A recent Buzzfeed post offered that, simply by typing in your name, you will be provided with a word that will define your coming year. The whole thing appeared random, but I thought, Why not give it a try? Some of my friends got “love”, while others got “wisdom”. For no special reason that I can see, I got “change,” and I’ll take it! I want to be a writer, even as I edge near sixty, and any sign that this may happen – that I might trade in the teacher’s credential for a biography on Amazon – receives my full approbation. That’s why Facebook personality quizzes hold such power over people: much revelation comes out of very little input!
I always dreamed that I would write mysteries, except for a short period during my adolescence when I was sure there was a 1600 page fantasy deep within my gut. (That turned out to be a gluten allergy). As a child, I would create casts of characters with thrilling descriptions as befitted the start of any Paperback original. (Example: “Margaret Trevalyan: Her eye for fashion mirrored her eye for men. Maybe that’s why she got stuck with her sister’s hand-me-downs!”) I drew elaborate maps of the house and grounds. I put together a detailed outline of how the murder was committed and what every red herring suspect was doing at the time. I wrote everything except the mystery itself!
Nowadays, the classic whodunit of my preference has fallen out of favor with the general public, and the problem for me is that I don’t want to go all Val McDermid or Peter Robinson and write procedurals about tortured detectives. I appreciate Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly, but I’m about as noir as a rice pudding. No, I still like the idea of creating puzzles for readers to sort out. I don’t mind beefing up the characterization or letting a little psychological angst in, but I want to be as classic as I can be without resorting to mere imitation.
There are still a number of practitioners of the classic mystery, and joining the GAD group on Facebook has given me access to new authors. I just bought my first Martin Edwards mystery, The Dungeon House, which I plan to tear into over the holidays. And folks have been recommending Paul Halter, who for decades has been developing a reputation in France as the heir to John Dickson Carr for his impossible crime mysteries.
The funny thing is – when I go to the library or the bookstore and check out the mystery section, most volumes fall into three categories: a VERY small selection of the classics, dominated by Agatha Christie, a large number of the aforementioned tortured procedurals, and cozies.
I have not treated the cozy very well in my occasional mentions of them in discussion. I have been rude to the cozy, and for this I apologize. I haven’t even read one, so who am I to talk? A lot of women are publishing them, and more power to them! Yet, I had to ask myself: if this is the refuge of the traditional whodunit, is this where I need to relegate my talents? Should I actually start reading these books to see where I may fit in?
So I decided to visit my local library, which has a large selection of cozies, in order to see what they were all about. I perused. And this is what I discovered:
- All cozies take place in a small town, inhabited by 158 eccentric people, one fine young (and ravishing) woman OR one middle-aged (and still ravishing) woman, and either a. the woman’s husband, equally ravishing, or b. a really hot man who will be dangled before the middle-aged lady for as long as the series of books progresses. The rare book has TWO young or middle-aged women who are best friends, but there’s only one hot man.
- The protagonist owns a shop, sometimes adjacent to her home, and whatever kind of shop she owns will justify the inclusion of helpful tips that have nothing to do with the story. If it’s a bakery, there are recipes. If it’s a bookstore, there are reviews. Depending on the business, the reader will learn how to knit a special stitch, how to repair a sink, or how to decorate one’s sewing room or fix-it center.
- The murder usually takes place in the protagonist’s shop or home, either near the cash register, (where it is found on Monday morning) or in the attic, which nobody has gone up to clean for a while (so it will be found on Sunday after brunch). This allows the protagonist to fall under suspicion for at least twenty pages UNLESS the cop investigating the crime is the aforementioned really hot man upon whom the leading lady has set her sights.
- Very often the murder takes place in conjunction with a festival or competition. In that case, the victim is either the most obnoxious contestant or one of the judges. Otherwise, the murder takes place around a wedding. The victim is always the bride’s deadbeat ex-husband.
- The entire crux of the novel is contained in the title, which is most often a pun. Now, I appreciate a good pun. At the school where I teach, we start the week with Punday Mondays, where the young lady who delivers the student bulletin signs off with a pun. Example: “Seniors who remember to pick up their caps and gowns will certainly feel a sense of grad-ification!”
The problem is that the level of pun quality is shockingly low in this sub-genre of mystery. My favorite is from a series of mysteries set in a deli and is titled Fry Me a Liver. I like the series of cheese shop thrillers, which include As Gouda as Dead, but how many mysteries can one read that center on cheese? I’ll even abide with a play on film titles like Death Is Like a Box of Chocolates (The pun is no more tiresome than the movie which inspired it.) But sometimes it feels like these authors aren’t even trying.
The Cakes of Wrath is a cute title for a bakery mystery. I’m a little on the fence regarding A Batter of Life and Death. But what to make of Rebel Without a Cake? That one just sits there, like it forgot to rise in the oven . . .
Then there’s Oh Say, Can You Fudge? Bah dum bum!
I spotted one called Privy to the Dead. On the face of it, that could be a thrilling title, conjuring up communication with corpses. Could there be a séance gone wrong in the picture? Someone claiming to see a deceased relative in the distance, or hearing his voice on the phone, . . . No, wait! When they say “privy,” surely they can’t mean . . .But yes, they do! The victim in this one is killed in a portable toilet! Touche!
I learned while going through this collection that there actually is a sub-sub-genre of the cozy: the Amish mystery! I guess anything can be a sub-sub-genre. Harry Kemelman did a series of excellent mysteries in the 1960’s about a rabbi, but they were not cozies at all. Nowadays, it seems all you need is an abiding interest in a certain community and/or a hobby you love, and/or a talking dog who can sniff out clues (or a cat who buries them in the litter box) and you’re made in the shade!
The Amish mystery I found at my library was called Suspendered Sentence, which I found rather clever. And yet, like the rest of these titles, I had no interest in reading it. More significantly, I have no interest in writing one . . . and my cats talk to me constantly! No, rather than take out the dozen opened and abandoned needlepoint sets crammed in my closet, I will have to find my voice in another fashion. I look to my fellow mystery enthusiasts to keep the traditional whodunit alive, at least long enough for me to add my voice to the pantheon! And if all else fails, I’m already building a character study of a weary P.I., a veteran of Afghanistan beset by nightmares, who studied morbid child psychology in a snowy university in Copenhagen, where his one true love died of alcohol poisoning, then set up shop in San Francisco, solving cases in the fog almost as often as he is knocked out, all the while looking for that serial killer who murdered his entire family many years ago . .
It could work.