Golden Age of Detective Fiction Forum

June 25, 2008

What makes a ‘Cozy’?

Filed under: Cozies,Sub-genres — Jon @ 8:07 pm
Tags: ,

Since GA detective novels frequently are classified as “cozies” I’ve become interested in just what a “cozy” is supposed to be. Here’s what I found on (by the way, I saw a link there to “The Bloody Tower”!).

Cozies: 1. solved by an amateur sleuth, preferably a woman (with a college degree)

2. takes place in village or small town

3. characters are likeable (except victim and presumably murderer)

4. no graphic violence, profanity, explicit sex

I suppose Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple books would meet almost all these criteria, though a book like Sleeping Murder has a rather unpleasant subject buried under the genteel tone, when you think about it. But whether or not GA mysteries are “cozy” by definition, they offer a contrast to many crime novels today with #4.

How much of the appeal of GAD novels is found in #4 and that related nostalgia for past times, how much in the pure puzzle format itself, which can, presumably, flower as well in coarser environments? We hear a lot of criticism (often justified) of the GA genre for its retrogade values, but isn’t there some appeal there too for many readers, precisely in that traditionalism, or some aspects of it, at least? Even something that might have not been seen as “cozy” back then therefore might seem to be such in some ways to us today.

I’ve been looking at Reginald Hill lately and am trying to think how to place him in relation to the Golden Age. James and Rendell sometimes get called cozy today (much to their chagrin, I would imagine). Hill definitely is less genteel. Aspects of Dalziel rather remind me of Porter’s Dover, though obviously the former has the keener brain. “Deadheads,” from the early 80s, has a large share of humor, but has moments of serious reflection as well. The focus is on a puzzle, which seems to involve multiple murder in a rather “gamey” GA fashion. Sexual banter and racial and sexual inclusion (Indian and gay cops, feminist cop wife) are not traditional, but, on the other hand, Hill seems to have greatly expanded these elements in later books (just concerning the “f-word,” it seems to occur in its variations many times in later Hill books, where in Deadheads the word has not yet made its appearance in any form). In this Hill from the early 80s, at least, I actually don’t feel desperately removed from the world of the Golden age puzzle novel (which encomapssed the police procedural, at least with Henry Wade).

The Catalogue of Crime did little with Hill, evidently having been sufficiently put off by two novels, Child’s Play and Ruling Passion. On the other hand, Keating picked A Pinch of Snuff (about snuff films? — very uncosy!) as one of 100 best mysteries.



  1. I’m going over old ground here… I’ve ranted about this before.

    Certainly “cozy” and “puzzle plot” are overlapping classifications, and though I’ve never been able to appreciate coziness for coziness’ sake, I certainly wouldn’t begrudge anyone their personal taste. I am absolutely sincere when I say to each his (or her) own… and also believe that there are dedicated artists as well as careless hacks in every subcategory of the literary field.

    What really annoys me, however, is when the terms “cozy” “puzzle plot” and “Golden Age Mystery” are confused or considered synonymous (admittedly, the term “Golden Age Mystery” is particularly problematic as, while it literarly denotes specific historical context, it is generally used instead to refer to the typical characteristics of works of that era). When Agatha Christie is referred to as the archetype of cozy writers, or when a lightly plotted and sparsely clued book is described as “in the tradition of Agatha Christie” simply because it takes place in an English village and holds a very minimum of violence, I’m ready to commit a very maximum of violence!

    No doubt many, if not all, of Dame Agatha’s works could be described as “cozy” by today’s standards, due to their relative lack of violence, sex, and offensive language. But that label does the disservice of lumping her together with so many others who lack what for me is the greatest hallmark of her work — ingenuity. Carr, Berkeley, Queen, Brand, and many others had it… some many writers of cozies apparently do not.

    My experience of reading modern cozies (I’ve actually tried a small number of them) has been particularly frustrating, because they look, smell, and taste like those works that I like most… until I find that they lack the one thing I want most: a satisfying denouement. It’s like a well garnished hamburger without the patty. Now, I realize that there are probably some writers in the modern cozy field who do plot ingeniously, but it appears to me that the field isn’t dense enough in that regard to justify my effort in sifting through the chaff. I’ve still got several Carrs, Queens, Berkeleys and Brands and other “Golden Age”rs to get through first, and they’ll give me a much better batting average.

    Of course, complicating the matter is the fact that even the great puzzle plot writers sometimes seemed confused about the distinctions I’m making. Christie’s “The Mousetrap” is a case in point. It has all the stylistic trappings of a traditional Christie whodunit (British setting, stock character types, a minimum of violence, etc…). However, the plot holds only one (not too surprising, even in its time)”surprise,” and not a single clue that I can recall. There just ain’t no patty. It’s as if one of those people I’m referring to (those who just don’t get it)were commissioned to write a “Christie type” plot.

    As it turns out, “The Mousetrap” has lasted as one of Christie’s most enduring works (as well as the longest-running play in English- speaking theatre history). So I clearly don’t speak for everyone!

    — Scott

    Comment by jonjermey — June 25, 2008 @ 8:09 pm | Reply

  2. I was surprised to see that the “cozy” defintion below was so restrictive, since cozy often is sweepingly applied to “traditional” works like your own (I clicked the link to amazon).

    I think reading the posts that there’s a view that “traditional” mysteries put more emphasis on the puzzle element than many modern cozies, which often seem to deliberately place greater emphasis on “incidental” details, like pets (Lilian Jackson Braun’s long- running cat books) or cooking (there’s a whole range of “culinary mysteries” out there, which actually give recipes in the book: The Carrot Cake Murder, for example). I think the cozy elements in traditional mysteries are more an incidental reflections of the time in which they are written (was anyone in the thirties really deliberately setting out to write a “cozy”? Patrica Wentworth maybe?).

    As time passes, more and more books seem to become “cozy.” Like I said I’ve seen references to PD James and the Wexford Rendells that suggest they may be headed for the classification. I suppose in comparison to some of the more recent stuff, they may be seeming more “cozy” these days (or “traditional”?) Personally, I don’t think they are, but then I don’t really believe all of “Dear Agatha” is cozy either.


    Comment by jonjermey — June 25, 2008 @ 8:10 pm | Reply

  3. 🙂 – the ‘cozy’ debate again!My own view on this is that ‘cozy’ is a terrible and misleading label which means wholly different things to different people. If we take that especially absurd definition then sorry Curt I don’t believe it does apply to a lot of Miss M books. Thus… Bertrams (London), Nemesis, Paddington, Rye, Sleeping all fail under 3 – and this is important because it gives a misleading impression : take a book like Rye – what ‘likeable’ characters are there? None. I suppose a couple – say Murder is Announced – might just about qualify.

    I think cozy is only worthwhile as a kind of ‘rating’ indicator – referring to the amount of explicit sex/violence. This is fair enough for people who want to avoid s’n’v. But it should say nothing about the book’s primary focus – plot, comedy, history, character etc. etc.. It is also important to emphasise that the rating applies to ‘graphic’ violence and ‘explicit’ sex – it does not mean an absence of either. Going back to Christie and taking just one example as someone else pointed out Sleeping Murder is in fact about very perverted sexual desires.


    Comment by jonjermey — June 25, 2008 @ 8:11 pm | Reply

  4. Scott:

    Every point you make is unassailable, and I must agree completely with you. (The missing hamburger patty analogy is perfect: “Where’s the beef?” as they used to say in a TV commercial.)

    “I’ve still got several Carrs, Queens, Berkeleys and Brands and other ‘Golden Age’-ers to get through first, and they’ll give me a much better batting average.” So true!

    And your comments about “The Mousetrap” are also true. I can speak from experience: Our local theater troupe performed Christie’s play (this was over twenty years ago now); I played Major Metcalf (with the most atrocious Scottish brogue heard east of the Mississippi). Even then I was aware of the thin plot upon which all of this feverish activity was hung; moreover, it was all too easy for us to camp it up a tad too much. By the time we got through with “The Mousetrap,” what Mrs. Christie probably intended as a serious play had become a farce.

    Comment by jonjermey — June 25, 2008 @ 8:11 pm | Reply

  5. That’s a good point, Mike. As a “recovering cozyphile”, I’ve long been a member Yahoo groups which read and books that were popular with a huge group of (mostly ) women who preferred reading books they wouldn’t be embarrassed to read out loud to their children or friends. And all of the books are/were set in the present because you want to think that your favorite character is someone you could run into at the supermarket, not someone you know is dead! Cozies made you feel “comfortable”. I wonder if the word even existed in the days of Agatha Christie because the era of explicit anything had not yet arrived. However, I have to ask myself, “when did this word pop up in the popular lexicon where there are ongoing discussions on what constitutes a cozy?” In the past ten years, I’ve learned that people who do NOT want the bad language, explicit mental or emotional violence, or handbook sex are the ones drawn to certain books known as “cozies”. Also, the heroine/hero usually has an unusual, different, interesting or popular hobby that anchored the story and drew in readers who liked the same things. The category grew and grew as the non-cozies began to become more and more explicit. Some books became just plain “fluffy” but were a good escape to a large group of readers.

    However, soon “cozy” writers didn’t want to be pigeonholed resented the classification as something schmaltzy, mild, cute, involving a cat on the cover or just plain bo-ring, and adjusted their writing accordingly. These became known as “soft-boiled cozies” in some groups. (It’s sad when a writer has to insert elements not to be considered “cozy” just to avoid being categorized) My own observation is, if the book club catalogues from where I often buy my mysteries and novels doesn’t put an asterisk (*) next to the description, it’s probably considered cozy because the (*) means “may contain violence or explicit content”. My own problem with the whole cozy category now is that there the “real cozy”, “soft-boiled” cozy and “culinary cozy”…..and the sub-sub-genres continue to grow. Some of these ARE boring, because they are not written well, or even mysteries but merely venues for the writer to continue “in the life of” their main character! Fans of these books love it and look for recipes/knitting patterns/craft ideas, etc. But, my original preference for cozies was the comfortable read, with a decent puzzle, an atmosphere that kept me in that world, and good characters whether a continuing or “one-offs”. (I don’t believe publishers want one-offs anymore. It has to be a series with a minimum of three books the last time I was at a convention where “cozy authors” spoke.)

    Because I review historical novels for a particular group, and they began accepting the historical mystery for reviewing, I was delighted to be able go back to reading what constitutes a good novel as well as a good mystery. And I’m learning some history in the process. Talk about best of both worlds! Thus far, there has been no unnecessary bad language and definitely no cute animals or must-try recipes! So, I would never classify historical mysteries as “cozy” except casually to people I know don’t like the rough stuff. This is a pretty long email for a rather short subject, but it’s a big topic amongst the buyers of books and as a former member around thirty different book chat groups, I can say honestly that I’m happy to be back in the realm of GAD, and the new-to-me to historical mysteries which are engrossing and satisfying. Perhaps we didn’t need a “cozy” designation before so many modern mysteries because so graphic?


    Comment by jonjermey — June 29, 2008 @ 10:22 am | Reply

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