Seasons in the Sun

Sunday morning, and I am going to make a Costco run. Sunday mornings, surprisingly enough, are the best time to go; New Orleans is, despite all evidence to the contrary, a city that takes its religion seriously so its always great to run errands during church.

I was on a panel several years ago at Bouchercon in Albany when the venerable Rebecca Chance stated that the most subversive thing a crime writer could do was write a cozy. I’ve thought about that statement a lot in the years since then, and I don’t necessarily agree that writing cozies is actually subversive; although it made for a truly great soundbyte. (I still think about it over three years later, don’I?) I myself have always held that cozies are the bastard redheaded stepchildren of the crime fiction world, and I am not really sure what that is. I do believe there’s an element of by women for women about women about them; nothing seems to earn contempt for books than this reality (the entire romance genre, for example, and Jennifer Weiner for another), despite the fact these books sell consistently well, year in and year out. When I was chair of the newsletter for Mystery Writers of America I wanted to try to come up with definitions for all the various sub-categories of the crime genre; as the official, longest running organization for crime writers, I felt it was kind of our place to define the sub-categories, as they always seem amorphous and fluid and their definitions depend on whomever you are talking to at the moment. The project came to naught, alas, as no one else seemed as interested in coming up with these definitions as I did; which is a shame, but there you have it. I guess that’s why they’ve never really been defined before.

Some cozy writers prefer traditional; and eschew the word cozy. I can certainly understand that, cozy; can be seen as demeaning–I’ve certainly heard it used in a disparaging way more than once.

So, why all this loathing for one of the biggest and most consistently successful subgenres of crime fiction?

I think–and may very well be wrong–think it goes back to the roots of the divide between male and female readers and writers; back in the days when all the women crime writers, no matter how dark and twisted their stories (Armstrong, Millar, etc.) always wound up with those covers with the lovely young girl with flowing hair running away from the spooky house with a light in one of the windows, while men got the covers with the sexy naked woman and a gun. It was in the 1970’s, I think, that women’s work stop being taking as seriously (at least in terms of award recognition) as men’s, coincidentally as the Women’s Movement really began to take hold. When the 1980’s rolled around, Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski series basically changed the game for all women writers; suddenly, women write hardboiled private eye series with a woman as the private eye. I don’t know if this is true or not, it’s all speculation and I wasn’t really paying much attention to the crime fiction world, but the rise of women authors like Marcia Muller, Sara Paretsky, and Sue Grafton with their hardboiled style of writing and their tough women characters–who didn’t need men, swore, could take a punch as well as throw one–unintentionally relegated the cozies to a place even further in the back of the bus.

And yet, they continue to sell and remain as popular a form of the genre as ever. So, what does that actually mean, in terms of the books and their writers themselves?

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone dismiss cozies–both men AND women crime writers–well, I’d be typing this on my private beach in the Caribbean as I swill some tropical drink with a lot of liquor in it. I stayed away from reading cozies for a very long time because of this dismissive attitude towards them; yet in the last few years, as I began to recognize (and call out) my own prejudices about reading and book sub-genres, I’ve slowly but surely started reading some of them–and they are actually quite good. Donna Andrews’ Meg Langslow series is quite spectacular; and so is Elaine Viets’ Helen Hawthorne series. I am slowly but surely adding more cozies to my reading, and you know–some of them aren’t to my taste, but I can also say that about pretty much any subgenre of crime writing.

I started reading Leslie Budewitz’ Assault and Pepper yesterday during the embarrassing horror that was the LSU football game, and before I knew it I was halfway through it and really enjoying myself. I met Leslie at Bouchercon this year; she was the outgoing president of Sisters in Crime, and I liked her. So, as always when I meet a writer and like them, even if it’s just in passing and a brief meeting, I thought I would give one of her books a whirl. Leslie has done two series–the first is the Food Village books, and this is the first in her Spice Shop series. And I’m liking it. It’s clever, the main character, Pepper, who owns a spice shop in the Pike Market in Seattle, is likable–smart and on her game, divorced and reinventing herself after losing her job in HR for a law firm–and the stuff about the spice shop is, in and of itself, interesting. (I did know going in how important spices were to world history; European exploration of the world had everything to do with trade and markets, and spices actually played a very large role in that) And the mystery itself is an interesting one.

assault-and-pepper

I’m really enjoying it, and will probably finish reading it today.

I think it’s easy for people who don’t read them to write off cozies; I’m still not entirely sure how you would define them as a subgenre, but I will list off a couple of things that I’ve observed about them:

1. There is a running theme that connects the books. Leslie’s series are the Food Village series and the Spice Shop series; Donna Andrews’ are all connected by bird puns as the titles; Elaine Viets’ are the Dead End jobs series; Miranda James are the Cat in the Stacks books. I’ve seen ones that are based around desserts, house renovations, flower shops, quilting, scrapbooking–you name it. The ones that are based in food often have recipes in the back (there are some in the back of Assault and Pepper); the scrapbook ones have helpful scrapbooking hints and ideas–you get the picture.

2. The main character is a woman. There are exceptions to this, of course–Miranda James’ main character is a man–but without fail, almost always, at least in the first book, the main character is a woman with no romantic entanglements (either single or divorced) and she usually will find a love interest along the way. She is also usually smart, not a wimp but genuinely kind and caring, and while a professional working woman, she is not involved professionally as a crime-solver–cop, private eye, lawyer, reporter–so all of her involvement in murders is usually accidental, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

3. Usually, but not always, there’s a pet involved. I’ve often heard cozies dismissed as ‘cat books’–and certainly, Lillian Jackson Braun made a lot of money with her cat detectives, as has Rita Mae Brown. The main character doesn’t have to have a pet (Meg Langslow has a veritable zoo on her farm in Virginia), but it never hurts for them to have a cat or a dog who will inevitably wind up on the cover.

4. The books have a very strong sense of place.Crime novels are, I’ve always felt, very dependent on their setting. V. I. Warshawski’s Chicago, Kinsey Millhone’s Santa Teresa, Lew Archer’s Los Angeles, and Bill Smith/Lydia Chin’s New York loom over the books like another character. Cozies are also very dependent on having a strong sense of place. The Fort Lauderdale of the Helen Hawthorne series is as alive and vibrant as Chandler’s LA. The cozies that are set in fictional small towns also create a sense of community–the books won’t work without capturing that small town essence of everyone-knows-everyone and community ethic. Leslie Budewitz’ <i>Assault and Pepper</I> rings with authenticity; this is a Seattle I’ve visited and can recognize, and it seems very real to me.

I’ve always wanted to write a cozy series, or at least give it a shot. The Scotty series could have easily gone that way, but I chickened out and made Scotty a private eye by Book Three. I think it would be an enormous challenge–and I am all about the challenge.

And now, back to the spice mines.

6 thoughts on “Seasons in the Sun

  1. Great essay, Greg. Up in New England we have a blog (and major support network) of six cozy writers and friends, the Wicked Cozy Authors (“Mysteries with a New England Accent”). One of us, Barbara Ross, has always said that in a cozy, justice is restored to the village in the en, and that’s one of the most important defining characteristics – as well as female lead, village based, and an absence of sex, violence, or swearing on the page. Did you see our fans at Bouchercon this year? We even held a Cozy and Proud meetup!

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  2. Greg, what a delight to meet you in NOLA! Thanks a million for the shout-out — I’m thrilled that you find my Seattle both recognizable and a good place to visit. Ultimately, I think the cozy — like most amateur sleuth mysteries — is about community. The main character is able to solve the mystery before law enforcement can because her involvement in the community and her knowledge of it give her information and insight they lack; she can go places and ask questions they can’t, and she sees connections they overlook or dismiss. In solving the mystery, she restores the social order of the community. Another element is humor, as the titles suggest. But despite the light-heartedness, there is very often a serious social justice issue underlying the plot, as both Donna Andrews’ and Elaine Viets’ series demonstrate. (I’m honored to be linked with two of the very best practitioners — thank you!)

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