Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor. Where the Bones Are Buried, the fifth book in the series, is in bookstores now . You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at www.jeannematthews.com.
“Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?
By th’ mass, and ‘tis like a camel indeed.
Methinks it is like a weasel.
It is backed like a weasel.
Or like a whale.
Very like a whale.”
Hamlet’s baiting exchange with Polonius is an example of pareidolia, the psychological phenomenon of imagining a man’s face in the moon, or animals in the clouds. The Rorschach test uses pareidolia to elicit a person’s thoughts and feelings by asking what they see when they look at an ambiguous inkblot. This “what is it” exercise reminds me of conversations I’ve had with other authors and readers about the nebulous sub-genre of the mystery novel called the “cozy.” Everyone agrees that it’s not too gritty, not too gory, and not too graphic. Applying the Goldilocks principle, it is “just right” – but just right according to whose perception? Individual readers differ as to which elements qualify, and which disqualify, a book from the cozy definition. I regard my books as traditional mysteries, but I don’t mind when a reviewer labels them cozies. It’s all in the eye of the beholder. The genre has as many shapes as a cloud.
Or a woman. The cozy sleuth is almost always a woman. She is an amateur, intelligent and intuitive, and exceptionally likeable. Her flaws tend to be of the endearing sort, never seriously objectionable. But how warm and cuddly does a heroine have to be to keep within the category? How predictably nice? As in real life, likeability is a subjective thing. I like my sleuth Dinah Pelerin, but she’s undeniably edgy. How edgy is too edgy? She smokes the occasional cigarette and swears when provoked. Not too often. Not too blasphemous. Not too blue. But how blue is blue enough to bump a book out of the cozy neighborhood? Some readers won’t tolerate a lukewarm “damn.” Others don’t mind strong language in an emotionally charged situation. As for the cigarettes, there are readers who can smell the carcinogens wafting off the page. They react almost as if smoking is a more heinous crime than murder.
Cozies tend to be set in a small town or village. Dinah’s village changes from book to book, from the Australian Outback to the Aegean island of Samos to the storied city of Berlin. Wherever she travels, she learns something about the history and culture and politics of the place and, once in a while, she points out what she sees as bigotry or exploitation or injustice. She’s no crusader. She has no agenda, but is a cozy heroine permitted to offer commentary on social issues? Many readers say “Absolutely not.” A cozy is all about escape. Any mention of real-world unpleasantness (apart from the corpse, of course) takes the book out of the comfort zone of the cozy.
One type of cozy is the “themed” or “information” cozy. There are craft mysteries in which the heroine possesses an expertise in quilting, knitting, baking, dressmaking, gardening, interior decoration, or some stereotypically feminine occupation. Readers of craft mysteries know their stuff and the author has to demonstrate considerable know-how to pass muster. There are cat, dog, and even bird themed cozies, most of which feature heroines who are veterinarians or pet sitters. Sometimes, it’s the critter who plays Sherlock to his owner’s Watson. The reader need have no fear that any harm will come to the furry sleuth in the course of the investigation. Critter safety is Rule #1 for authors of such mysteries.
In cozies, there is usually a recurring cast of local characters, particularly the trusted sidekick. The sidekick serves as a sounding board for the heroine and a backup in moments of peril. Since she’s an amateur, the most useful sidekick is someone in law enforcement – someone who can provide information she wouldn’t otherwise have access to. Traveling around as Dinah does, she has had several allies and collaborators. None returned until a sexy Norwegian policeman showed up for an encore in book four, ready and willing to provide forensic knowledge and friendship “with benefits.” He fit the trusted sidekick role to a T. But a teenage drama queen with a penchant for lying and a talent for breaking-and-entering stormed out of an earlier book and snatched the part out from under him. This kid is about as cozy as a pet crocodile and just as trustworthy, and in Where the Bones Are Buried, Dinah finds herself in the position of contributing still further to the delinquency of this unruly minor. Not only is contributing to the delinquency of a minor a crime, it’s a moral failure. Cozy heroines can’t have moral failures, can they? They can’t be corrupting influences. And yet…by the mass, ‘tis very like a cozy.
The late Justice Potter Stuart declined to define pornography, but in a famous Supreme Court opinion he declared, “I know it when I see it.” Ditto, the cozy.