The traditional or “cozy” mystery seems to be enjoying something of a resurgence. At EQMM, we are currently seeing a slight uptick in that type of mystery in our short-story submissions, after years of it being a rarity. Novels in the cozy genre also seem to be garnering more attention, if recent articles in the Atlantic and at CrimeReads are anything to go by. It’s also notable that for the first time in a long time this year’s best-short-story Edgar nominations include a story that not only falls into the cozy genre but into the more specialized “impossible crime” subgenre of the cozy. I’m referring, of course, to Gigi Pandian’s “The Locked Room Library” (EQMM July/August 2021).
What constitutes a traditional or cozy mystery is open to discussion, and I think everyone would acknowledge that the understanding of the boundaries of the category have changed over time. Malice Domestic, the convention held each April in the Washington D.C. area, began as an event pretty sharply focused on the work of writers in the so-called “Golden Age” tradition, with its awards called “Agathas” and its “ghosts of honor” writers whose very names were enough to tell a prospective attendee what the gathering was all about. The Malice website still says, “The genre is loosely defined as mysteries that contain no explicit sex, excessive gore, or gratuitous violence, and would not be classified as ‘hard-boiled.’” Ellery Queen was incontestably an author of traditional mysteries, and I think if Frederic Dannay (one of the two cousins who wrote as Ellery Queen) were still alive, his definition of a traditional or cozy mystery might still include “fairness to the reader.” Maybe he’d also want to include a few of the rules for the form famously laid down by Golden Age writer Ronald Knox in his Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction, one of which was: “No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.”
Even at the time Malice was launched, in 1989, there were young writers in attendance and emerging on the mystery stage who would stretch the existing understanding of the genre’s borders. There was a ferment of creativity taking place, and rules such as Knox’s would soon be seen as too restrictive and artificial. Writers such as Nancy Pickard, Margaret Maron, and Sharyn McCrumb were marrying stories about contemporary life, with fully fleshed characters, to whodunit plotting. And in real life, of course, things such as intuition and accident play a role.
If we want to get a quick insight into how far the cozy genre has evolved in the thirty-plus years since Malice Domestic began, we can take a look at this year’s guest-of-honor list, which includes the celebrated author Walter Mosley, who would be argued by many to be one of the great literary descendants of Raymond Chandler—an ideal representative, therefore, of the school of crime fiction with which the cozy genre is usually contrasted.
What is really happening, I think, is not only that category definitions are expanding but that many writers, of both once-opposing schools, are now embodying elements of all different sorts of crime fiction in their work. One thing that I think must be maintained as part of our understanding of a “cozy,” however, is that the story take place in an ambiance in which order is pretty much the norm and violence at least a relative aberration. It’s hard to imagine a true “mean streets” crime story, where completely random violence can be expected, satisfying either the community of cozy readers or the demands of a complex whodunit plot. In the genre’s early years cozies were often set in a closed environment such as an isolated country house in order to limit suspects and narrow possible solutions to the crime sufficiently to allow deduction. Partly because of the artificiality of such settings, the books were considered escapist fiction, meant entirely to entertain, and often romantic subplots and humor were included. We don’t consistently find all of those elements in modern cozies, but we do, I think, still expect the crime in question to stand out—to be anomalous.
In June of 2020, in my post “Reading in a Time of Crisis,” I noted that fiction of an escapist nature had proved popular during previous crises, such as World War II. Readers had wanted, and writers provided, stories that did not directly confront the hardships or violence being endured. I will not be entirely surprised, therefore, if it turns out that the cozy genre has in fact gained ground during the years of COVID. But I have a concern about how the period in our history that we now seem to be entering may affect the genre. The world of cozy fiction may, even today, be somewhat more artificial than what one finds in hard-boiled or noir fiction, but no fiction can remove itself too far from the reality of the society it depicts without becoming unconvincing. In order to entertain readers and afford some escape from reality, it’s necessary, first, to get readers to believe in the fictional world being created. And the post-COVID world is becoming so astonishingly—and randomly—violent that I’m beginning to wonder how it will be dealt with by upcoming writers of the traditional mystery.
It’s not just the amount of violence we’re currently experiencing that has got me thinking along these lines: Murder rates in the U.S. are still way lower than they were forty years ago. It’s that we’re starting to see more violence reported in places such as private homes and on means of transportation and so forth (settings often employed by cozy writers) and that there seems to be more brazenness and less discernible motivation for many of the crimes. These are trends that I suspect it will be hard to reflect in the context of a cozy, but we’ll see. The genre is constantly being reinvented!
During Covid I found myself reading everything written by Agatha Christie (well, almost). That period certainly turned me into a fan of the more traditional mystery story. Enjoyed your thoughts on this, Janet. Thank you.
Thank you, Janet. I can say that writing cozy mystery novels during the pandemic has been a great respite from the messy, scary, outside world, and still is.
Yes, thanks for this, Janet! i remember right after 9/11 I buried myself in a Miss Marple mystery, doubtless feeling I was getting an escape. In the middle of it, I blurted out aloud: “Oh, my God! Miss Marple would understand what’s happening today! She knew all about evil!”
It’s not surprising that in the time of pandemic with such a high anxiety level readers look for escape reading. Cozy mysteries provide that.
Great essay, great observations, Janet. So glad to see the traditional mystery and Malice celebrated here—and hooray for Gigi!