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