Being Dark about Dark

With PET SITTER ON A HOT TIN ROOF coming out next week, I’m reading reviews. It’s always surprising to me to see my work described as “darker” than most cozies. When I’m writing them, I laugh out loud a lot at things I didn’t expect Dixie to say or do, and readers write to tell me they laugh all the way through them. But I also shed a few tears during the writing, and readers say they do too, so I guess that makes them “dark.” To tell the truth, I’m not sure what “dark” means. Sad? Horrifying? Depressing? Scary? Grim? Or maybe “dark” means “this makes me think about things I’d rather not.”

The word “dark” applied to light mysteries reminds me of the word “upset” that my family therapy clients often used back before I turned to crime writing. I might ask a client, “How did you feel when you walked in on your husband in bed with your best friend?” and I’d most likely hear, “I was really upset.” People got “upset” when a business partner absconded with all the company money. They got “upset” when they failed to get a job they’d worked hard to deserve. They got “upset” over every kind of loss and disappointment that can befall a person. “Upset,” like “dark,” can mean a zillion different things, so I’d ask clients to look in their dictionaries and find the words that exactly described their emotions. “Upset” might turn out to be furious, afraid, humiliated, ashamed, or any one of a long list of possibilities.

I wish I could do that with reviewers who use the word “dark.” To one reviewer, the fact that Dixie Hemingway is a widow makes the series “dark.” To another, the fact that some of the characters are gay darkens it. Most recently, a reviewer intimated that mysteries with animals should always be fanciful — as if they’re the Little Golden Books of the mystery genre and that people who read them are childish. As well as I can figure out, reviewers use the word “dark” to mean anything having to do with real life.

Maybe I’m being too dark about it, but I sort of resent the idea that grown-ups can’t love pets and also be smart. In any case, I will continue to write about pet-loving people as I see them: intelligent adults who face reality with love and laughter.

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