Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Cozy Mysteries v. Traditional Mysteries v. Amateur Sleuths

Recently the Guppy Chapter of Sisters in Crime asked me to participate in an interview for their newsletter. The question they asked me, and a few other agents was: 

Is there, in your opinion and the publishing world in general, a substantive difference between cozy, traditional, and amateur sleuth mysteries? If so, what are the defining features of each of these categories?

Since my answer ran a bit long I thought I would share it with my blog readers in full.

Just as your readers have not found this to be an easy question to answer neither do I. One of the reasons, for me, is that I tend not to try to lump all cozies together in a neat little box. I do think there can easily be a simplicity and formula to a cozy, but I find that the most successful cozy authors, as with the most successful authors in any genre, tend to push those boundaries a little bit.
I think cozy mysteries can best be defined by the word used to describe them. They are cozy and everything that word conjures in your mind. Think of warm tea, comfy chairs, cuddly pets, a soft newly knitted blanket and warm, freshly baked pastries. That’s a cozy. When you read one you feel like you’re being embraced by a world you want to be in. You’ve found new friends and maybe a protagonist who inspires you or who could easily be your best friend. A cozy is almost always (there’s always an exception to any rule) an amateur sleuth, but an amateur sleuth isn’t always cozy.For example, Jane Steward, the protagonist in Ellery Adam’s Book Retreat Mystery Murder in the Mystery Suite is just one perfect example of a cozy sleuth. She’s the manager of a storybook resort where readers can spend days in the comfort of books (see how cozy this is). Jane is not typically the kind of person to get into trouble, but she does love a good mystery and when one shows up at her door she’s just nosy enough to need to investigate. The book itself doesn’t move too fast, there tends not to be a lot of blood, usually no more than one body, and no matter how much trouble the sleuth gets in to, the reader never has reason to really be afraid or even feel the need to sit on the edge of her seat.Julia Kalas, the unconventional heroine of Minerva Koenig’s NINE DAYS, is an amateur sleuth, but as she’s described by Booklist as a “five-foot Sherman tank of criminal intentions,” we can see she’s definitely not cozy. She’s a rough and tough construction worker/career criminal who is short, fat, pushing forty, and stoically dealing with being forced into the witness protection program after her husband’s murder by gang members.  Her new life in a small Texas town bores her (while it would probably comfort a cozy sleuth) but when someone she’s come to care about is accused of a murder, Julia decides to find the real killer (the hallmark of any good amateur sleuth). Traditional mysteries probably have the broadest definition. They can be amateur sleuths or official investigators, they can be a little darker or light and funny. What they aren’t is suspense or cozy. They tend to fall somewhere in between. Typically an amateur sleuth who is not cozy will fall into the area of traditional mystery. Most publishers would just identify this type of book as just mystery. The Minerva Koenig example I gave would fall into that area. So would DE Johnson’s The Detroit Electric Scheme, a book (series really) that features an amateur sleuth, but has more action and twists and turns than your cozy and, of course, the subject matter itself is not at all cozy. In a traditional mystery you’ll also see a faster pace and maybe a little more blood and guts, but nothing that would compare to what a suspense might offer.



Kate Douglas said...

I find it fascinating that we as writers demand to know the "rules" for whatever genre we write, and yet the books that have the greatest success are often the ones that break those rules. Just a thought...

AJ Blythe said...

In Australia 'cozy' as a genre isn't well known. I always find myself having to explain what I write. Usually receiving a response like 'oh, you mean a mystery'. But it's those subtle differences you mention that make a cozy a cozy.

I do wonder, though, if you could elaborate on what you mean by pushing the boundaries of a cozy?

If you push the boundaries of a cozy woudn't it become a mystery (like Minerva Koenig)?