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Essays

When is a Cozy not a Cozy?

One of the best selling segments of our genre is the "cozy", with books about dogs, cats, chocolates, cooking, soapmaking, embroidery, candlemaking and even teddy bears being good sellers. These books of course have their place - I'm a Diane Davidson freak myself - but there's another part of the cozy constellation that's not so cozy. It's cozy with a sidebar of dark. I've heard it called "soft boiled" but for me that doesn't quite catch it, because these books aren't, and don't aspire to be, hardboiled, so how could they be "softboiled"? I'm talking about authors like Julia Spencer-Fleming, Charlaine Harris, Mary Logue, Kate Flora, Sarah Stewart Taylor, Judy Clemens, Nancy Pickard and Louise Penny. These authors have all created a complete universe that's outwardly pleasant - a cozy attribute - but the things that happen to the characters aren't a bit cozy.

I guess the closest ancestresses of these talented writers would be 40's and 50's writers like Mabel Seeley, Charlotte Armstrong, and Mignon Eberhart, with the real difference being that those early mystery pioneers didn't write in a series. They wrote what we now call standalones (and what they probably thought of as a paycheck). Today's mystery writers are more geared toward the series - readers demand and enjoy them - so they've evolved into an especially original form that's particularly American. I think the writing in Britain and in other foreign countries is at the moment much darker, and sometimes, to me at least, less enjoyable.

I love these half cozies. I love the way these talented women have set up wonderful, rich characters in real life type places - a small town in Maine; in Shakespeare, Arkansas; in Three Pines, Canada; in Pepin County, Wisconsin; on a dairy farm in Pennsylvania. These are places where real people live and breathe (well, maybe not Three Pines, but I'd like to live there). So that makes these books "cozy" except that in these books things happen to the characters like: they've been raped and work as cleaning ladies to forget (Harris); they have sisters who have been murdered (Flora); they're the town priest but they're in love with the married chief of police (Spencer-Fleming); people are literally scared to death in a haunted house (upcoming Penny); or they have a drinking problem and have alienated many of their friends (Stewart Taylor). This is not a part of the cozy universe. In the cozy universe the deaths often occur off canvas and are tidily cleaned up by the end of the book, often with humor and the help of some quirky characters.

This is also - and I don't mean this as sexist in any way - a very feminine way of writing about the world. If male writers (and males in general) tend to see the world in more "macro" terms, female writers (and often females in general) see the world in more "micro" terms, if by micro we mean the complicated relationships between humans that make the wheels of the workplace, the family, and the neighborhood turn. This isn't small stuff, it's the biggest. (By these terms, even a writer like Elizabeth George would fall into this category, as who writes more closely about interpersonal relationships than George?) And I don't mean that men don't also write about these things, though they are more apt to include things like the corruption of society as a whole as part of the theme instead of the anguish felt by two characters who can't get together or whose sibling has been murdered, meanwhile also needing to get groceries bought and the house vacuumed. In a way, I guess it's easy to slough these books off to the sidelines since they are "just" about family life and the workplace, but I don't think there is any writing anywhere that speaks to a reader more directly. These books get under your skin, because they live where you do.

Last year we hosted a signing with Steve Hamilton, William Kent Krueger and Julia Spencer-Fleming, certainly three of my favorite writers. Many of the customers who came to the event were there because of either Steve or Kent (or both), but most of them also bought a copy of In the Bleak Midwinter. Many of them have returned for the next few books in the series, hopelessly hooked on Julia's take on life in small town Maine and the vivid characters who live there. I think the strength of American woman writers lies in the people they write about. It's a great time to be a reader, and to enjoy these various - and extremely original - "half" cozies.

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