Monday, February 7, 2011

A Cozy by Any Other Name . . .

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?


  1. Nice post, Carol. My take is that 'cozy' and 'traditional' overlap, but based on how the terms are used today, traditional is the broader term. But in a few years, who knows...

  2. "Cozy," to me, describes a mood.

    I think it's possible for a mystery to include all the external details traditionally associated with cozies but also to convey such powerful dark emotions that the experience of reading it is anything but cozy.

    On the other hand, it would also be possible for a mystery to use externals that mostly contradict those of the traditional cozy -- let's say, a male homicide detective in a big city -- but with a lighter tone and domestic subplots that the reading experience is more cozy than gritty.

    "Traditional mystery" should cover all of the above and then some. All sorts of mixing and matching of characteristics are possible.

    But if I'm going to try to decide whether or not to describe a book I've read as "cozy," I'll base that decision not on where it's set or whether it includes recipes, but on whether reading it gives me a warm feeling.

  3. I think it's a matter of degree. Julia Spencer-Fleming considers her books traditional mysteries. Miss Marple and her tea cozy were at the other end of the spectrum. Both are whodunnits, but traditional seems to go a bit further in language, violence, and sex. The cozies are rather more tame, at least that's how I see it.

  4. I thought of something else. Traditional is the large umbrella, cozies the parasol. It's like women and ladies. All ladies are women but not all women are ladies. All cozies are traditional, but not all traditionals are cozy. How's that for profound?

  5. You pose an interesting question, Carol. Cozy or traditional?

    I always thought a cozy meant that the dead body/description of the crime remained off the page and the protagonist's hobby or avocation dictated the plot.

    The HUGE difference is that in a traditional mystery, the protagonist's profession or vocation dictates the plot. ;o

    I can usually recognize the author's intention from the choice of book cover. I think the true differnce between a cozy and a traditional mystery lies in that intention.

  6. It sounds like Ellis, Ellyn, and Gigi agree. If I'm writing a cozy, I am by default writing a traditional mystery, so I could call it either. If, on the other hand, I was writing something a bit grittier, I could still call it traditional, but no longer call it cozy.

    I agree with Gail that the cover usually tells me a lot about the kind of book that lies inside. Yup--there I am judging books by their covers! Still, I know that a lot of the time authors don't have much say on the cover design, so perhaps it is a better indication of the publisher's intention than the author's. The vocation/avocation distinction is interesting, but I thought a traditional mystery had an amateur (oops--excuse me) an accidental sleuth--at least sometimes.

  7. Good post Carol. I constantly struggle with this label because other people immediately call my work cozy because the protag is food writer and thus food is always part of the conversation. And since my work is set in Italy where food is ALWAYS part of the conversation, I have to write about food to render the work authentic.
    My protag is not a professional sleuth, she is a bit damaged, and while she is likable, she has her flaws. The current work is not set in a small town but in a large city. The "food community" (by that I mean all people working in the industry such as suppliers, critics, fast food types, and chefs)is a closed one for my purposes, but the world at large swirls around them.

  8. Interesting post. I've been saying I write "traditional" mysteries, largely because people in my books swear occasionally. Given their setting, a small Midwestern university, people might be surprised by that, but hey-- it happens in real life. Otherwise, "cozy" fits. How important are these labels anyway? Literary fiction writers can look down their noses all they want. If I don't care, they're wasting their time.

  9. I believe they are somewhat different. Cozy is really a very American idea, traditional is used in the UK. My personal take is they do overlap however a traditional leads with the idea that there is a major puzzle and clues are dropped for the reader to figure out. Then it goes into the other items that define a cozy. Most will tell you they read cozies for comfortable, amateur sleuths and settings and no violence. You have to ask if they care about solving the puzzle.
    I write with the puzzle definition as my lead, then add the rest. So I write Traditional Mysteries.

  10. Patricia, I love that you're making your setting so authentic, but I agree that "food" does not necessarily mean "cozy." Aren't Italian restaurants often the settings for mob hits? Definitely not cozy!

    Nora, I've lived in a college community for most of my life. Swearing? Heck, yeah! Does the fact that I said "heck" prove mine is a cozy? The worst thing my protag says is "drat." Still too racy for the Christian market, but pretty tame in the rest of the world.

    Patg, your comment is very interesting. I would have thought the puzzle would be the number one attraction for a mystery reader.

    Maybe this categorizing is something we worry about a lot more than anyone else does. Would it be safe for all cozy writers to call their mysteries "traditional?" Or could that hurt their saleability?

  11. When I think of cozy mysteries, I inevitably think of Murder She Wrote. After all her experience solving crimes, I can't really consider Jessica Fletcher an "amateur detective." Perhaps, in her case, "accidental sleuth" is far more appropriate.