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May 20, 2014

Cozy vs. Hard-Boiled?

Last year, Bas Bleu interviewed Maggie for the “Bluestocking Salon” section of their website (You can read the entire interview here). The following section addresses the evergreen question of mystery sub-genres and their gendered dimension.

“Cozies” tend to be regarded as the red-headed stepchild of the mystery world, a distinct second-best to the “hard-boiled” mysteries that are viewed as their opposite number. I actually believe, and quite strongly, that both this view and the extent to which it is accurate are an outgrowth of the sexism that remains rife in the mystery community.

When people in the business talk about “cozies,” we’re talking about books that take their guiding spirit directly from Agatha Christie’s “Miss Marple” series. That is, the setting is usually town or suburb or village, rather than city. The protagonist is almost always female, and never a professional crime-solver (i.e., not a cop or a private-eye). There is little if any “onstage” violence, and there is, most critically, a somewhat sunny world-view: The world is tidy and pleasant, and while some bad guy or other has come along and made a mess, as soon as he’s caught and dealt with the, sun will shine again and there will be cream buns for tea. These books are published for and read by women, almost exclusively, and like romance novels, they are therefore assumed to be entirely second-rate.

This assumption is, of course, total hogwash. (It’s hogwash in reference to romances as well: Jane Austen wrote Regency romances.) There have been plenty of genuinely good cozy mysteries, starting with those written by Miss Christie, who was a genius at plotting.

Sadly, it is also true that the vast majority of cozies – like the vast majority of romance novels – are crap. The manuscripts are bought for pennies, the books are hustled into print virtually unedited, they get no – as in ZERO – marketing support, they sell at a rock-bottom price-point, and they go out of print within nine months. They are treated as the literary equivalent of Twinkies, on the assumption that their readers – women – can’t tell quality from junk, and don’t care about the difference. As a genre, they represent a massive insult to their audience.

Within the mystery world, virtually all the status resides with hard-boiled novels, in large part less because they are inherently better than cozies (there’s plenty of hard-boiled crap out there) than because they are written for (and primarily by) men. And just to be clear, when people in the industry talk about “hard-boiled,” what we mean is books with (usually) urban settings (“down these mean streets….”), male protagonists who are professionally involved in solving crime, a fair amount of violence, and a generally cynical outlook: The world is dark and corrupt and nothing Our Hero can do will change that, but he is nevertheless compelled to try, even though he knows that he is ultimately doomed to fail. This knowledge makes him cranky and leads him to drink too much; it also makes him no fun at parties, so he doesn’t usually have many friends, much less a family. He occasionally has something approaching warmth with a woman of easy virtue, but she will either get killed or betray him.

As you can probably tell, I have about as much respect for cookie-cutter hard-boiled as I do for most cozies – although, as with cozies, there is some great hard-boiled fiction, beginning with Raymond Chandler, who essentially invented it. The really good news, though, is that the world of mysteries is MUCH larger than these two sub-genres. For example, at Partners & Crime, we sold very few traditional cozies, a lot of hard-boiled (to both men and women), and an enormous amount of British or “British-style” fiction, which is defined (for me) by an emphasis on character and – particularly – prose; these books tend to have a distinctive narrative voice, whereas with a fair amount of American mystery fiction, particularly very successful mystery fiction (John Grisham and Dan Brown, for example) the author is essentially invisible, the narrative voice acting as the equivalent of a white gallery wall setting off the work of art – in this case, the story. Still thinking about that wall (and REALLY laboring this metaphor), a British-style mystery has wallpaper. The painting is still there, you can still see and enjoy the painting, but it’s only part of the visual experience. The painting (the plot) is to some extent having a dialogue with the wallpaper (the prose).

These books also tend to have a keen sense of history, even when they have contemporary settings. P.D.James’ Adam Dalgliesh, for example, has been haunted over 14 books by the image of his mother’s arm, blown off by a bomb during the London Blitz. That sense of history does come up in some American books: Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, for example, was shaped by his experiences as a tunnel-rat during the Vietnam War. But for the most part, the path between the past and the present belongs to the Brits: Most American mystery fiction does not look back.

Another sub-genre that has become quite significant over the past few decades is foreign mysteries. Scandinavian mysteries have of course been hugely popular for the past eight years or so, beginning with Henning Mankell’s “Kurt Wallender” series, and then exploding with the publication of Steig Larsen’s “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” trilogy. Before the passion for the Scandinavians took hold there was something of a vogue for both Japanese and Spanish mystery fiction. In general, the foreign stuff tends to appeal to both men and women: It often combines elements of American-style hard-boiled (a distinctly dark tone, a professional crime-solver for a hero, a certain amount of violence) with both an elegance of prose and the eye to the past that somehow “soften” the violence and lighten the darkness, making the books accessible to a wider audience.



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