As a reader who loves whodunits, I was rather dismayed when I made contact with other mystery lovers--readers and writers--five years ago, after a period of literary hibernation--to find that while I wasn't looking, they'd acquired a bad name. The bad name was "cozy." It seemed to be widely assumed that if a mystery had an amateur sleuth, it was shallow, poorly written, and infested by talking cats and pots of tea. I had some trouble understanding this. Wasn't Lord Peter Wimsey an amateur sleuth? And what about contemporary protagonists? Many are police and private investigators. PI and police procedurals are allowed to be traditional without stigma. But how about all those lawyers and newspaper reporters? Jan Burke's Irene Kelly? Edna Buchanan's Britt Montero? I made the mistake of describing my own mystery Death Will Get You Sober, as a cozy or semi-cozy when I first started shopping it five years ago. I now know that gave some agents and editors the wrong impression. My protagonist and his two sidekicks are strictly amateur investigators, but they deal with some gritty issues, most notably recovery from alcoholism and codependency. The setting is New York City, the voice is slightly wiseass, and the word "puke" appears in the first sentence. The characters are as genuine as I could make them, and I intend them to grow emotionally not only in the course of this story but throughout the projected series. And there are no talking cats. You'll get to see for yourself when Death Will Get You Sober comes out next year. In the meantime, I'd love to know: when you hear "traditional," do you think "cozy?" Liz

Elizabeth Zelvin
DEATH WILL GET YOU SOBER (St. Martin's 2008)
www.elizabethzelvin.com

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Comment by Elizabeth Zelvin on March 19, 2007 at 3:30am
Rereading everyone's comments, I noticed Jennifer's request for noir with recipes. How about Macbeth? "Eye of newt and toe of frog...."
Comment by Laura Root on March 12, 2007 at 4:44am
Jennifer - the Pepe Carvahlo books of Vasquez Montalban (set in Barcelona) include recipes as well as being Noir :). The term "cozy" does unfortunately carry rather twee overtones. Guess it's more of a problem for those affected by marketing than for the reader though.
Comment by Laura Root on March 12, 2007 at 4:44am
Jennifer - the Pepe Carvahlo books of Vasquez Montalban (set in Barcelona) include recipes as well as being Noir :). The term "cozy" does unfortunately carry rather twee overtones. Guess it's more of a problem for those affected by marketing than for the reader though.
Comment by Libby Hellmann on March 11, 2007 at 7:35am
While I think we could all discuss the relative merits and marketing distinctions between sub-genres, I'd like to hear from readers. I would suspect the differences don't mean a whole lot to them, as long as the story captures them and makes them keep turning the pages. I think we put ourselves through too many hoops these days... sure, our publishers, editors, and agents sometimes precipitate them... but remember when we were first and foremost reader? Not authors? Did it really matter what subgenre a book was? Wasn't it enough just to be swept away by a great story?

I miss the simplicity.
Comment by Elizabeth Zelvin on March 11, 2007 at 4:54am
Right. It DID seem odd to folks how many bodies Jessica stumbled over, hence the term "Cabot Cove syndrome." I'm particularly sensitive to the demand to identify the subgenre because I've just spent four years trying to interest agents and editors in my first manuscript. In the end, I got the offer from an editor so legendary I suspect she can do whatever she likes. But other writers in the breaking in phase will confirm that the usual message is: "We want an original voice--and tell us whose books it's like so we know what shelf to put it on." IMHO, my book really isn't like anyone else's. (If you crossed Matt Scudder with Stephanie Plum, you wouldn't get my protagonist, but you might be within a mile of the ballpark.) But my agent got really alarmed when I said so. Writers nowadays, especially those of us not yet established, can't afford to blow off marketplace issues. But as a reader, I still want to identify the character-driven traditional that isn't a cozy. Margaret Maron is a great example. Most of my favorite mystery authors write cop or PI series. But I love them not for the protagonist's profession but for the character development and the "social atom"--how the protagonist's world is populated. My idea of a great read is one in which I wish I could take the protag's family and friends home with me.
Comment by Robert Gregory Browne on March 11, 2007 at 3:46am
That's where the suspension of disbelief comes in. The readers who enjoy those books are willing to give the writer a pass on Cabot Cove syndrome because they love the character so much and want to see him/her do his/her thing.
Comment by J.D. Rhoades on March 11, 2007 at 3:39am
Well, I've tired to ban the word cozy from my vocabulary, since it is somewhat condescending. Plus, the definitions get so slippery. Margaret Maron, for example, doesn't have a lot of graphic violence, sex and swearing, but you can't really call what she does "cozy."
Now, as for amateur sleuth novels: I think one reason they get a bad name is that after the first book, the basic premise gets increasingly unbelievable. I mean, how many caterers have half a dozen people die around them during the course of their career as a result of foul play? And if they did, would YOU hire them? I always wondered why it never seemed odd to anyone that wherever Jessica Fletcher went in Murder She Wrote, people were dying like flies. And sleepy little Cabot Cove seemed to have a per capita murder rate that rivaled Fallujah. Wouldn't the FBI start getting suspicious of sweet little old Jessica? I damn sure would.
It's not an insurmountable problem. Some writers can pull it off. But its a toughie.
Comment by Robert Gregory Browne on March 11, 2007 at 3:29am
Agreed, Sandra, but, to me, the word mystery -- in traditional terms -- implies that we don't know who did it. I actually call myself a thriller writer, although the book I just finished has a whodunit aspect to it as well.

All these labels seem to serve the booksellers and marketing people better than they do readers or writers. But I could be wrong...
Comment by Jennifer Jordan on March 11, 2007 at 3:09am
"Cozy" does suffer from a lack of respect at times but it is, from what I understand, one of the top selling sub-genres of crime fiction. In my varied experience, it generally implies a lack of graphic violence, sex and swearing. But I've seen books thrown into this category that confuse the issue tremendously.

I get why there are sub-genres but I agree that as far as marketing, these labels can be limiting and confusing for both the readers and the writer.

I would love to see a hard-boiled or noir book with a sticker that says, "Recipes included!"
Comment by Sandra Scoppettone on March 11, 2007 at 1:59am
No, Robert. Sometimes it's a whydunit. And there are other types of crime novels that are not whodunits. That's why I prefer to call myself a crime writer rather than a mystery writer.

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