I have not been feeling particularly nice or cozy lately. I have a couple of book reviews coming up that have turned my thoughts to the technical as well as the entertainment aspects of what constitutes a proper cozy mystery.
Now I am not one to cast aspersions on anyone else’s idea of creative expression – whatever gets you hummin’ – have at it, but for my personal enjoyment as a reader, I have found my bookstore’s cozy corner a tad far flung lately.
I keep bringing home books that I am supposed to enjoy, they are resting there in my category happily butted right up against Agatha Christie after all, and yet, more often than not, I end up wanting to throw them across the room by chapter 2.
Please do not concern yourself overmuch with my tempter, I am not usually prone to vicious outbursts of rage, nor do I regularly stoop to the level of actually causing my dogs to run from the room in fear of being dive bombed by paperbacks, but to say that I have been a touch underwhelmed with my reading selections as of late would not be an understatement.
My latest foray into the depths of dissatisfaction led me to pose the question: What exactly am I looking for? I have on my shelf of rejected books a seemingly lovely stack of murder mysteries that involve everything from knitting circles to downward facing dogs, and yet my appetite has not been sated…sigh.
So what’s the problem? I think to answer that, I really have to define, at least from my perspective, what actually constitutes a proper cozy. The most basic answer is that it is a complex puzzle, deceptive in its simplicity, that begs to be solved – for that really is the lure that pulls us back for more, isn’t it? The joyful working of our “little grey cells,” the red herrings that lead us down long and winding paths to nowhere, and the delightfully complicated twist in the end that leaves us in consternation of the fact that we didn’t see it sooner…
From a technical perspective, there are basic rules to a proper cozy:
- A murder must occur within either a confined location or a size specific area that provides a very limited suspect pool. The location aspect could be as narrow as a locked convent or as broad as a small town, as long as the perimeters are such that all possible suspects can be accounted for early on.
- We must meet our murderous mastermind somewhere near the beginning, so as to develop some sort of relationship with the character – that way it will bite a bit when we find out that he/she is actually a right twisted piece of work.
- A proper cozy must take place in an environment that is not only limited by a handful of suspects, but also gives the reader a false sense of security. The reason that these types of works intrigue us so is because the setting often pulls us in with an illusion of safety, and then shatters that illusion with a death blow. This is where the cozy really shines by way of creep factor – one minute you are singing nursery rhymes in the warmth of a perfect day, and the next you’re facing a body hanging defiantly in the old oak tree – it’s a beautiful, horrible thing…
- There must be loads of twists and turns where subtle nuances masquerading as clues lead readers to believe they are on to the one suspect that has more than likely been overlooked by everyone else, and then the rug must be heartily jerked from beneath the reader’s feet. As we all know, the least likely suspect is often the culprit; however, just being counted as the least likely can propel a character to the most likely position, which will invariably place them squarely back in the least likely slot after all…ahh the joys of murder and mayhem.
- The writer must always play fair with the reader. At the end, when all is revealed, the writer cannot simply pull some complicated chain of events out of their ass and call it day. All the clues, however subtle, must always be hiding in plain sight and easily seen once the entire picture has been revealed. The same holds true with the rule of meeting the murderer in the beginning – do not bring me some dried up, tired mess of a resolution where a never before seen person disguised as a vagabond drops his assumed persona to reveal a character I have never seen hide nor hair of and expect me to be shocked and amazed. Why would I be shocked by the actions of a perfect stranger? Doesn’t the fact that they’re a new character imply explicitly that I have no preconceived notions what-so-ever of what they may or may not be capable of??? This is not a finale with a twist, more rather, it is a portrait of a writer who dropped the ball some ways back and continued to run for a touchdown anyway – it is not fair play!
- A good cozy mystery should also make the reader laugh. Character quirks, imperfections in personality, humorous social situations or awkward predicaments – all those things work very well in a genre that serves up murder with a cup of tea. In truth the whole point of a cozy is to set readers beside themselves in some way. To focus too much on the horror of murder is a different genre altogether, and frankly, takes the reader away from the attractive lull that all is well until it is not. A cozy is not a drama, nor do we want it to be, for it is not the focus of the murder or the seeking of justice that draws a reader into this preferred genre, but the irony of feeling good in the face of the worst possible outcome. It is an odd puzzle of the mind that deserves not to be trampled by too much heaviness.
- And please, for the love of God, give us a main character that is at least likable and intelligent. Do not show me countless examples of how ridiculously silly someone is as they stumble into clues in some sort of Jack Tripper-esk comedy of errors, and then expect me to believe them smart enough to pull it all together in the end. I have my own rule as a reader here – if the main character laments too much on the state of her yoga pants or stares in awe as her baby blues widen in surprise at everything from murder to overcooked oatmeal, or basically behaves in any way that makes me want to scoop my eyes out with a soup spoon to avoid reading about her any longer, I immediately toss that book aside. Life is too short for that kind of crap, lol.
So those are the basic elements, but just like any recipe, writers can add their own flavor to any twist they prefer, as long as it still resembles a cozy when they close it out. Some call this a type of formula fiction – that’s cool – math is solid, formulas work. Whatever genre people prefer, that is, at the end of the day, what they expect to find within the pages of their book selections. If something looks like it follows the “formula” of a cozy from the outside, but upon closer inspection reads more like a “formula” for drama, or horror, or romance, then the reader feels cheated. So I’m ok with formula fiction, as long as the puzzle within it is a new one – Hershey has a formula for chocolate that works pretty well, and if I take one home and unwrap some new age concept of melt in your mouth granola I promise I’m gonna be pissed off!
The biggest problem I’ve seen lately, is not a failure on the part of writers to understand the basic concepts that I’m looking for, it’s more that they seem to be hitting these points of interest like a game of tag – touching but not delving deeply enough. Many of them seem to be of the belief that if someone drops off the twig in a pie shop face down in a blueberry confection of some sort, their work is done – it’s not! It takes more than a complimentary setting to make a cozy complete! Regardless of its sweet and flaky outer layer, a cozy mystery must be filled with enough ingredients to really engage the mind of the reader.
I have picked up one book after another in the past few months that, at best turned out to be no puzzle at all, or at worst left me feeling like an idiot for wasting my time on some sort of sophomoric jaunt through the cake batter.
The readers in this genre are not people with silly, frivolous minds – they do actually require some depth of thought on the part of the writer. The readers of cozy mysteries are clever and enjoy the irony of the twisted idealism that comes when death invades on an otherwise perfect scene.
So please writers, please give me a good puzzle to solve. Something that looks sweet but has actual darkness around the edges – give me a touch of madness – with or without the blueberry pie.
I am hoping for some suggestions for reading materials from you guys. If I don’t find something that leaves me guessing soon, I fear that the litany of reviews I put out in the coming weeks is going to better resemble moving a herd to slaughter than a sweet glass of “Sparkling Cyanide.”
Apologies for the rant…
*Note to readers – This weeks picture is featured on my site, and is an original painting by artist Devyn Thompson, aka – my beautiful daughter…#devynrocks 🙂