For a while now, I have been happily telling people that I am writing a cozy mystery. My story meets all the usual criteria: a puzzle to solve, an amateur detective (i.e. not a police officer, private detective, medical examiner, or other professional), a small town setting, a lack of gore and violence, no explicit sex, and an emphasis on plot and character instead of action. I thought I was pretty safe with declaring "cozy" to be my subgenre.
But recently I have been in touch with other authors who have set me straight. "Cozy," they tell me, is no longer the word-of-choice to describe what I am writing. Cozies get a bad rap for being simplistic fluff. Writers of other mystery genres quietly look down on cozies, I'm told, while writers of literary novels look down on mysteries. In order to retain a more respectable position in the hierarchy, cozy writers, they tell me, should claim to write "traditional" mysteries.
Traditional vs. Cozy. What's the difference?
At a recent writers conference, an editor said that her house publishes traditional mysteries, but not cozies. Where, I asked her, does she draw the line between the two? She wasn't able to articulate it. So I have made an effort to compile a list of criteria most often cited as distinguishing one from the other.
- I have heard that a cozy is almost always a part of a series, while a traditional mystery may be, but might not. (Isn't that the same thing?)
- Some say that a cozy must include a craft, recipes, talking animals or the like, while others say that while such books are definitely cozy, those elements are not required for a book to fall into the cozy category. (Dame Agatha did not include any of the above, yet she is considered the mother of the genre.)
- A cozy, some argue, has a female protagonist, while a tradition mystery can have either a male or female protagonist. (Is it me, or is that just sexist?)
- It is said that the protagonist in a cozy must be likable, whereas the protagonist in a traditional mystery might be more damaged. (Don't all protagonists need flaws?)
- The mood in a cozy, some suggest, is more apt to be light-hearted than in a traditional mystery. (Simplistic fluff? Hardly true of the cozies I've read.)
I seems that most of these distinctions are in shades of grey, rather than real differences. Perhaps there is no real line between the two, and this labeling has little to do with what we write. Both involve amateur detectives working on a puzzle, usually in a closed community. Both have to play fair with the reader, avoiding the deus ex machina ending. Both are supposed to have Good win against Evil in the end. So why call them by different names?
I am told, one must be very careful about how one describes one's work. For instance, a writer told me that "amateur detective" is no longer the favored term; I should call my protagonist an "accidental sleuth." I guess that sounds more traditional.
My work has no recipes, crafts, or talking pets (but I read those that do). My non-professional female protagonist is curious, intelligent, and a bit damaged. It is set in a small town with, I hope, a cast of interesting characters. I don't write humor, but it has its lighter moments. I hope it will be a series.
So what am I writing?
A traditional cozy.
What do you think? Is there a difference between a "traditional" and a "cozy" mystery, or are these distinctions without a difference?