Friday, May 08, 2009

Tradition, tradition!

Does something in the zeitgeist — the disastrous recession, maybe, the swift and terrifying collapse of vital, once-trusted industries, the newly precarious state of so many lives and livelihoods — turn readers' and publishers' thoughts to the comforts of tradition? A week and a half ago I posted some thoughts by and about those unrelated novel-writing Edwardses — Ruth Dudley and Martin — on traditional mysteries: what the term means, and how an author goes about writing traditional mysteries in these untraditional times.

This week, Sarah Weinman weighs in on "New Traditionalist" mysteries and cites some thoughts on the subject from Jordan Foster at Publishers Weekly.

Click on all those links — Sarah's, PW's, the Edwardes' and mine — and open your mind to mysteries that can be traditional and with it at the same time.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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40 Comments:

Blogger Dorte H said...

I would probably not use the term traditionalists, simply because it can seem a bit derogatory, and I certainly don´t read Martin Edwards, Ann Cleeves or any of my favourite Scandinavian crime series because of the current crisis. I have never been off them, and as you say, these mysteries are ´with it´ and modern - come to think of it, Elizabeth George could learn quite a lot by reading them!

May 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't see any reason one has to call these writers anything but writers. Martin Edwards does speak of "traditional mysteries," though, and Ruth Dudley Edwards says she writes in the cozy style, which surprised me. She says Reginald Hill writes in the same style, which surprised me even more.

Whatever the sociological reason, if any, it was interesting to note that others happened to be thinking about this matter at the same time I was. In my case, this had nothing to do with the state of the world. I read the Edwardses because both plan to attend CrimeFest.

May 09, 2009  
Blogger Xavier said...

She says Reginald Hill writes in the same style, which surprised me even more.She indeed quotes Reginald Hill's witty (and, I think, accurate) definition of what cozies are, but I don't think she means Hill himself is a cosy writer.

May 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the comment, Xavier. She places herself and Reginald Hill in "the cosy league," which is intriguingly different from saying they write cozies. Hill's definition is appropriate and might serve as an apt defense of cozy or traditional mysteries.

An otherwise intelligent friend of mine once dismissed Jane Austen as a writer of lightweight stories about upper-class girls. Leaving aside that Austen's heroines were hardly upper class, her stories are much more than silly romances, just as Reginald Hill's (and the Edwardses') are much more than a dismissive use of cozy would suggest. Can you picture anyone using that word in Fat Andy Dalziel's presence?

May 09, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

No less an authority than Nero Wolfe thought well of Jane Austen: "Wolfe held it against Jane Austen for forcing him to concede that a woman could write a good novel."

"The Mother Hunt"

I was glad to see Margaret Maron's Judge Knott series mentioned at PW, since I like those a lot.

Isn't every style that's been around a while capable of becoming a traditional tale? Holmes was one of the earliest civilian P.I.s, and that's become a commonplace trope, from Anthony Gethryn (Phillip MacDonald's books) to Travis McGee.

Amelia Peabody is one of Miss Marple's literary descendants.

Wikipedia thinks police procedurals began with a Lawrence Treat book (V is for Victim) and moved forward from Dragnet all the way up to CSI and Patricia Cornwell.

The thriller has been around for a long time (The Count of Monte Cristo, Dracula); the serial killer sub-genre typically has the cops looking hard for him (often with a civilan "expert;" see Jeffrey Deaver's Lincoln Rhyme books)

May 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, perhaps more to the point is when the terms "cozy" and "traditional mystery" came into use. There would have been no need for a special term for this type of crime story until another type to which it could be opposed came along.

May 09, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

I think most of us who think about mysteries for one reason or another are familiar with the term 'cozy', and have our own idea about what that means, without necessarily ever stopping to consider whether our definition is one held in common or is purely idiosyncratic. One thing I tend to identify with the cozy is the British mystery, and mainly of the village or small town rather than urban. I also identify them with lighter fare than Reginald Hill's typical mystery.

I also sometimes see the word used pejoratively, as if the term cozy means that there hasn't been a murder and everyone just sat around drinking tea and discussing knitting all day. Cozies are as worthy a genre as any other in my opinion. I expect they generally revolve more around plot and puzzle than the gory details of the crime, but that isn't a shortcoming, it's just a style.

May 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'd hardly dignify my thoughts about cozies with the name of idea. They're more a set of not terribly well-informed impressions that revolve around English villages, small towns, large houses and perhaps old dears and a lack of graphic sex and violence.

Actually, I should take that back. I probably associate the term more with the wave of crafts and animal mysteries of the last few years, though I have no idea whether the association is valid. Like you, I identify the term with lighter fare than Reginald Hill.

I found some thoughts about cozy mysteries here.

May 10, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

(From that 'Definition of a Cozy' link above)

Can you imagine wanting to read the second book in a series that has all of it’s characters as scummy, low-life people, perpetrating evil deeds and being downright mean all of the time?Why, yes, as a matter of fact, I can...

But while that link provides a very adequate definition of a cozy, I do think it frays a bit all around the edges of the genre. It's interesting, because any one element can be dispensed with, but the broader definition holds. So the sleuth could be a man (Martha Grime's Richard Jury), the detective could herself have some police background (Mrs. Thyme on the British crime cozy series Rosemary and Thyme), and I think Janet Evanovich's series would qualify as urban rather than village, although the way she makes everyone in Trenton, New Jersey know everyone else's business is really village par excellence.

The more I think about this, the more I realize that Santa Cruz is a cozy cash cow begging to be milked. Some have tried, but no one's fully done it yet.

May 10, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You've assessed the article nicely. One might reading it as a guide without relying on it for a definition.

Santa Cruz a cozy cash cow, you say:

"His face twisted into an ugly leer as he poured slug after slug into the twitching vegetarian's prostrate form."Does that sound cozy to you?

May 10, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Idle thought: the board game Clue is modeled on a cozy.

As is a recent AFLAC commercial, but that's not germane.

May 10, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Clue is a good reference point for this discussion -- as is the recent updating of its roster of weapons. A classic game, like the classic traditional mystery, can change.

May 10, 2009  
Blogger Dorte H said...

I don´t see Reginald Hill´s Dalziel and Pascoe series as cozies either, but I came across an old library version of "The Spy´s Wife" (1980), and one might call it cozy - or just a very quiet (boring) crime story.

May 10, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

Huge generalization here, but is one distinction of the cozy that in some way the murders don't really count? That they are more random game elements, a la Clue, than the kind of deaths you'd really mourn?

Just a question, because I'm sure people can throw out examples of that not being the case.

May 10, 2009  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

Over on Sarah's blog I left a comment about Louise Penny (it's Canadian week, apparently) and how her books fit pretty much every definition of a traditional cozy but are completely modern because her characters are completely modern.

May 10, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

Thanks for that description of Penny. She has some small but interesting following here, but--just judging her books by their covers, which in my opinion are not very intriguing--I haven't been able to figure out who she's appealing to. Now I get it more, I think. And I imagine I'd probably like them myself.

May 10, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dorte, I don't like the sound of "boring." That's a sub-genre I probably would not want to read much of.

I haven't read much Reginald Hill, but R.D. Edwards' inclusion of Hill in the cozy league did make some sense. The stories are about crime-solving and investigation, they view their characters with detailed amusement, they don't include the doom of noir or the violence and hard attitudes of hard-boiled.

I still won't ever associate the word "cozy" with Hilll, though. I'd rather just think of him as a master of his chosen form.

May 10, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I won't speculate too much about cozies and about murders not really counting, since I don't think I've read enough cozies to form an opinion. It would be interesting to have dedicated cozy readers weigh in.

I still think I need to know when the term "cozy" came into use for crime writing. Such a Golden Age classic as "Murder on the Orient Express," for example, is all about clues and clever detection, but the murder definitely counts. Some dark motives are at work, which may tie the story's resolution, at least, to gothic fiction.

Is Christie considered an ancestor to cozies? I don't know. Help me out here, cozy readers.

May 10, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John, I saw that comment. Your assessment of Louise Penny reminds me of Martin Edwards: traditional elements, contemporary setting. That's pretty cool, actually. Authors -- good ones, at least -- are always a step or two ahead of the folks who write about and market and come up with labels for their books.

This throws me into a quandary over which book to bring on my flight to Bristol. (I don't bring too many more than that, since I'll probably buy lots of books there. And I might even make my way to Hay-on-Wye later, which does not augur well for my chances of avouding an overweight-baggage charge.)

May 10, 2009  
Blogger Dorte H said...

Peter, I don´t like ´boring´ either. I was amazed the book had Reginald Hill´s name on it, but I swear it wasn´t exciting. It was about a very wifey wife whose husband had disappeared, and as far as I remember the only interesting piece of information was that he was a spy.

With regard to cozies I think Miss Marple is regarded as cozy, and they seem to be a good place to begin reading crime fiction - if you are an innocent teenage girl. In the same way I think the Sayers books featuring Harriet Vane are regarded as more cozy than the others so perhaps part of it is ´the feminine touch´?

May 10, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmm, an "interesting following"? Intriguing!

I have a copy of Louise Penny's Still Life here. Now, there's a title that promises an ironic jolt if any title ever has. Sounds a bit rural Gothic, I'd say.

May 10, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dorte, you could be right. The article about cozies to which I link in a comment above does note that the the sub-genre's readers are predominantly women.

May 10, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

I was attempting to do a quick look up about when the term cozy came to be applied to this sub-genre, but came across this instead. Just more food for thought, and certainly not definitive.
cozy vs. suspenseI would say that the Miss Marples are cozies and the Poirots are not. And it is largely the village aspect of them that makes me think this.

May 10, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's a pretty comprehensive list. Now we're getting somewhere.

May 10, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

Yeah, but I've had no luck finding when the term came into being. I'm sure it's out there somewhere, but I guess I'm using the wrong search terms.

May 10, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I started to look for when the term came into being but had no immediate luck. It shouldn't be too difficult to get some educated guesses. There seem to be enough readers and Web sites devoted to the subject.

As I see it, there are two questions: When was the term "cozy" coined? and When did authors start writing the sorts of mysteries called cozies? OK, three questions: Did the term come into use in the U.S. first, where it might have been a reaction to the hard-boiled style of the pulps from the 1920s onward?

May 10, 2009  
Blogger Dorte H said...

Peter, here is what Wikipedia says:

"Cozy mysteries" began in the late 20th century as a reinvention of the Golden Age whodunnit; these novels generally shy away from violence and suspense and frequently feature female amateur detectives. Modern cozy mysteries are frequently, though not necessarily in either case, humorous and thematic (culinary mystery, animal mystery, quilting mystery, etc.)

detective fiction

May 10, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. "Reinvention" is the key word here, I'd say.

I'd associated cozies with thematic mysteries, but I didn't know if the term predated them.

May 10, 2009  
Blogger Lauren said...

Christie actually gave Poirot as a character a fairly serious police background - there's occasional references to incidents with sharp-shooters etc, and his motto to the (almost) last was always "I don't approve of murder," but I think some of the formulaic elements and personality tics came to overshadow this. So I don't think there's necessarily a recipe for something cozy.

For what it's worth, I've always found Miss Marple novels a really hard slog - odd because I'm quite fond of Poirot, and then Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L. Sayers et al.

I wonder if it's because I have a distinct preference for crime novels involving police officers rather than private detectives. My own definition of 'cozy' has always had an element of 'conseqences are less important', or 'murder as (intellectual) puzzle rather than messy reality' (Apologies to fans but anything of the cats and bakeries line makes me queasy.) So having police characters subverts this to a certain extent, since you wouldn't/couldn't expect deep emotional involvement from them with every case, at least not without an attendant prescription for a nervous breakdown!

May 11, 2009  
Blogger Lauren said...

There's another issue too, in that despite market forces and a world that has definitely changed, certain aspects of human nature are much as they ever were. So just as nineteenth century novels retain their relevance today, I'm not sure there's a need to reinvent the crime fiction wheel the the extent that's sometimes suggested. Yes, Edmund Dantes would probably have been released on DNA evidence (and/or conceivably ended up back inside for behaving badly with all the money that wasn't his!), so you'd need to change the plot elements to make his incarceration more convicing, but the basic ideas of jealousy and revenge still work.

Sometimes I think the pendulum has swung slightly too far in the other direction for enjoyment - if you reject 'cozy' elements entirely, there's a danger of alienating readers who turn to crime novels for either escape or a sense of order restored. Maybe all cops are corrupt, maybe you need a mean man to walk down those mean streets, maybe serial killers run amok and pathetic money-grubbing politicians cover it up...but I can watch the news for that! One reason for reading genre fiction rather than the best of 'literature', whatever that means, is that I'm coming in with certain expectations - and I won't always keep reading if conventions are consistently standing on their head.

One final thought on changing times - 'cozies', and even many more generic crime series with DI Clone and Sergeant Sidekick could be disparaged for treating serious matters lightly...well, the body in the library may not have been done in by the butler with curare from a Ruritanian blowing dart, and today's bullets and baseball bats may not be the Vicar's weapon of choice, but if the body's purpose is still to inspire a literary plot, then how earnest can one really be? Dying in a hail of mafia machine gun fire or at the hands of a gruesome serial killer is equally 'uncozy' but is playing just as (or even more) fast and loose with attitudes to death and voyeurism.

As a reader, I want some connection to reality (perhaps I've led too conventional a life, but people I know don't regularly employ private detectives; bodies don't drop like flies in the same small town; and pastry chefs don't usually stop blackmail between loaves of bread), but I don't think modern realism provides this as much as people think - ultimately, whether the hero is Wallander or Wimsey, I'm escaping via a (for me) consequenceless corpse. Not that I'm not moved on occasion, or driven to fury or helpless laughter, but I look elsewhere for my moral philosophy.

Sorry for the length. Conclusion: I suspect in sticking largely to cops-and-robbers rather than bad-and-worse-civilians there's a certain line (moral? psychological? ostrich?) I'm not willing to cross, and whether you describe that as traditional, cozy-esqe or whatever, the concept's not a bad yardstick.

May 11, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Lauren: Thanks for the insight on Poirot's development. Certainly the tics have come to stand for Poirot in the popular imagination. Interesting, too, your suggestion and Seana's that an author could write both cozies and non-cozies.

Finally, I'm reminded of the sentiment (maybe the crime author Paul Johnston said it) that he'll only read crime stories about recipes and cats if the recipe includes a cat.

Thus, my French verification word: ainsi

May 11, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

My own definition of 'cozy' has always had an element of 'conseqences are less important', or 'murder as (intellectual) puzzle rather than messy reality'That's exactly what I was trying to say earlier. Thanks, Lauren! And thanks for the interesting reflection as well.

I don't think the problem with cozies is the cats necessarily, though I haven't read any of those. I think the cats are just a sign of one temptation for cozies, which is to become 'too' inconsequential. But they don't all cross that boundary by any means.

And of course, you're right--it's all artifice--none of these murders are real. Personally, sometimes I want to be entertained by the gritty slice of life type mystery and sometimes I want something far lighter. I'm glad the range of mystery writing is so broad.

May 11, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"There's another issue too, in that despite market forces and a world that has definitely changed, certain aspects of human nature are much as they ever were. So just as nineteenth century novels retain their relevance today, I'm not sure there's a need to reinvent the crime fiction wheel the the extent that's sometimes suggested."

Lauren, I suspect the need to revinvent the crime-fiction wheel is strongest in the minds of people who market books.

"Sometimes I think the pendulum has swung slightly too far in the other direction for enjoyment - if you reject 'cozy' elements entirely, there's a danger of alienating readers who turn to crime novels for either escape or a sense of order restored. Maybe all cops are corrupt, maybe you need a mean man to walk down those mean streets, maybe serial killers run amok and pathetic money-grubbing politicians cover it up...but I can watch the news for that! One reason for reading genre fiction rather than the best of 'literature', whatever that means, is that I'm coming in with certain expectations - and I won't always keep reading if conventions are consistently standing on their head."
I don't mean to suggest that Raymond Chandler wrote cozies, but he famously suggested that the man walking down these mean streets "is not himself mean."

And I should probably devote more time to this subject than I have available at the moment, but bloody death, gruesome killings and probably realist and naturalist literature itself -- hell, all literature -- is a form of escape.

May 11, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Cats are just a sign...an objective correlative of a desire for comfort and domesticity amid the horror and violence of crime, in other words.

But there must be some crime story out there that features a melevolent cat.

May 11, 2009  
Blogger Lauren said...

Peter, I was trying for a (clearly unsuccessful) play on Chandler by suggesting that those protecting today's mean streets must themselves be at least a little mean, if certain parts of the media - or new narrative models - are to be believed. This seems particularly common in TV crime, I think.

Re: cats, wasn't it The West Wing where one character felt cursed by Bast? The animal certainly has an interesting reputation! And yes, of course blaming the furry creatures is more shorthand than anything else, but I think it's a hard literary sell to have a feline detective. I mean, I'm a fairly tragic fan of the Austrian/Italian series Komissar Rex, where Rex is a dog, but television helps to show that the titular canine's contributions are an adjunct to human action. This is harder in a book, especially when your visual imagination is as wretched as mine.

And finally, I agree that demands for reinvention are often driven by marketing, but I think there's a secondary trend to believe that today's world is different enough to demand new ways of storytelling. I think using the same techniques to tell new stories works too - hence 'new tradition' has a very useful role to play, regardless of the awkward terminology.

Seanag, glad my meanderings proved somewhat interesting!

May 11, 2009  
Blogger Lauren said...

Oh, and on ultimate escapism no matter what the subject matter, some of the reviews of the film Slumdog Millionaire talked about "poverty porn." There seems to be a danger in applying moral judgements to both the works of art and the readers/viewers of anything not earnestly realistic, and I'm really not sure this is helpful - unless we're discussing something seriously beyond the pale. (What's that annoying series set in occupied France?) And the concept of cozies is not.

Word: buzzli - is that the group of literati who come up with new buzzwords?

May 11, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Before this grows too confusing, I will suggest that your play on Chandler was not unsuccessful -- I think. I was suggesting that there is an element of restoring order even in much hard-boiled fiction. In Chandler's case, we often remember the "mean streets" part of the quotation while forgetting that the man who walks those streets "is not himself mean."

Cats are shorthand, just like trenchcoats and dark, rainy cities for a different kind of crime writing.

I won't say that times ever demand different kinds of storyelling, because that's too easy a marketing hook. I will allow, of course, that times may offer the right artists openings to tell stories differently.

May 11, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Lauren, do you mean J. Robert Janes' series, which pairs a French and a German officer in occupied France?

Buzzli is a breakfast cereal opoular in Switzerland that provides an extra kick.

In re escapism, I'd agree that a certain Puritanism seems to work its way into criticism sometimes.

May 11, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

There is at least one malevolent cat I can think of: Poe's.

"I had walled the monster up within the tomb!"

May 12, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's one cat that ought to set its hand to correcting the reputation its species suffers in some crime-reading circles.

May 12, 2009  

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