Stretching the Boundaries of a Cozy Mystery
Sex. Violence. Profanity. Agatha Christie might be rolling in her grave (or secretly chuckling) as the modern world shoulders its way into the cozy mystery genre.
Cozy mysteries are also referred to as traditional mysteries. The Malice Domestic conference defines a traditional mystery—books best typified by the works of Agatha Christie—as mysteries which contain no explicit sex or excessive gore or violence; and usually (but are not limited to) featuring an amateur detective, a confined setting, and characters who know one another.
The term cozy mysteries came from the tea cozy, a cloth cover for a teapot which insulates the tea, keeping it warm while it sits on the table next to a reader ensconced in an easy chair reading a traditional mystery. Jessica Fletcher, the heroine of the television series, Murder, She Wrote, typifies the type of amateur sleuth found in a cozy mystery. For a more lengthy description of the cozy mystery genre, along with a list of authors, go to: http://www.cozy-mystery.com/Definition-of-a-Cozy-Mystery.html .
Many current traditional or cozy mystery writers (myself included) have stretched the boundaries of the genre to include a bit more of the grittiness of the modern world. I'll use my own books in the Claire Hanover gift basket designer mystery series and those of other cozy mystery authors to show how we’ve expanded the genre.
Sex – The bedroom door has cracked open a bit, allowing brief glimpses of a breast or a bare bum, but long descriptions of the sex act itself, with plumbing details, are still not tolerated by readers. As an example of walking this line, an underlying subplot in To Hell in a Handbasket is Claire's daughter's propensity for appearing just when Claire and her husband decide to get amorous, stopping the action and being grossed out by what she sees.
Violence – Descriptions of the murder victim often have become more graphic, as in Robert Spiller's Irrational Numbers, where the naked corpse of a homosexual high school student tied to a barbed wire fence (modeled after the Matthew Shepherd case) is described in detail. In my own To Hell in a Handbasket, Claire Hanover must rely on her rusty first aid training to treat a young person's horrendous injury that could prove fatal. Also, fight scenes and shoot-outs can be included in a modern cozy, but prolonged torture or on-screen rape scenes still aren’t tolerated.
Victim – While in the past, the cozy murder victim was someone who “deserved to die” (thus giving us lots of suspects with motive) and was not someone to be mourned, that's no longer always the case. For example, in To Hell in a Handbasket, the first murder victim is an innocent young woman, a friend of Claire's daughter, who still had her whole life ahead of her. Another example is Joanna Campbell Slan's Paper, Scissors, Death, where the sleuth's beloved husband is killed.
Profanity – Just as modern society has become more tolerant of some foul language, so has the cozy form. An occasional four-letter word is allowed when strong emotion demands it, but it's usually spoken by a male character or a hardened female character, and rarely by the sleuth herself. In A Real Basket Case, it's usually Claire's husband, her embittered friend Ellen, or one of the criminals involved who, overcome by emotion, let slip with a brief curse.
setting – Often this is
interpreted to mean the setting should be a small town or village, but the
important aspect here is that most of the characters know each other so when
the sleuth interviews them, they divulge information about each other. This can
be accomplished by giving most of the characters a common pursuit, even though
the book is set in a large city. Examples include the staff and clientele of
the same Colorado
The one feature of the cozy mystery genre that is usually not stretched is that the sleuth is an amateur. Why is this? Because if professional police forensics such as DNA analysis are used to solve the crime versus the interviewing of witnesses, the finding of clues, and deduction of motives, then the puzzle aspect of the books is lost. Then the readers don't have the enjoyment of trying to figure out who the killer is themselves.
Regardless of how the boundaries are being stretched, I will continue to be a fan of cozy mysteries in all their forms, reading them while ensconced in an easy chair next to a pot of warm tea.
Do you have any limits for what you’ll read?