Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Why cozies? A guest blog by Diana Vickery

Diana Vickery runs the great Cozy Library and she and I have been talking about the merits of the so-called cozy, or traditional, mystery. I posted my own Defense of the Cozy a few months back. Here is her take.

Why do I read cozy? A more fundamental question is “Why do I read at all?”

Mom wrote in my baby book that, at age two, I could entertain myself for a long time with a book. I theorize I enjoyed books because, being a very nearsighted little girl, a book within reading distance was the only clear image in my otherwise watercolor world. By age eight, when I got eyeglasses, the reading habit was ingrained.

I wasn’t a precocious child who taught myself to read. No, I was happy to look at pictures and learn reading from Sister Eugene Marie. My early reading is mostly a blur, but I do remember
The Boxcar Children, The Bobbsey Twins and The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew.

Later favorites included
Only Yesterday by Frederick Lewis Allen, The Source by James Michener and, in college, Too Far to Walk by John Hersey. It wasn’t until after graduate school, while working as a college administrator (I had lots of time on my hands) that I ceased going down someone else’s reading path started going where I wanted.

About that time, my friend Laurel introduced me to Agatha Christie. Since I tend to be obsessive about reading all of an author’s books, it was about a year later I emerged from a cozy cloud with some new best friends: Jane Marple, Hercule Poirot, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, and Parker Pyne.

What I most enjoyed about Dame Agatha’s stories was that they weren’t overly taxing. After all, I had done enough heavy reading and was looking for light entertainment. I also liked that she didn’t rely on graphic sex, explicit violence or coarse language to keep me engaged. (I was known in my 20s to cuss with the best of them. Later, I came to believe that casual profanity is the refuge of people who don’t know how to express themselves very well.)

Next, I read my way through two more hardboiled series: Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct stories and John D. MacDonald’s rainbow-hued Travis McGees. That took about a year. By the late 1970s, I was longing for something “cozier,” although I didn’t use that word to describe my reading habits.

I discovered Dorothy Gilman’s Miss Pollifax books; Charlotte MacLeod’s mysteries featuring Sarah Kelling and Peter Shandy (I thought Ms. MacLeod, may she rest in peace, went off the deep end with Curse of the Giant Hogweed); police procedurals by Lillian O'Donnell; Marcia Muller’s private eye Sharon McCone …

When Dorothy Cannell’s
Thin Woman came out in 1984, she became my new favorite author. I loved that story, which was as cozy as they come. After that, I sought out books that read like Dorothy Cannell. My list grew: Susan Wittig Albert, Nancy Atherton, Jill Churchill, Diane Mott Davidson, Jack Finney (Fantasy), Lee Harris, Carolyn Hart, Harry Kemelman, Margaret Maron, Katherine Hall Page, Connie Willis (Fantasy/Sci-Fi) and Valerie Wolzien. To this day, I’m adding new favorites but now I’m putting them on my website to share with like-minded readers. We are very lucky that good, new authors (like Clea) are cropping up all the time.

My taste for sweet, cozy stories hasn’t abated. I will stop everything I’m doing when a new book by a favorite author shows up. When I see Ms. Cannell’s latest (thank goodness she continues to write), I count on it to give me what I want: a friendly locale, characters I want to have coffee and chat with, a tidy plot with all threads tied up when we arrive at a very happy ending. I guess you could say my real life is “cozy” and that’s also what I crave in my reading.


Clea Simon said...

Thanks for sharing with us, Diana!

Lesa said...


It was nice to read your take on cozies. I don't think of Clea's books as cozies. They're much too dark and introspective. I tend to think of true cozies as very light, enjoyable reads.

I don't think of Spencer-Fleming or Louise Penny as cozy, but traditional with the village setting.

To me, cozy does imply light. Once you get into darker, thoughtful storylines, those become traditional mysteries. Just my humble opinion!

Clea Simon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Clea Simon said...

(sorry folks, I messed up my own comment)

Thanks, Lesa, so are you saying that it's time to make "cozy" a different classification from "traditional"? I was sort of hoping to reclaim "cozy" AS traditional, Agatha Christie-style crime fiction (I make a better case in the "Defense of Cozy" blog entry, at least i didn't have to delete that!).

Lesa said...

If you reclaim the whole category, Clea, fine. For me, personally, I view many of the hobby mysteries as cozies, much of what Berkley is publishing. However, they're so much lighter than your books, Spencer-Fleming's, Penny's, or even Christie's. The Evanovich's, Strohymeyer's, Joanne Fluke's, tend to focus on the light side of relationships, with humor, much more than what I (emphasis on I) consider more traditional mysteries.

I'm afraid it might be too late to reclaim cozies, but, good luck, Clea!

Clea Simon said...

Thanks, Lesa. Might be a losing battle.

David T. said...

I have nothing against "significant literature," but I will be the first to admit that I usually read for pleasure and relaxation. And for that, you can hardly beat Dame Agatha. I also enjoy several of the authors named in this post, including Jill Churchill, and (of course) Clea.

Clea Simon said...

Thank you, David!

Diana said...

The best explanation I have found of what a "cozy mystery" is here: ("best" meaning it agrees with my thoughts). I believe the "cozy continuum" encompasses quite a variety of books ... and I personally can't see a huge distinction between "traditional" and "cozy." (Maybe it's like the Supreme Court justice's definition of pornography -- that he couldn't really define it but knew it when he saw it?) When stories are too dark, or too edgy, I put them in the "not quite cozy" category on my website. Again the disclaimer that I'm not an expert on cozies, just a prolific reader of them. Diana Vickery

Clea Simon said...

I think you're as expert as anyone, Diana, and I, too, would like to reclaim the title - I think of cozies as traditional mysteries in the sense of that definition. So glad you posted this!