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August 8, 2014

Cozy Mysteries: The Class Element

“If you’ve got a cozy mystery, and a dog is introduced, readers’ first question is, ‘Does the dog die?’ They never ask about a cat. They know that the first rule of cozies is: The Cat Never Dies.” – K.B. Inglee, mystery writer

Cozies are the Rodney Dangerfield of the mystery world, apparently in the bathroom when the respect was ladled out. And one of the many aspects to their low-status status? They tend most often to be defined in terms of what they are not. Thus, cozies are not dark or gritty or sexy. There’s no graphic violence in a cozy, or language that would distress your granny, or upsetting things like rape or child-abuse. The protagonist is not a professional sleuth (i.e., not a cop or a private-eye), and there are no mean streets.

That’s fine. But I wanted to know what cozies ARE.

Happily, I had come to the right place: The “cozy mysteries” panel discussion at last week’s Deadly Ink mystery conference, in New Brunswick, NJ. Author Ilene Schneider’s claim that cozies are the books “you can read before you go to sleep…and still go to sleep” may have been clever, but ultimately it just restated the old-school “what they aren’t” definition: Cozies are the books that won’t stress you out.

Gradually, though, the writers came to a “what they are” consensus: Cozies are set in a world you want to visit. And what makes that world so appealing? Steve Rigolosi was the first to throw out a really meaningful suggestion: CozyLand is friendly. All the relationships, perhaps even people’s relationships with the bad guy, are warm, generous, laced with humor. Even brief transactions are pleasantly personal: The pharmacist compliments your tie, the sheriff teases you about your second-place finish in last week’s pie-eating contest.

Mind you, there is a sheriff. The violence may take place “offstage,” with someone bustling onto the scene to announce the Doc Phillpot’s been found strangled, but it does take place. These are cozy mysteries, after all. But that lone bit of nastiness acts like a pickle on a burger, the little touch of tang that serves to highlight the pillowy pleasures.

At this point, it might be possible to describe a cozy as “The Waltons” plus a dead body, but that’s not quite right. Peggy Erhart may protest that she doesn’t really write cozies, but in tossing out the word “upscale,” she nevertheless supplied one of the key missing elements. CozyLand is appealing because, baby, there’s money there.

Not necessarily buckets of it: Virginia Rich’s Mrs. Potter has rather a lot of dosh (and a house in Maine, another on Nantucket, and a ranch in Arizona), and Simon Brett’s glorious Melita Pargeter has no need to stint on the champers, but for the most part, CozyLand is solidly middle-class. Houses are clean and comfortable, with plenty of extra bedrooms and home-baked snacks for unexpected guests. The school bake-sale, the community theater, the local bookshop, teashop and orchestra all do booming business. Cars have both their taillights, townsfolk have all their teeth, and minor antiques, discreet jewelry and cashmere twinsets are on comfortable, constant display. By hitting this upper-middle sweet spot, cozies steer readers between two sets of obstacles, between the anxieties of real poverty and the lousy options that go along with it, and the yearning resentment that we tend to feel toward the really rich. A visit to CozyLand would not be soothing if it pressed our noses against a view of what it’s like to be dead-broke in 21st-century America. Nor would it be soothing if it meant hobnobbing with the likes of Thurston Howell III. Nope, upper-middle is the right class for CozyLand. There’s a slice of homemade cake with your name on it, served up on a pretty china plate.

All of this left me wondering, how important is that class element in creating a satisfying cozy? Could you create a desperately impoverished community that nevertheless embodied all the warmth and humor that cozy-readers look for, and hit the necessary buttons? Could you set a cozy on Catfish Row, or in a hardscrabble immigrant community? The world of cozies is full of sub-genres – culinary cozies, crafting cozies. Would it be possible to create a ghetto-cozy?

Interestingly, I had my most substantive discussion about this with two writers – Michael Rubin and KB Inglee – who in fact write historical fiction, rather than anything in the cozy line. Both of them were pretty well convinced that a poverty-cozy could work, but particularly if it were set in the past. Inglee specializes in the Colonial period, so that’s where her imagination went, and though Rubin’s most recent book has a Civil War setting (and he’s primarily a legal scholar), he thought a P-C might be particularly well suited to the period right after World War I, before drugs and the related violence had made serious inroads into poor communities, but also before the Depression’s real devastation had stripped from these communities so much of the expectation of a bright tomorrow, an expectation that is at the heart of a good cozy.

With that expectation in mind, I’m going to revert to the “what it isn’t” definition and say that a real cozy is profoundly lacking in cynicism. And it’s precisely that quality of unshaded optimism, of conviction that we will feel better after a sandwich and a nap, that makes it so hard, I think, to conceive of setting a cozy mystery in one of today’s truly poor communities. The great scholar (and apparently lousy husband) Paul Fussell famously claimed that World War I made irony the dominant mode of thought in the 20th century, and while I would not presume to date anything so closely, I do have a sense that sometime during the last hundred years it became impossible, in this country, to be genuinely poor and still believe – full-throatedly – in the promise of a better tomorrow. And without that belief…without that belief, I don’t think you have a cozy.

What do you think? Is class essential to a satisfying cozy? Could a “ghetto-cozy” work today? Could it work at all?

 

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