Cozy mysteries: ‘Tain’t What You Write (It’s the Way That You Write It)
(With apologies to Jimmy Lunceford)
I write cozy mysteries, and I know that cozy is what my readers expect. Which is why I put this disclaimer into the description of my latest Professor Molly mystery, The Perfect Body.
The Perfect Body has
* no swearing
* no explicit sex
* no graphic violence
However, it does have
* descriptions of the new-mom experience, including diapers and breastfeeding
* conversation about a transgender character
* lurid descriptions of the inner workings of a public university
Why the warning? Because every reader has a different definition of what a cozy is. Personally, I think breastfeeding is fair game. But I didn’t want anyone to slam the book shut in disgust when, for example, we find that Molly has accidentally shot her poor husband in the eye (nursing moms, you know what I’m talking about).
Amanda Flower, writing for Publishers Weekly, tells us the essential ingredients of a cozy are:
An amateur sleuth, an unsuspecting victim, a quirky supporting cast, and trail of clues and red herrings.
Just as important is what a cozy doesn’t have. According to The Cozy Mystery List, a cozy contains
no graphic violence, no profanity, and no explicit sex.
Notice: No graphic violence. No explicit sex. It’s a matter of style rather than substance. It’s not what you’re telling the reader, it’s how you’re saying it.
While truly disturbing topics are off-limits (I can’t imagine a cozy about child soldiers, for example), I believe a cozy author can write about some fairly dreadful subjects, as long as the author keeps a light touch.
Consider the appalling behavior hinted at in this passage from one of Sarah Caudwell’s Hilary Tamar mysteries.
[Waiters] are an overworked and exploited profession, who have to spend much of their energies running to and fro carrying drinks and so on, so that the duration of the pleasure given is not always commensurate to the enthusiasm with which it is offered. If the coffee brought me by the pretty waiter had been cold by the time he left, I should have been willing, in the particular circumstances, to forgive him; but my forgiveness was not called for.
–Sarah Caudwell, Thus Was Adonis Murdered
When Caudwell’s characters aren’t indulging in unregretted liaisons, they’re stumbling into impromptu bacchanalia:
It was in many respects an admirable bathroom—marble walls, gold taps, and a bath the size of a paddling pool. It did not, however, afford the privacy which was my objective. The bath, you see, was full of people—I can’t say exactly how many, since they were rather tangled up together.
.― Sarah Caudwell, The Shortest Way to Hades
People are drowned, poisoned, and pushed off balconies. Straitlaced bankers are found chained to beds. A couple indulges in an afternoon frolic, unaware of the body stashed in the bedroom.
None of this spoils the mood. Through it all, we readers smile and occasionally burst out laughing.
In a tense psychological thriller, any setting can take be terrifying. A bake sale or a bridal shower can turn into a disturbing nightmare.
But in a cozy, any situation can be whimsical—regrettable dalliances, inconvenient deaths, and perhaps even the mysteries of new motherhood.