What Makes a Cozy a Cozy?

Sleuthfest is coming up next week, and I’ll be joining Heather Graham, Diane Gilbert Madsen and James R. Benn for a panel discussion led by Philip Cioffari. We’ll talk about different mystery genres and I’m to represent cozies. Already I feel a bit of an impostor because my books tend to span several genres. Publisher’s Weekly called them cozy/thriller hybrids, and I think that’s a fair assessment.

Some mysteries are dead easy to predict. If you buy a thriller, you know it’ll keep you anxious until it ends and that there’ll be at least one high-speed chase on land or water and probably some long-range rifle shots. A legal thriller will involve lawyers going after one another with intellectual Ginsu knives. A medical thriller will feature imminent horrific death for a helpless child or a large part of humanity if the medical crime-stopper doesn’t succeed. Cozies are harder to predict. That’s disappointing to some self-appointed experts on what a cozy is supposed to be, but there’s no rule about cozies except the protagonist must be an amateur sleuth and the setting must be a restricted area such as a small town. Even those strictures aren’t hard and fast, but if the protagonist is a professional in law enforcement — a cop, pathologist, coroner, lawyer, private investigator, bounty hunter, etc — the story is going to verge on a thriller or police procedural.

Some readers are convinced that a cozy is supposed to be genteel and soft-spoken, with no visible blood, no mention of sex, and no off-color langage. But if you examine the original cozies by Agatha Christie, her murders were pretty grisly, and adultery and fornication were rampant. But when it came to speech, neither Miss Marple nor Hercule Poirot would have uttered even a mild expletive, and they certainly wouldn’t have mentioned a body part that never saw light. But Miss Marple and Poirot represented people of a certain class and time, neither of which still exists.

Nobody wants to read about a potty-mouthed cat sitter, but Dixie talks the way most women of her age talk, which includes an occasional “bad” word. Furthermore, she has killed a vicious serial murderer, and some of the dead bodies she’s discovered were sadistically killed. The truth is that I’m an unrepentant cozy writer who breaks every cozy rule. So next week at Sleuthfest’s panel on mystery genres, I’ll be hemming and hawing and equivocating about what makes a cozy a cozy. I’ll try not to foment rebellion. At least not much.

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