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Sunday, September 24

Serious Themes in Cozy Mysteries

By Lesley A. Diehl, @LesleyDiehl

Part of the How They Do It series


Lesley is a country gal through and through, from her childhood on a dairy farm in Illinois to college in a cornfield in Iowa, Lesley creates sassy, snoopy protagonists who embrace chasing killers in country settings. Lesley writes several series: the Big Lake Murder mysteries and the Eve Appel mysteries both set in rural Florida; the Laura Murphy mysteries located on a lake in upstate New York; and short stories featuring a few of Lesley’s unique relatives from back on the farm (Aunt Nozzie and the Grandmothers). She is inspired by an odd set of literary muses: a ghost named Fred and a coyote as yet unnamed.

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Take it away Lesley...

Several years ago I invited a number of cozy mystery writers to visit my blog and talk about serious themes in cozy mysteries. Some of my writer colleagues were skeptical about cozy mysteries entertaining serious issues. Those writers who wrote cozies were not.I was surprised to find that many mystery writers were unaware of the cozy subgenre and had never read one except for those penned by Agatha Christie.

Going to Malice Domestic’s website helps understand what these mysteries are about:
Established in 1989, Malice Domestic™ is an annual fan convention in the metropolitan DC area that celebrates the traditional mystery, books best typified by the works of Agatha Christie. The genre is loosely identified as mysteries which contain no explicit sex, or excessive gore, or violence.
Malice Domestic is a helpful starting point for defining the genre whether the sub-genre uses the modifier of traditional or cozy, but there is more that characterizes cozies. Cozy mystery writers prefer setting their work in a restricted community such as a retirement community, small village or town or small city neighborhood. The draw for readers is that the protagonists are not PIs or police, but amateur sleuths, individuals with whom the reader can identify. To encourage a closer, more intimate sense of the sleuth’s work, many cozy mystery writers write in first person.The contemporary cozy mystery does indeed sound very cozy; the image of Miss Marple gazing out her window on the happenings of a small English village emerges, if not in fact, then in feeling.

Must all cozy writers be limited by these restrictions? Absolutely not. The cozy mystery has evolved into a body of work that reaches beyond what we may generally think of when we consider the subgenre. The contemporary cozy mystery challenges traditional ideas about cozies in several ways, the most significant of which is the use of more serious themes in its plot and subplots as well as the emergence of some protagonists with very nontraditional careers and equally unfeminine characteristics, what I like to call “uppity women sleuths.” Not to be biased, some of these sleuths are men, and some of the cozy writers are also male. James R. Callan’s Father Frank mysteries is a perfect example of a male writer writing a male protagonist who is a priest. I would add Glenn E. Nilsons’s Bobby Navarro, the biker with a heart.

It’s difficult to argue that to remain a traditional or cozy mystery a writer should stay out of serious issues any more than the writer should craft only female protagonists with quilting shops, book stores or catering services. Murder, regardless of why it was committed, is itself a serious issue, and the world of the cozy reader is one of increasing connectedness to a changing and more challenging world with respect to criminal acts. The motives behind the murder often run to social issues such as drugs, gangs, human trafficking, political corruption, and pollution to name a few. Cozy mystery writers’ protagonists discover these issues behind the murders they attempt to solve. These are the troubles that surround our lives, that impact the lives writers create in their work, so why shouldn’t they appear in mysteries about everyday people?

Consider, for example, the work of Goldie the Caterer, the amateur sleuth created by Diane Mott Davidson. Food, specifically catering for Davidsons’s protagonist Goldie—what could be more a part of women’s lives? However, Goldie’s past involves being the wife of a doctor, seemingly an ideal life for a woman involved in cooking for others, but her husband’s proclivity for beating her,which results in divorce and a jail sentence, feels less than cozy. Spousal abuse is serious business and treated as such by Davidson, yet Goldie’s zest for life and her curiosity give the book an entertaining and pleasurable feeling.Goldie takes on murders that are intertwined with decidedly serious issues: drugs, bullying, theft, sexual exploitation and other felonious acts.

Set in a small Washington State village, Mary Daheim’s Alpine series features a newspaper editor who confronts murders with many of the same issues as those found in Davidson’s catering cozy series. Daheim uses the small town setting effectively by removing it physically from the wider world, but connecting it to the world’s issues through the newspaper and its editor’s need to report on issues impacting the town’s residents. Readers find the issues found in cozy mysteries parallel those they read about in newspapers, see on television and find on the internet. Yet cozy writers have not abandoned traditional motives involved in criminal acts; murders are still committed because of jealousy, to cover up another crime or in a fit of passionate rage.

Many cozy mystery protagonists are owners of tea shops, cheese shops, and quilt shops or have careers in nursing, teaching, or hair styling, traditionally female occupations, but like the ladylike Miss Marple, these women deal with murder surrounded by serious community or personal issues not unlike the troubles that afflict the hard-boiled PI or professional law enforcement officer. It is perhaps the other events and characters in the books that keep cozies entertaining and not bogged down with the darkness of the problems portrayed. Character development may be as important to the cozy mystery as is finding the killer. This is true not only in creating a protagonist with depth—admirable qualities as well as flaws—and friends, family and a community that are more than background, but it is significant for the reader getting to know and love the amateur sleuth and her life. Perhaps this is one reason why the cozy mystery is usually a series, not a stand-alone. Readers want more of a person they come to see as almost a good friend.

Tone and an underlying optimistic philosophy accompany the serious issues in many cozies.The writer always reminds the reader that there is a light at the end of the tunnel and that everything will turn out right. The interaction between the protagonist and her friends and family provide the reader with the sunny side of life or, in some cases, the funny side of life. My Eve Apple mysteries portray a protagonist with a sassy disposition, a mouth that often gets her in trouble and some improbable interactions that are geared to produce a laugh.

It’s not only tracking down clues to find the bad guys or gals that matter to our protagonists. The cozy mystery writer often includes an exciting romance, usually with a detective or other law enforcement authority, the amateur sleuth’s source of information about the crime. This is the case for both Davidson’s and Daheim’s protagonists and for the protagonist in Susan Wittig Albert’s series set in the Texas Hill Country. While Albert writes China Bales as an herbalist, Bayles was also once a lawyer, giving additional credence to her ability to find the bad guys. Of course, Albert adds to the level of professional sleuthing by marrying China to a former Texas Ranger. There’s even just a soupcon of steamy romance in their relationship.In my Eve Apple mysteries, I’ve doubled up on sources for information on cases by creating a romance between my protagonist and a private detective and giving her a detective on the local police force as a best friend and poker-playing buddy. I can’t resist enhancing the tension in Eve’s romance by introducing a competing love interest. Murder, great sleuthing skills and romance—cozy mysteries do them all.

Some might argue there’s overcrowding in the traditional positions held by cozy sleuths, but cozy mystery readers still seem to gobble up small business owners in typically female-dominated fields. Yet change is afoot. Although the protagonist may be a caterer, for example, she’s a feisty one. Davidson’s protagonist is often getting injured, but continues to seek out clues despite her husband’s cautioning to rein herself in. Contemporary cozies rarely write protagonists who are rescued, but rather these gals get themselves out of trouble.

Another change in cozy mysteries fits well with the use of serious political, social, and environmental issues: in searching for a career for a protagonist, writers frequently choose careers less traditionally feminine. My first mystery (A Deadly Draught) featured a woman who had dropped out of law school to take over management of the family microbrewery. The use of more nontraditional fields for women protagonists means the portrayal of amateur sleuths shaped by their professions. In those cases where the profession remains a traditional one, the writer is not be bound by a heroine who is not heroic. For example, my protagonist Eve Appel may own a consignment shop, but there is nothing girly about her other than her penchant for stiletto heels and secondhand designer fashions.

Cozy mysteries may just do it all: entertain serious themes using clever, courageous and likeable protagonists who tackle difficult issues in their personal lives and in the crimes they choose to investigate. Miss Marple couldn’t agree more.

About Old Bones Never Die, book 5 in the Eve Apple Mysteries from Camel Press

Just before Walter Egret is killed in a hit-and-run, he phoned his half-brother Sammy to report that he’d unearthed their missing father’s pocket watch, along with a pile of human bones. The project is put on hold until it can be determined if the site is an Indian burial ground. Then the bones disappear.

Now Sammy and his brother’s three orphaned children want Eve Appel to go pro, applying her innate snoopiness to the trade of private investigator.

Eve already has her hands full with her two consignment stores. What is she going to do? Sammy and Walter are Miccosukee Indians, and Walter was employed as a backhoe operator on a construction site for a sportsmen’s resort. Was Walter’s death murder or an accident? If the bones belong to Sammy’s father, how did they get there? Delving into these mysteries, Eve is aided by her usual crew of friends and family. This adventure will not only up the stakes for Eve as an investigator, but it will also open her eyes to life possibilities she never imagined.

Says Diehl, “Indigenous peoples in the Americas struggle with the conflict between fitting into white culture and keeping their own traditions. In Florida the encroachment of development has removed natural habitat for numerous animal and plant species and destroyed breeding grounds, making it doubly difficult for a new generation of Native Americans to reclaim their historical roots in a shifting and often unfamiliar landscape. For the Miccosukee Indians in Eve Appel’s life, this struggle means walking the thin line between claiming what is good for their children in the old world and finding their place in the world created by white people.”

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8 comments:

  1. This was an excellent article. I'm a firm believer that addressing serious themes through entertaining avenues is a great way to get conversations going. Must food for thought.

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  2. I know how to write funny scenes, but I don't know how not to address serious issues in my work. Glad you feel similarly. BTW, the author of the Father Frank mysteries is James R. Callan, not Jim Callum. My mistake, not Janice's. I hope he forgives me for the goof!

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  3. In my Coming Attractions column over at Kings River Life, I concentrate on cozy readers' tastes. The different professions open up our world to things we don't know about. My own Christy Bristol series has astrology as an element. And, although the books deal with serious subjects, they are considered cozy because the violence is fairly contained and my characters don't cuss. There is also plenty of character-driven humor.

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  4. Excellent article.
    "Tone and an underlying optimistic philosophy accompany the serious issues in many cozies.The writer always reminds the reader that there is a light at the end of the tunnel and that everything will turn out right."
    This is exactly the attraction of these books.

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  5. Well covered, Lesley! I appreciate reading about well thought out solutions to major problems humans face--do I dare call that redemption, as crimes are uncovered and criminals punished? Proof I believe in this is found in how killing a murderous teen impacted the life of a retired police major co-protagonist in my "To Die For" mystery series, leading to a degree of redemption as he reaches out to a vet drowning in PTSD in "A Portrait to Die For." I believe many cozy authors are adding positively to readers' perceptions as well as entertaining them. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on an important topic.

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  6. Well covered, Lesley! I appreciate reading about well thought out solutions to major problems humans face--do I dare call that redemption, as crimes are uncovered and criminals punished? Proof I believe in this is found in how killing a murderous teen impacted the life of a retired police major co-protagonist in my "To Die For" mystery series, leading to a degree of redemption as he reaches out to a vet drowning in PTSD in "A Portrait to Die For." I believe many cozy authors are adding positively to readers' perceptions as well as entertaining them. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on an important topic.

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  7. Thanks for all your comments. It appears that many cozy mystery writers take on serious themes and manage to still maintain that "cozy" feel to their work by developing compelling characters and an optimistic tone.

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  8. Thanks, Lesley! I do struggle with the parameters of cozy mysteries in writing my Safe Harbor Medical Mysteries, which feature an obstetrician who helps solve mysteries that affect his patients (no dead babies and no dead pregnant women, I promise!). For one thing, my main character is a guy. Also, while there's quite a bit of humor, many of the themes are serious. I wish traditional mysteries hadn't so often become dark and depressing, because I'm writing what I keep looking to read and don't find often enough.

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