critic, too, becomes part anthropologist, studying a community and its codes over time. (xii) Here Dilley discusses seriality as it relates to characterization. Cozies utilize seriality in order to present and address “complex issues such as maturity, relationships, growth, and the
This is the case in Death of a Kitchen Diva and Stay at Home Dead.
consequences of actions on the future.” The focus on these issues, and the relationships, is therefore very different from traditional mysteries.
6. The Role of Gender and Successful Sleuths
You start with Nancy Drew, and then there’s Miss Marple. You want something in the middle. – Kristen Weber 15 Historically, traditional mysteries, detective novels, and crime fiction have been read predominately by men. “In the 1960’s, the traditional mystery and the cozy were on their way out. Publishers and critics had decided that what the culture wanted and should have were books written by men about male detectives and male concerns. The mystery genre was considered a male genre. Fewer mysteries by women were being published, and consequently, fewer women were purchasing mysteries,” in the words of Hansen (100). In her study of over 700 readers and through interviews with booksellers, she learned that cozies, on the other hand, are predominately read by women. She writes, “The market for cozies is tilted toward women, with more women writing them, starring in them as protagonists, and reading and discussing them. It is unusual for men to write and read them, but their numbers are increasing … according to my preliminary findings, men and women read cozies for the same reasons” (153-54). I have also observed that the front cover design of cozies appear to be geared toward a female audience, with colorful illustrations of tea cups, food, flowers, books, and a surprising number of cats or dogs. Even in the books that have been written by men (or are a collaboration between a man and woman16) the writing and themes are female oriented. One new cozy is both a case in point and a striking counterexample. Stay at Home Dead is written by a man, and features
These are the words of Kristen Weber, Mysterious Press’ associate editor, from the Publisher’s Weekly article “The Bodies Keep Piling Up.”
This is the case in Bad Faith and the “Coffeehouse Mysteries;” the latter books are written by Cleo Coyle, which is a penname for a husband and wife author pair.
protagonist Deuce Winters, a stay-at-home dad. But I still feel that this book is clearly targeting a female audience, primarily through its content and the way relationships are described. However, perhaps this can be seen to attempt to bring in a male perspective or to interest a male audience. Stay at Home Dead is unique both in its content, and in the writing style. 17 The book is written in the first person (most other cozies are written in the third), and Deuce Winters speaks very informally; like “a regular guy,” in a light, humorous tone, occasionally using strong language and apolitically correct terminology (see quote below). Along with describing his day-to-day activities, he frequently refers to more traditionally male-oriented pursuits such as football. Toward the end of the book he takes a detective partner, a man who is a little person (but throughout the book referred to as a “midget” or “dwarf”). In the beginning their meetings are strained, although in the end they become friends. “You want something to drink?” I [Deuce] finally asked. “Mint julep.” “Try again.” “A Flaming Eyeball.” “I could find a cat to piss in a cup.” “Beer’s fine.” I retreated to the kitchen and grabbed two Lone Stars out of the fridge. I felt certain that I wasn’t supposed to drink with a concussion. But there was a sarcastic dwarf in my living room, and I needed something to take the edge off. (164) He describes his wife in glowing terms, however, and recounts their sexual encounters more than most cozy mysteries do (even though the values portrayed in the book are still conservative, in that the only sex that is condoned is within marriage), and frequently, it is his wife (a lawyer) who initiates these encounters. Deuce has given up his job as a teacher and coach to become a stay-at-home dad. He discusses this change: “Truth was, I’d been a little
Stay at Home Dead is published in 2012, so one might speculate that the cozy mystery subgenre is expanding and evolving to even be able to incorporate male contributions to the genre.
nervous about it at first. I liked teaching and coaching, and I wasn’t sure how I would do at home, all alone with a tiny little being that would depend on me completely. But I’d taken to it about a minute after we brought Carly home from the hospital, and I relished the reverse gender roles we’d created in our home” (8). The language in these two quotations can be compared. In the latter, as he foregrounds interdependence upon his relationships and the importance of caring for children, his language is more eloquent and I think this is designed to endear him to the predominately female audience. Although in Stay at Home Dead gender roles are reversed and all of the other cozies I have read feature female protagonists, Deuce’s function in the plot is the same as that of the protagonists in the other books. Therefore, the book still conforms to the general conventions of cozies; yet this example, with a strong male protagonist and a gender-role shift, also illustrates how gender roles are now being stretched as the genre expands to allow for different, in this case male, protagonist voices. Although Deuce Winters is the only male protagonist in the cozies I have studied, there are of course many male supporting characters. In nearly every cozy, the protagonist has a romantic interest or relationship; within her network of friends and coworkers there are of course also many men. Perhaps because the values portrayed in cozies are generally conservative in nature, it is only in Blackwork (published in 2009) that there is an important supporting character that is homosexual. 18 Godwin is portrayed as kind and sensitive, while his romantic interest, Rafael, is considered emotionally stronger and wise. Early in the book, the two meet in protagonist Betsy Devonshire’s needlecraft shop, Crewel World, and Godwin is insecure and wants Betsy’s advice: Godwin had mentioned that he would like Rafael to come to Crewel World to see him “in his natural setting,” but also to have Betsy meet him.
I have found in on-line searches that there are also cozies available that feature a gay or lesbian protagonist (such as in the books by Ellen Hart). This is not common, however, but it could be seen as an example of how cozies are developing and changing.
Not that Godwin needed Betsy’s approval of Rafael, of course. But Godwin’s susceptible heart had led him into some situations he quickly regretted, and he felt he needed a backup opinion on his new interest. (16) Later Rafael peruses the shop and exclaims (mentioning gender roles in the process): And this, this, is your ‘fun little hobby’? He flung a hand up and outward. How dare you speak of it so slightingly! Many of these things are very beautiful, and doubtless they are very difficult to execute! No wonder your heart is so blithe, when you work among such beautiful things all day long! Your boss must be an amazing woman, so—so charming, so artistic, and then to turn so feminine an occupation into a business! I want to meet her! Where is she? (16) Godwin’s “susceptible heart” indicates his sensitive nature and insecurity. He frequently seeks advice from Betsy Devonshire, whose guidance is often coveted by others in town as well. Another time gender comes into focus in cozies is when the protagonist and the murderer finally meet in the plot, or whenever the protagonist is threatened. In Bitter Harvest, protagonist Meg Corey and her assistant, Bree, discuss gender related to self-defense: “Should we go check it out now? Make sure everything’s locked up?” “I guess.” So Bree was worried, too? Meg was reluctant to point out how easy it would be to get in through any window in the house, but there was no point in upsetting Bree any further. “Now?” “Better now than later.” Bree stood up. “You have a baseball bat or a poker handy?” “A what? Oh, you mean something we could use as a weapon. I have trouble imagining myself whacking anybody with a bat.” “You’d invite him into the parlor and ask him what he wants? That’ll work really well. You lived in the big bad city—didn’t you ever take any self-defense courses?” “You don’t have to be sarcastic. And, no, I don’t have a bat or a poker, and I’ve never learned anything official about self-defense. How about a rolling pin?” Bree rolled her eyes. “Isn’t that what they used in old sitcoms? Why is it women don’t have any useful weapons? Maybe you could throw flour in an intruder’s eyes, or soapy dishwater.” (80)
Supporting character Bree’s question, “Why is it women don’t have any useful weapons?” and her comparison to sitcoms is significant. It is true that in most cozies there are few guns, despite the fact that guns are actually quite widely available in the United States. I have found that the lack of guns and other such weapons corresponds to the general conventions of the genre, that violence is generally off-stage, and this could be seen as targeting a female audience. Also, I think it is to show the ingenuity of the protagonists. Unlike in other genres like crime, the protagonists in cozy mysteries do not grab a deadly weapon for self-defense; they use their intelligence to think themselves out of a dangerous situation and they only resort to violence when absolutely necessary. Guns usually only enter the story if they are brought in by the murderer, such as in the example shown from Cat of the Century. I have discussed the fact that cozies predominately target a female audience, and that they have grown to become enormously popular. As I have shown, this popularity is largely due to the genre conventions such as of course the appeal of a murder plot, combined with appealing setting and themes. But after studying the protagonists in particular, I have also found that cozies’ protagonists are another key element in cozies. The protagonist’s role as successful sleuth and hero has changed from female detectives in traditional mysteries of the past, and I have found that is a major contributing reason for the genre’s success. The cozy protagonist sleuth functions as a hero figure. However, this hero figure is an average person; no longer are detectives strange loners such as Poirot or Holmes, nor are they spinsters like Miss Marple. The protagonists in cozies triumph in their sleuthing while maintaining busy lives; they are important to the people around them; they often have family members or significant others and are vital to their local communities. Kimberly J. Dilley addresses the protagonist’s role as she writes: As a venue for critical analysis, the amateur sleuth mystery novels of women provide a way for looking at women …. Earlier female sleuths tended to reflect the prejudices of the day. They were curiosities to intrigue the audience. Today,
women authors draw the distinction between writing to amuse and writing to involve. As mothers, daughter, sisters, and wives, these women are not outcasts or marginalized observes of society; such as the woman PI.… They operate within the confines of “femininity” and its implications of home, marriage, and children. (96) According to Dilley, cozy protagonists are free to “operate within the confines of ‘femininity.’” In reality, a woman might of course be a wife, mother, sister, friend, colleague, and small business owner, all at the same time. For a protagonist in a cozy mystery, this is also true, but she is also a crime-solving sleuth. This combination of relationships and mystery-solving is therefore an important element of the cozy. Yet it is important to note that cozy mysteries’ sleuths are not superhuman. Even though the protagonists are often described as physically attractive, they are not described as unrealistically so. This favorable description is of course necessary to make them likeable to the reader and interesting to the opposite sex for a romantic subplot. Along the same lines, although they are depicted in a very positive light as strong, independent characters who want to help others, and the other characters in the story praise them and their sleuthing abilities, they still have problems and concerns. All focus is not on the mystery plot; during the protagonist’s crime-solving undertaking her difficulties and emotions are expressed. For example, she may be described as tired, hungry, upset, busy, sad, happy, in love, or angry. Several of the protagonists have financial concerns. In the words of Kimberly J. Dilley, “The heroic is not the invincible. Indeed, the hero is the person who struggles with being human” (127). One common characteristic of cozies is of course that the reader knows that the protagonist will succeed in his or her crime-solving. Although the ability to solve a crime is one of the primary conventions of a mystery plot, succeeding has not always been the case, especially not when the detective was a female. Describing all mystery fiction in Murder Most Fair: The Appeal of Mystery Fiction, Michael Cohen argues: “By its very nature, mystery
fiction depends on secrets about crime—usually who committed it—being first hidden and then revealed. These are mystery fiction’s enabling conventions: that criminal secrets can be hidden for a time, that finally all crimes can be solved” (27). But female detectives in literature have historically not always been successful in their endeavors. In The Woman Detective, Kathleen Gregory Klein complicates Cohen’s claim when she writes: A commonplace of mystery fiction is that the detective-hero solves crime. From Sherlock Holmes to Spenser, he unravels the tangled complications of murder and intrigue. When the detective is professional and paid for his work, his success is expected—by his clients and by the readers. However, when the paid detective is a woman, this anticipated pattern of successful crime solving suddenly collapses (1). Although Klein focuses on professional female detectives as opposed to amateur sleuths, it is still relevant to consider the role of the female detective in traditional mysteries. Klein continues to discuss how female detectives could not be portrayed as both a woman and a detective without one negating the other or proving that the situation was an anomaly. “To succeed commercially, authors decided that their character was either not a proper detective or not a proper woman,” she claims (4). A key feature for women detectives in traditional mysteries is then emphasized: women were allowed to, or even had to, occasionally fail in their endeavors. Mystery fiction has been a traditionally male genre, and it is also indicative of the societal expectations of the time. To her own question, “Why did the woman detective deliberately created by her author to fill a well-defined fictional role have to fail?” Klein responds, “If she can be shown as an incompetent detective or an inadequate woman, readers’ reactionary preferences are satisfied; their second catharsis is achieved. The detective novel is then doubly a moral tale” (5). By “readers” Klein is referring to the predominately male readership of traditional mysteries. Klein also discusses the male professional detective as a hero: “The fictional male detective is a superior, solitary figure…. The detective is the novel’s hero not only in
structural terms but also in the content, tone, and impact of the story. His deduction, ratiocination, intuition, charm, class, and talent (choose several) are not shared by his associates; he is the superstar while they are the supporting cast” (185). There would then seem to be both similarities and differences between the traditional mysteries’ male detectives and their cozy sleuthing counterparts. She also writes: “The predictable formula of detective fiction is based on a world whose sex/gender valuations reinforce male hegemony. Taking male behavior as the norm, the genre defines its parameters to exclude female characters, confidently rejecting them as inadequate women or inadequate detectives” (225). This claim refers to professional male detectives in traditional mysteries; I have studied amateur sleuths, and this could certainly be one reason for the difference. But Klein’s book is from 1988, and I think this is another reason for her claims: all of the contemporary cozy mysteries I have studied postdate her book and the roles of sleuth/protagonist and gender have changed dramatically in these past 24 years. Indeed, “The predictable formula of detective fiction is based on a world whose sex/gender valuations reinforce male hegemony” is not at all true regarding cozies. The protagonist sleuth’s role is similar to that of the male detective, in the sense that she is portrayed as unique in her ability to solve the crime; therefore she is the hero. However, a cozy sleuth cannot accurately be described as “a superior, solitary figure.” Cozy mysteries’ contemporary sleuths are intelligent and capable, but they are neither superior nor solitary. Cozies’ sleuths are not unrealistically gifted, yet they succeed; they are not supermodels, yet they are attractive; they lead interesting lives, yet they struggle as well. Usually they are not wealthy; nor are they poor; they are decidedly upper-middle class. One could say that they are “an average Jane.” In other words, readers, in this case the predominately female audience of cozies, can relate to the protagonist in a way that they could not to traditional mysteries’ detectives. In the words of Kimberly J. Dilley: “The woman amateur sleuth can be anyone, in any circumstance, and in any time or place. She can
even be married and have children. Her influence and importance to the genre and reading public are often overlooked by critics because she appears to typify the ‘normal’ and unquestioned qualities of woman” (95). But she is not only representative of a “normal” or average woman; her personality traits and qualities are an important reason for the appeal of her character. Glenwood Irons writes that “Compared with reserved spinster sleuths like the early Anna Katharine Green’s Amelia Butterworth and Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple, the women detectives created in the past thirty years are outgoing, aggressive, and self-sufficient sleuths who have transcended generic codes and virtually rewritten the archetypal male detective from a female perspective” (xi-xii). This quotation is notable because it demonstrates the development of female detectives, “compared with reserved spinster sleuths,” in the thirty years before this book was published in 1995. Although I would not consider the protagonists in cozies to be aggressive (except when necessary in order to defend a friend or family member), most of what Irons writes is also true of protagonists in cozies. They are most definitely outgoing and self-sufficient. They are also resilient and intelligent, and in many cases, have a warm sense of humor. However, even though they are successful sleuths and I have found that this is a development that contributes to their appeal, it is also important to note that although it is largely due to the protagonist’s abilities that she succeeds as sleuth, she does not live and work in a vacuum. She is surrounding by a whole group of people who add interesting aspects to the plot, create subplots, and show that she interacts in society. This also adds to the appeal of these protagonists and it strengthens characterization and character development throughout the series as the protagonist interacts with other characters. Jordan Foster writes in Publisher’s Weekly: “Often, the focus in the cozy is the engaging—and often quirky—hero or heroine and his or her network of friends and enemies, rather than the nittygritty details of crime solving” (2009). In the “Tea Shop Mysteries,” for example, protagonist
Theodosia Browning inevitably solves the case and is credited with its resolution, yet she receives help from her coworkers and colleagues at the Indigo Tea Shop, or her boyfriend or other friends. Similarly, in the “Coffeehouse Mysteries,” Claire Cosi discusses her cases with coworkers, and is helped in her sleuthing efforts by her ex-husband, her mother-in-law, and her boyfriend, a police officer. The help and support the protagonists receive adds a more personal element to the books when compared to traditional mysteries. In traditional mysteries, if detectives solved crimes with someone else, there was often a hierarchy involved (such as with Sherlock Holmes and Watson). In their contemporary cozy counterparts, however, it is portrayed as a strength that the protagonist works and lives with a network of people around her. Although the protagonist is the definite “star” of the book, since she is portrayed as a human hero, she also has relationships, including family, friends, and romantic relationships. The increased focus on interpersonal relationships (which also help advance the plot) is another defining feature of cozies and, I therefore believe, another reason for their appeal. I believe that one result of this dramatic shift—from the role of the detective in traditional mysteries to that of sleuths in cozies—is that the amateur sleuth protagonist’s status has been raised. He or she, despite being an amateur without formal experience or education from law enforcement, will always succeed in solving the mystery, and will likewise inevitably survive even precarious situations. No matter what the protagonist’s paid employment may be, or even if he or she is a stay-at-home parent, his or her sleuthing abilities at least match, but are almost always better than, those of the local law enforcement. Yet she accomplishes this with help and support from his or her network of friends, a partner, a romantic interest, or perhaps even someone within law enforcement. The consistent success of the protagonist constitutes, therefore, a major shift from previous mysteries, and it illustrates the development within the genre. If the previously-mentioned claim by Kathleen Gregory Klein is correct, if it is indeed true that “detective fiction…follows rather than parallels social
change”, then this also demonstrates a major societal shift. Women are now able to not only act as crime-solvers of mystery plots; they are also allowed to succeed in this role. The quotation at the beginning of this section refers to the disparity between two of the most famous female sleuths in mystery, namely Nancy Drew 19 and Jane Marple. Nancy Drew is considered to be a strong, independent young woman who is, like her contemporary counterparts, a successful sleuth. In The Clue in the Diary, Nancy Drew works tirelessly to solve the mystery at hand, of a house’s explosion, and exonerate a kind, but poor, man who has received the blame. Written in 1962, this book demonstrates the vast changes between Nancy Drew as hero in her day, and the heroes in cozies. At the same time, Nancy Drew’s role as hero sleuth shares many commonalities with cozies. Nancy is praised by the other characters; similarly, cozies’ protagonist sleuths are also frequently praised. However, even though Nancy is strong and unafraid in the book, (and she even attempts to rush into the burning house to rescue whoever is inside), at the end, when there might be real danger at hand, she is encouraged to bring back-up in the form of a male. Here she is discussing her plan to solve the mystery with her housekeeper, Mrs. Gruen. “What do you plan to do?” Mrs. Gruen asked. “Bess and George and I will watch for him tonight. We may waste our time, but I have a feeling—I can’t explain it—that we’ll catch him near that burned house.” “It sounds risky, Nancy. How about taking a man with you?” (156-57) 20 Nancy Drew is also discussed in Feminism in Women’s Detective Fiction: It is strange that the Nancy Drew series has received very little critical attention—strange because of the number of books in the highly successful series, and strange because of the number of women who read the stories as teenagers. A discussion with the local librarian made it clear to me that the Nancy stories are still extremely popular, in spite of their rather dated approach
Dilley writes that Nancy Drew “has become part of the American psyche” (126). Nancy’s two female friends are named Bess and George.
to young women… A proto-feminist figure, Nancy Drew ultimately rejects the role expected of the teenage woman to become…‘an inspiring symbol of freedom.’ Perhaps Nancy is less an aberration…who always overcomes her male adversaries, and who lends credibility to the possibility of woman as hero. (xix) This last sentence is especially significant: “[Nancy] lends credibility to the possibility of woman as hero”. Nancy Drew is a hero figure that was created decades ago; protagonists have expanded and evolved since then to create the feminist sleuth in cozies of today. Dilley discusses readership when she writes: “As adults, these women wanted to find a heroine of mystery, adventures, and romance, but nothing was available. It was difficult for these thirtyto forty-year-old women to make the connection with ‘grandmotherly’ Jane Marple” (126). The Nancy Drew comparison is even mentioned in Agony of the Leaves, in a conversation between Theodosia Browning and her boyfriend, Max. Max says, “I can’t quite believe I’m having a romantic relationship with my very own Nancy Drew.” (225) Indeed, akin to a modern, evolved Nancy Drew-type character, today’s cozy protagonist succeeds in her role as sleuth and perseveres. But she manages to solve the mystery while still holding her job and maintaining a busy life, and she does this with the support of her friends. Emphasis in cozies is, therefore, not only on the successful sleuth solving the mystery, but also on her interpersonal relationships and the fictional world in which she resides.
Although traditional mysteries and cozies have many commonalities, cozies have expanded and evolved so much that they now constitute a separate subgenre. With increased emphasis on setting and themes, and due to seriality and characterization, they can capture readers’ interest much like viewers become attached to a television series. They are certainly entertaining reading that allows the reader to escape into the fictional world within, and perhaps even bring home a souvenir in the form of a recipe or knowledge about the theme within the book. But because of their status as popular literature and their recent rise to
popularity, they remain largely unstudied academically. I feel that there are many aspects of contemporary mysteries that could become the subject of intriguing further study. But cozy mysteries are not only light, entertaining reading; they have a greater function as well. Their successful sleuths have come a long way from their traditional mystery counterparts in their role as hero. These heroes are appealing in many ways, not least because they are imperfect. Yet the role they play in the books is a major leap forward for women detectives in fiction. In cozies of today the protagonist, with help from a network of friends, family, and colleagues, will inevitably succeed in solving the mystery. At the same time, cozy mysteries’ popularity could also become a limitation, a challenge facing the genre as its popularity leads to the genre becoming more commercialized. There is a risk that writers and publishers, in order to meet the demands of the readers to create more series, themes, and variations, might do so in a hasty fashion. Quality of writing could suffer if genre conventions become the main focus. Marilyn Stasio addresses this concern already in an article from 1992: “It’s especially troubling to see so many newcomers to genre writing picking up all the softest, laziest tricks of the cozy trade. For every new cozy author…who comes along with an original voice and some grasp of the literary craft involved in writing a light mystery, there are dozens more who seem to think that all you have to do is make the hero an idealized version of yourself, fabricate some anecdotal situations for an eccentric group of characters attending a cooking school, solve a murder or two over dessert, incorporate a few recipes into the text and put a cat on the cover.” I think, however, that this challenge is similar to that facing other genres. With the number of books available, readers must now choose not only amongst their interests, but also for the highest quality writing available. Mysteries have evolved and cozies are now mystery’s most popular subgenre. But if mysteries have changed, especially when compared with traditional mysteries, what can
be theorized about the future of cozies? Keeping in mind the potential challenges facing the genre, including of the risk of overzealous publishing of lower-quality books as mentioned by Stasio, I still think that cozies will continue to evolve and grow. Gender roles will certainly continue to be challenged as new themes and series are created. At the same time, I believe many of the conventions of the subgenre, including the major features of appealing setting, seriality, and interesting themes, will continue to be used. The potential for variation and expansion within the subgenre is great, and continues to grow. As it does, and as gender roles expand even more as societal change allows, cozies will likely follow suit. In conclusion, consider two key statements by literary critics. First, Klein states that “Detective fiction…follows rather than parallels social change.” (57) Second, Dilley elaborates: “The literary critic, too, becomes part anthropologist, studying a community and its codes over time” (xii). If these two claims are correct, then it is even more meaningful to study cozies, for not only are they entertaining fiction reading, they can also be viewed as a window into society. A study of cozies, therefore, becomes not only a study of the literature itself, but essentially also of our own contemporary culture.
List of Works Cited
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