Golden Age of Detective Fiction Forum

June 25, 2008

What makes a ‘Cozy’?

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


May 17, 2008

What is a ‘Puzzle Plot’?

Filed under: FAQ,Sub-genres — Jon @ 5:16 am

From Monescu:

A “puzzle plot” is, as the phrase suggests, merely a plot which is in its essence a puzzle. As such, the term has a wider scope than “impossible crime story,” which in turn has a wider scope than “locked room” mystery. Perhaps I should say that the “locked room mystery” is a subset of the “impossible crime story” which is in turn a subset of “the puzzle plot.” A few examples may help make things clearer:

Conan Doyle’s “The Speckled Band” is a locked room mystery. As such, it is also an impossible crime story and a puzzle plot.

Ellery Queen’s “The Lamp of God,” which involves the stunning vanish of an entire house, is not a locked room mystery (there is no locked room involved), but it is an impossible crime story and thus also a puzzle plot (there are many examples of this type of story… Carr’s “The Curse of the Bronze Lamp” is another that comes to mind, though the word “Lamp” in the title is certainly not a prerequisite!).

Agatha Christie’s “Five Little Pigs” (as with most of her novels) is neither a locked room mystery nor an impossible crime story, but it certainly is a puzzle plot.

The term puzzle plot is used nearly interchangeably with several other terms, though there are important distinctions. It is usually a puzzle plot that is meant when one refers to a “Golden Age detective story,” but not all puzzle plots were written within the historical period referred to as detective fiction’s “Golden Age,” nor is a detective figure necessary for a puzzle plot (Christie’s “And Then There Were None” certainly qualifies as a puzzle plot, and it lacks such a detective character [yes, I know about William Henry Blore… but he quite obviously doesn’t count!]). “Whodunit” is another term that is frequently used to refer to puzzle plots, but is actually another subset; many puzzle plots are not concerned with the question of culprit identity, instead centering on questions of “how,” “why,” or even “where” (e.g. Poe’s “Purloined Letter,” where the identity of the culprit is known from the beginning).

Again, the boundaries of classification are sometimes fuzzy and in constant dispute (of course, I’ve tried to make it easy on myself by choosing examples that are fairly clear-cut). Did that help? I hope so.

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