“Not My Idea of a Cozy Book”

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here, today tackling the subject of reader expectations. No, this isn’t going to be a discussion of what defines a cozy mystery, although that definition plays into the topic. What I want to talk about is the response to certain elements in Overkilt, the most recent Liss MacCrimmon Mystery, in which my continuing characters encounter a small-minded bigot determined to make their lives miserable.

Social media out of control, the proliferation of boycotts and protest rallies, and the ease with which people’s emotions and opinions can be swayed by a charismatic leader were all real-life issues I wanted to explore when I wrote this book. I realized from the start that fitting serious subject matter into the lighter side of the mystery spectrum was going to be tricky. Although the brutal crime of murder is at the heart of every mystery novel, be it cozy or hard boiled, those set in small towns with amateur sleuths, limited on-stage violence, and no explicit sex usually avoid anything of a controversial religious or political nature.

My villain in Overkilt is Hadley Spinner, founder of a quasi-religious group calling themselves the New Age Pilgrims. He’s also the small-minded bigot mentioned above. In retaliation for a perceived slight by Joe Ruskin, Liss’s father-in-law, Spinner seizes upon a promotion at Joe’s hotel, The Spruces, to make trouble. Joe has been advertising a Thanksgiving special for couples—a getaway for those who don’t have a family to celebrate with, or who have a family, but would prefer to avoid the stress that goes with seeing them on the holiday. Spinner tries to turn this perfectly reasonable promotion into something ugly, claiming it is an affront to family values, specifically because some of those who have made reservations are unmarried and/or same sex couples.

Almost all the reviews I’ve seen have been positive. Some mention cyberbullying and the bigotry of Spinner’s character but have no hesitation about defining the book as a cozy mystery. There’s one exception. A reviewer on Amazon writes that she’s read and enjoyed all the previous Liss MacCrimmon mysteries, but not this one. Her reason? She doesn’t like reading about homosexuals. That is “not her idea” of a cozy book.

I was taken aback when I read that. She’s entitled to her opinion, of course, but since when does the sexual orientation of secondary characters in a mystery keep it from being a cozy? Just to name one example, the Cat in the Stacks series by Miranda James features a gay couple who live upstairs from the amateur sleuth and his cat. There’s no question but that those books are cozies.

I was also perplexed by her praise of all the other Liss MacCrimmon mysteries. She apparently didn’t notice that in the second book in the series, Scone Cold Dead, one of the red herrings is provided by the romance between two women, and that two men in Liss’s old dance company are gay, although no one comes right out and says so.

Now I admit that I may have surprised a few readers when I revealed that one of the continuing characters in the Liss MacCrimmon series is a lesbian. That news surprised Liss, too, since no one had thought to mention it to her before Spinner made an issue of it. Why would they? The character is not a LGBTQ activist. She’s just one of the regular townspeople of Moosetookalook, active in the Small Business Association and entitled to keep her private life private.

Some years ago, I received an email asking me why Moosetookalook didn’t have any gay or lesbian residents. At the time, I replied that it probably did, but there was no reason to single them out. I held to that opinion for a long time. I was especially reluctant to make a LGBTQ character either a victim or a murderer. I also felt that Liss wouldn’t care about, and might not even notice, the sexual preferences of her neighbors.

Isn’t that the way it should be? It seems to me that we’d all be a lot better off if things like race, age, gender, sexual orientation, religious belief, national origin, and citizenship status weren’t the first things we notice about new acquaintances. Why should any of those things have a bearing on whether or not we get along with someone?

And why, oh why, would including characters of a certain race, age, gender, sexual orientation, religious belief, national origin, or citizenship status in a mystery novel make that book less cozy?

Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett is the author of nearly sixty traditionally published books written under several names. She won the Agatha Award and was an Anthony and Macavity finalist for best mystery nonfiction of 2008 for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2015 in the best mystery short story category. She was the Malice Domestic Guest of Honor in 2014. Currently she writes the contemporary Liss MacCrimmon Mysteries (Overkilt) and the “Deadly Edits” series (Crime & Punctuation) as Kaitlyn and the historical Mistress Jaffrey Mysteries (Murder in a Cornish Alehouse) as Kathy. The latter series is a spin-off from her earlier “Face Down” mysteries and is set in Elizabethan England. Her most recent collection of short stories is Different Times, Different Crimes. Her websites are www.KaitlynDunnett.com and www.KathyLynnEmerson.com and she maintains a website about women who lived in England between 1485 and 1603 at www.TudorWomen.com

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27 Responses to “Not My Idea of a Cozy Book”

  1. Gram says:

    I’m with you!


  2. Lea Wait says:

    My very first mystery – Shadows at the Fair – involved a very religious conservative couple, AIDS, and several characters who were gay or bisexual. The books was published in 2002 — and I never heard any problems with it. Maybe the times have changed …. and, if so, it is unfortunate.


    • kaitlynkathy says:

      I’m hoping this person is in a very small minority in her opinion, but it disturbed me that she felt she needed to make it the entire point of her Amazon review.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. There shouldn’t be a limit to the type of character or sleuth you create. That’s the beauty of cozies. It’s supposed to be about basically anyone with enough wits to solve a crime. It is also often about finding yourself, redemption, growth, etc. for a character who begins the series in a “down and out” situation. That could basically be anyone anywhere! I think we need more diversity in cozies. However, certain topics or the inclusion of sex or violence will make it not a cozy.


  4. Barbara Ross says:

    Sheesh. I agree. I hope this is a tiny minority of readers. I’m pretty sure it must be, because no one has ever objected to the gay character in my series. In fact, I get emails from fans who want more of him in the books.


    • kaitlynkathy says:

      I probably let one person’s opinion bother me too much, but I thought the subject deserved discussion. Thanks for weighing in.


  5. Riley Britton says:

    I hate when writers try to be politically correct and “inclusive”, which is a code word for including everyone who agrees with them. I don’t want gay characters, witches, paranormal, transgenders, etc. etc. in my books, cozies or otherwise.. I don’t want politics in my books. Just give me a good story. You don’t need to be politically correct to accomplish that, do you?


    • kaitlynkathy says:

      Where to begin? First, I have never set out to be either politically correct or inclusive. Those are not among my goals in writing fiction. I do, however, try to let my cast of characters reflect the world around me. Is that putting politics in my books? I don’t think so. I think I succeed in telling a good story in all of my novels. If you ever read OVERKILT, I’d really like to know if you think I’m wrong about that and why.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. With you 100%. I suspect that you would be disturbed by a person making an issue about a homosexual person’s place in society in real life, too. You are not just being defensive about your choice to include the bigot and those who act as a foil but because the review has, in fact, tried to dictate how people should BE. Your characters are people to those of us who love your books.


  7. Maureen Milliken says:

    Someone took issue with the way people in the very white Maine town in my latest book respond to a black character. I don’t preach or proselytize, and it’s actually pretty mild. Yet I, too, was told — in person, not in a review — that I should leave politics out of my books. Honestly, I thought I was just depicting human beings interacting.
    It’s too bad that including the kind of people we all live with, work with, interact with every day is considered “political” or even offensive. Hopefully that will change. We’re all part of the world and I’m looking forward to the world as it is to be considered, well, just normal.
    I told the reader of my book who said I should leave politics out that the great thing about having free will is that they are free to read whatever they want, but I’m also free to write what i want. I didn’t want to get into an argument in a public place — maybe I should have — but I would have liked to have added that I choose to portray a world with normal people who care about each other, even people who don’t look or act just like they do. If anyone wants to label that as “political” or “politcally correct” or anything else as a way to diminish or minimize it, then I feel bad for what else they may be missing in the world around them.


  8. Barb Goffman says:

    I’ve seen some reviews on Amazon of books with gay characters, and discussions of TV shows with gay characters, and the mere mention in the book or show of such a character’s romantic life is seen as an affront by some people, as if they could put up with there being gay people as long as they could pretend otherwise by never having to see or hear about them. A storyline that would be fine for a heterosexual couple is seen as bashing people over the head with political correctness when it involves a gay couple. (That wasn’t the exact wording from a Facebook post I once saw, but it’s pretty close.) As you can imagine, I disagree with this position, and I think you should keep doing what you’re doing. Whether a character is heterosexual or homosexual doesn’t affect whether a book is cozy, and anyone who says otherwise is using a far different definition of cozy than I am. And you are.


    • kaitlynkathy says:

      Agreed, Barb. I’ve never understood how bigotry of any kind can be acceptable. I don’t think I get preachy in my writing, but certainly my protagonists reflect some of my views. Whether those views are all politically correct or not is open to question.😊

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I find it fascinating that some folks consider inclusion of a wide variety of characters to be a political statement. Really and truly, the world is made up of all kinds of people. One could argue that an author who ONLY includes characters who are straight, white and able-bodied is making a political statement, but the folks who decry “political correctness” don’t see it that way. They want books that portray a world they can identify with, peopled with folks just like them. But that world has never existed.

    Our work may be fiction, but the best of it reflects the real world, so thank you for your commitment to doing just that, and to consistently including gay and lesbian characters in your books. We are, as the old protest slogan said, everywhere.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Pat Rice says:

    Right there with you. A genre will die if it isn’t allowed to breathe and expand. The categories for mystery are limited enough. Why limit the boundaries of the genres within it? “Cozy” does not mean all-white, all heterosexual, all the time. And as far as I’m concerned, we can broaden the entire genre to take in any mystery that isn’t hard-boiled or police procedural. Thank you for speaking up.


  11. Brava! There should be room for us all, in books, and in real life. I decided long ago that a person’s sexual identity is not my business unless I’m involved in a relationship with that person.
    As my sweet mother said about an anti-abortion rally we drove past, “Some people need to keep their noses out of other people’s bodies.”


  12. Anonymous says:

    I find it interesting that the Amazon reviewer likes reading about murder but does not like reading about homosexuals.


  13. Dean (Miranda) James says:

    Kathy, first, thanks for the mention of my series. You’re right, of course, sexuality has nothing to do with whether a book is considered cozy. There is a point to denoting minority characters in one’s books, however, because it makes them visible. I read books for many, many years before I encountered anyone like myself. Partly because of the times in which i grew up, of course (1960s and 1970s). Same thing with television and movies. Seeing oneself represented matters. I received a hateful message on FB from someone who found my gay couple in the series utterly repugnant, and she went on her own FB page warning people not to read my books. I blocked her, of course, because I didn’t want to deal with that stupidity and hate.


  14. Pingback: Back Spasms, Walter Mosley, and the Meaning of Ort | Maine Crime Writers

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