Kathy Lynn Emerson/ Kaitlyn Dunnett here, chiming in on that ever popular topic of categorizing mystery novels. I’m breaking this down into three parts—there is no way to cover everything in one post of reasonable length. The text in all three is an updated version of a workshop I gave at the 2015 Maine Crime Wave.
Let me just say first that I hate labels. They are the invention of booksellers and publishers. Unfortunately, writers are stuck with them. That means we have to try to understand what those labels mean if we ever hope to have our novels published and made available to the general public.
When I wrote How To Write Killer Historical Mysteries, I devoted the entire first chapter to definitions. It could have been twice as long as it is. It can also be ignored in favor of getting down to the nuts and bolts advice that begins at chapter two. My point is that, as much as I’d like to be able to skim lightly over definitions, we’re stuck with them. There is no way to talk about “traditional mysteries” without defining both the genre and its subgenres.
The subgenres are what cause most of the trouble, especially the one labeled “cozy.”
In the broadest sense, the two ends of the mystery spectrum go by the names “hard boiled” and “traditional.” There’s obviously a lot of territory in between. Since I’m looking at the traditional end, let me quote the official definition used by the Malice Domestic convention in determining what works are eligible for the Agatha award for traditional mysteries. It has two parts. First, “books best typified by the works of Agatha Christie” and second, “a genre loosely defined as mysteries which contain no explicit sex or excessive gore or violence.”
That’s it, but those two guidelines cover a lot of territory, especially when you remember that Christie created Poirot, Tommy and Tuppence, and a quite a few stand-alone detectives, as well as Miss Marple. If you take a look at the books that have been finalists for the Agatha award over the years, you’ll see that they cover a wide spectrum.
This year, in contemporary novel, there were The Good, the Bad, and the Emus by Donna Andrews, A Demon Summer by G. M. Malliet, Truth be Told by Hank Phillippi Ryan, The Long Way Home by Louise Penny, and Designated Daughters by Margaret Maron. In historical novels, the finalists were Queen of Hearts by Rhys Bowen, Wouldn’t it be Deadly by D. E. Ireland, Murder in Murray Hill by Victoria Thompson, and two books, one from each series, by Malice Guest of Honor Charles Todd, Hunting Shadows and An Unwilling Accomplice. Other recent finalists include Maine authors Barbara Ross and Julia Spencer-Fleming. You can go online to see twenty-seven years worth of traditional mysteries that were finalists for the Agatha.
Protagonists include law enforcement personnel and private detectives as well as amateur sleuths. The setting is anywhere and in any time period. There can even be paranormal elements. Donna Andrews won an Agatha some years back for a novel in which the sleuth was a computer with artificial intelligence.
The plots usually involve one or more murders, but some traditional mysteries deal with lesser crimes. Once in a great while, a traditional mystery will end with the revelation that no crime at all has been committed, but there will be closure for both the reader and the characters by the end of the book. Solving the mystery, the puzzle, is actually more important that what laws may have been broken. Unlike real life, things are resolved, usually well for the good guys and badly for the villains.
These days, many traditional mysteries are marketed under the label “cozy.” What is a cozy? There’s a whole lot of debate about that, but in the most general sense it is a traditional mystery on the lightest end of the scale. Some who like their mysteries to have a harder edge will sometimes use the term in a derogatory way. That’s not difficult to do when so many cozies have similar warm, fuzzy elements. There is a fine line between clever and cutesy.
In most cozies, the murder is solved by an amateur sleuth whose hobby or occupation—owning a specialty store of some sort is popular—brings him or her in contact with the crime. There is a confined setting, often in a small town, a closed community, or a place such as a country house or a hotel, that is temporarily cut off from the rest of the world by, say, a blizzard. But there is also such a thing as an urban cozy—set in a city but with characters who already know each other. A recent offering of this type is set in a spice shop near Seattle’s Public Market.
There are often humorous elements in cozies. These are usually in the form of eccentric characters who provide comic relief. There are also, almost always, animals and/or children, most frequently of the feline persuasion. The majority of cozies are written in first person from a single point of view . . . but not all. My own Liss MacCrimmon books are written in third person. The number of point of view characters varies from book to book. In one, I used only Liss. In most I also let you into the minds of her gal pal, Sherri, who is conveniently employed in law enforcement, and her love interest and later husband, Dan, who is not.
I’ve always said I write cozies, both with my three historical series and in the Liss MacCrimmon mysteries set in Moosetookalook, Maine. In the latter, Liss owns Moosetookalook Scottish Emporium. There are lots of eccentric characters, both among the townspeople (population 1007) and among the guests at the grand hotel on the outskirts of town. There are two cats.
That said, I’ve received emails from a number of readers writing to tell me that don’t consider my books to be true cozies. Their reasons vary. One is that I put my sleuth in too much danger. Another is that she occasionally swears when she’s upset. And, a third is that, horror of horrors, I occasionally refer, in passing, to the fact that Liss has a sex life.
Other series that carry the cozy label commit these same sins, some of them to a greater degree than I do. In fact, I recently heard from a reliable source that there is at least one editor actively seeking “cozies with sex.” Go figure!
I’ll have more to say on this subject when I blog again on August 26th. Stay tuned.
Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett is the author of over fifty books written under several names. She won the Agatha Award in 2008 for best mystery nonfiction for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2014 in the best mystery short story category for “The Blessing Witch.” Currently she writes the contemporary Liss MacCrimmon Mysteries (The Scottie Barked at Midnight) as Kaitlyn and the historical Mistress Jaffrey Mysteries as Kathy (Murder in the Merchant’s Hall). The latter series is a spin-off from her earlier “Face Down” series and is set in Elizabethan England. Her websites are www.KaitlynDunnett.com and www.KathyLynnEmerson.com