I was sitting innocently in my living room,
a PBS Masterpiece Mystery video spinning away in the DVD player, when Diana Rigg said something that shocked me. She introduced an episode of Elizabeth George's Inspector Lynley mystery series as a "cozy mystery", based somehow on the idea that it took place in an English country house. At first I was prepared to defer to Dame Diana and the experts at PBS, who surely must know their mysteries. However, the more I watched the more my mind rebeled at calling Inspector Lynley, Superintendent Havers and the many miscreants they've uncovered "cozy".
I've tried off and on over the years to enjoy Elizabeth George's novels and never succeeded. They are mysteries, which I do like. And she sets all of them in England, a country I've visited and love reading about. They're also thick books, well-researched, and the Lynley ones at least follow a set of ever evolving characters -- all characteristics that I look forward to in books. Still, I've never managed to become a fan, and it's purely a matter of taste, not a comment on her skill as writer. I just found the books I tried too dark and too convoluted. So much so, in fact, that I'm glad I didn't realize this series was based on her books, because I might not have bothered to watch them. Perhaps because I often wrestle with my own psychological demons, I've never enjoyed taken much pleasure in such books or movies. Instead I'm an admitted sucker for an uplifting, feel good story. It's one of the reasons I enjoy cozy mysteries -- at least I thought it was. Yet here we have Lynley -- and George -- with stories about incest, abandonment, child stealing, suicides real and faked, school bullying, drug use... well, you get the idea... all gathered under the "cozy" umbrella simply because a man died in a country home. It just didn't sit right, Dame Rigg, CBE, DBE, or not.
So, what IS a cozy mystery?
Cozies, it appears, date from the Golden Age of Mystery, those halcyon years between the two World Wars. It may not be an accident that the three detective fiction writers most often called the greatest of this period are all women -- Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and Ngaio Marsh, (the first two are considered cozy writers,) as cozies seem to be closely associated with females. I even found one definition that specifically said that cozy mysteries are intended for "intelligent women” readers. Well, how could I quibble with that? It's not true, though, that women are the only fans of cozies. I think that misconception arises from the idea that men will only read books written by men, with males as the main characters. But that doesn't have to be the case. The three writers mentioned above, along with a number of other women of the period like Margery Allingham and Josephine Tey, were widely read and respected by men. However that may be, here, after some fun hours spent browsing mystery websites, blogs, and books about mystery writing, is my compilation of what makes a mystery "cozy":
#1. Don't Quit Your Day Job
Miss Marple knits baby layettes as she listens to the local gossip, and Lord Peter Whimsey goggles through his eyepiece while tracking down miscreants. Other cozy detectives may work very hard as caterers, journalists, art history experts, store owners and actors, but none of them make their livings chasing down criminals. Inspector Lynley and Superintendent Havers work for Scotland Yard, about as professional as a sleuth can get.
#2. Mystery Lite
Light on the violence and psychological torment, that is. People may get murdered in cozies, but it usually happens off the page, frequently before the book opens. Subsequent deaths aren't described in detail, brains don't get splattered on walls, and no self respecting cozy sleuth would ever attend an autopsy. If incest, kidnapping or suicides figure into the story, they also take place out of sight and are barely referred to. George's books, on the other hand, seem to me to revel in the psychological torment of her characters.
#3. It's All in the Game
The puzzle is everything in a cozy, or at least it should be. Unfortunately, too many times when I've picked up a recently published book, I've found myself identifying the villain right away. Several times I knew who did it before anyone had even been killed, once I identified the killer and victim on page two, based solely on a conversation other people had about them. This is a great disservice to the cozy, which should always puzzle the reader as long as possible. Christie could spin out so many possible solutions you needed a chart to keep track of all the suspects and red herrings. At least when I'm watching the Lynley series, I'm never sure who did it until the very end.
#4. It's a Small World
PBS got it wrong. Country House mysteries and cozies are not identical genres. But cozies do usually take place in a local setting, probably because Lord Peter is one of the few amateur detectives with the resources to fly off to France or motor down to the city at the drop of a hat. Cozy stories benefit from an interesting but limited cast of characters, and they make great series stories, bringing back again and again all the crazy friends, relatives, co-workers and neighbors of the sleuth who've yet to be knocked off or sent to prison. Jane Marple, surely the undisputed doyenne of the group, sometimes solved mysteries without leaving her house, depending on her maid, nephew, or old friend Sir Henry Clithering to gather the facts.
#5. It's Called Cozy for a Reason
Though the heyday came in the early 20th century, the term was coined much later, when mystery writers began to return to the ideas of Golden Age writers. Defined as "enjoying or affording comforting warmth and shelter especially in a small space," the name describes the genre well. "Snug, comfortable, easy, chatty, sociable, familiar," cozy is seen as "fostering a warm or friendly atmosphere." While one may quibble about other defining characteristics, let's at least agree that these books should reflect "the happy innocence, the purity and confidence of purpose, which was its true hallmark" of the Golden Age. Sorry, Dame Diana, as much as I'm enjoying Inspector Lynley, it definitely doesn't qualify.
Alistaire Cooke would have gotten it right.
Read Well, Friend
(Ending quote from Robert Knox, known for The 10 Commandments of Detective Fiction. 1929.)