By Janis Susan May/Janis Patterson
What’s a cozy mystery? Well, it depends on when – and who – you’re asking.
A cozy mystery used to mean a mystery without overt, on-screen violence, sex or gore. Since murder (which the vast majority of mysteries are) is inherently violent, a cozy had to soft-pedal the explicitness so prevalent in the noir or hard-boiled ‘traditional’ mystery. Instead of a lengthy and loving description of the knife point parting the yielding flesh or the fountain of spatter as the bullet tears through the body, there is just a scant mention of a lip of blood seeping out from under a covering sheet or the sight of a crushed and mangled body – nothing more. Sex (if any) is treated the same way – a glance, occasionally a quick kiss, but the focus is nearly always just about the puzzle and nothing else. Oh, one of the main hallmarks of the true cozy is that the sleuth who always triumphs in the end is without exception an amateur.
That’s pretty much still true for many today, but in the last few years there has been a revolution within the cozy genre itself. If possible, it has gotten ‘cozier’ if not downright cloying.
Not long ago I was talking with an industry professional and he mentioned that I should try my hand at writing a cozy mystery. Since he was familiar with my work I was startled, as my mysteries have always been considered cozy – amateur sleuth, no overt anything, focus on the puzzle. Not any more, he said. You are now writing a traditional mystery; now a cozy is much fluffier – an amateur female sleuth, who usually owns a bakery/café/needlework shop/bookstore or works in some other traditionally feminine field of endeavor, who occasionally has an incredibly intelligent pet (some of whom talk and even detect by themselves), who has both a steadfast but quirky family/best friend and who always has a hunky policeman or detective friend about whom she inwardly obsesses standing around waiting to help her. Oh, and if food is involved, there must be recipe(s) at the end. Today, the industry professional added, it’s becoming almost de rigeur for the heroine/sleuth to be young, gorgeous, witty and usually adorably clumsy, especially around the hero – and sometimes so stupid it makes my teeth ache. Most recently it seems she has to have some sort of superpower, too. Psychic abilities. Be a witch. Or, if she is ‘normal’, have a ghostly companion whom only she can see.
That, he said, is today’s cozy mystery.
My response was nothing I want put out on the internet.
Now don’t get me wrong – I read stories with varying degrees of the above elements. Some I have enjoyed, some not – just like with any genre. What alarms me is that there is such a tsunami of them. I’m waiting with fatalistic patience for a story about a psychic witch who can fly (with or without broom), can shapeshift or turn herself invisible (maybe both), and has a ghostly companion who runs her bakery/café when she’s zipping around searching for clues with a saturnine detective who doesn’t believe in paranormal phenomena. It’s inevitable.
I guess I’m old-fashioned, but I don’t see what’s wrong with a perfectly normal human sleuth who follows the clues and solves the puzzle with nothing but her (or his) brainpower, tenacity and curiosity. However, everyone has different tastes, and that’s fine.