The whodunit I’m developing has a couple of elements that tag it as part of the cozy sub-genre within the mystery genre — a small, picturesque New England town and an amateur sleuth. It has, however, a narrator who is rather distinctly different from anything I’ve seen in the cozy department. So I’ve been dipping into some published cozies to see how my story would stack up if I were to toss it in an agent’s slush pile.

With precious few exceptions, the books on the cozy shelf are just dreadful. Now, I read a lot of mysteries. I even enjoy bad mysteries (notably those by Erle Stanley Gardner, which are dreadful — and I’ve read all of them more than once). I can’t force myself past 40 or 50 pages of a typical cozy. And the genre is so firmly defined that they’re all pretty typical.

This is not to slag Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple books. Technically they’re regarded as cozies, but Christie antedated the current genre by many years. Miss Marple is very readable.

The two chief shortcomings of the genre are characterization and tone.

Cozy writing is never sharp. It’s flabby. Even when dramatic events are unfolding, the tone lacks urgency. Here’s an example, drawn from Facials Can Be Fatal by Nancy Cohen. In yesterday’s blog post I was praising Cohen’s how-to-write-cozies book, so you can safely assume I’m not singling her out for abuse. To set the stage, you need to know that Marla owns a beauty shop and the “day spa” (whatever that is) next door. She has been summoned to the day spa, where a customer has just died while being treated to a facial. 911 has already been called.

She swallowed uneasily, anticipating her husband’s reaction. Would Dalton, a homicide detective with the Palm Haven police force, arrive on the scene when he heard the address from the dispatcher? From previous experience, she knew that unattended deaths were investigated. That would apply in this case since the aesthetician had left the client alone.

There are several problems here. First, introducing the fact that the viewpoint character’s husband is a homicide detective should not be done in an appositive phrase in the middle of a murder scene. That’s just not the way to do it. Second, when you’re standing within feet of a corpse and have just “tamped down the bile in [your] throat at the clammy feel” of the corpse’s skin, you don’t swallow uneasily in anticipation of your husband’s reaction. That’s the wrong physiological response to a bit of uneasiness that is, in the circumstances, not likely to be nearly as significant as the already nauseating presence of the corpse. Third, what reaction does she expect? The paragraph does not tell us. Why would her husband be anything less than sympathetic and supportive? Fourth, in a scene that ought to have considerable dramatic impact, phrases like “previous experience” and “unattended deaths” and words like “aesthetician” and “client” are distancing. They push the reader away from the scene rather than providing immediacy.

You want flabby writing? There you go.

The characters in cozies tend to be blank spots with names attached. Surprisingly often, there’s no description at all of the character, just a name. When there’s a description, the men tend to be “hunky.” The descriptions of the women tell us more about their hair and clothing than about their demeanor. The conversations are usually long on generic blah-blah-blah; neither the subject matter of the dialog nor the tone of voice conveys anything that would provoke the reader to keep reading.

But of course readers do keep reading. By the millions. Cozy authors seem to be doing precisely what their readers want. A reasonable analysis would suggest that the readers want to spend a couple of hours hanging out with people who are just as boring as they are.

An unusually stark example of failure to describe a character can be found in Checked Out for Murder by Allison Brook. The sleuth is a librarian, and the library (a large old house that has been converted) is haunted by a ghost that only the sleuth can see. The ghost is named Evelyn. We have this sentence: “Evelyn perched on the corner of my desk, her favorite pose whenever she paid me a visit.” But … but … is Evelyn translucent or solid? Is she young or old? Does her voice echo oddly, or is it distorted as if it’s coming down a long narrow tube? Is she wearing a sheet? Brook never says.

I did a quick catalog of the characters in half a dozen cozies. Almost without exception they’re white. This is interesting, because so many literary agents will tell you they’re looking for diverse authors and diverse voices. Somehow the cozy authors don’t seem to have gotten the memo. Cohen’s opening chapters do include a Hispanic hairdresser and one who is “dark-skinned,” and the sleuth herself has a Jewish background, but this is unusual in the genre, and Cohen gets extra points for it. I didn’t spot anybody in any of these books who is disabled. Kate Carlisle’s Once Upon a Spine is set in San Francisco and includes a couple of men who co-own a bookstore … but they’re brothers-in-law, not a gay couple. Yeah, Kate. Sure. We believe you.

The amateur sleuth is usually a woman. Her boyfriend or husband is usually in law enforcement. This is a twofer: The author gets both the snuggle scenes and inside information on the crime from the same character. The sleuth always seems to have a pet, usually a cat but sometimes a dog. Brook’s librarian actually puts her cat in a carrier and takes it to the library with her every day, which leads to a flatly preposterous bit of action that would take too long to explain.

I could twist my own novel a little further and turn it into a satire of the cozy. It wouldn’t be hard to do, and on some level that would be richly satisfying. And my God, somebody needs to do it. This stuff is too rich a vein of glorp to be ignored.

The trouble is, satire is not a serious form of fiction. I don’t really want to do that to my young sleuth. She deserves to be taken seriously. So I have this half-finished rough draft, and it’s never going to be marketable as a cozy, because it’s too good. It’s too strong, too original. It doesn’t fit the genre template. Yet in some sense it’s still a cozy. It’s neither fish nor fowl, and I’m not sure yet what to do with it.

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