Saturday, September 22, 2018

Cozy or Noir?


RHYS BOWEN:
I’ve just been working on a Christmas short story (or rather very long story) for my Amazon publisher. And my editor suggested that she wanted a happy ending. It was Christmas. People expected happy endings. And I? I didn’t want to make it into a Hallmark movie in which everyone sits around the fire smiling with love on their faces and gratitude that the whole family is together, returned from Iraq and from fighting Ebola and from battling a rare disease to be in the beloved living room of the crusty patriarch who had formerly driven them away.

Actually that wasn’t my story at all. I can’t tell you the details but my two main characters are both offered what they really want for Christmas and both have the strength to reject it, realizing that what they really want and need is each other. For me that was satisfying enough, but I have conceded to make it a little more heartwarming without being schmaltzy.

So this caused me to examine the books I read and enjoy and yes, it’s true. I do like a happy ending. It doesn’t have to have a Disney conclusion with the bells ringing out and the fawns and rabbits dancing for joy as the happy couple go off to live happily ever after, but I do like to feel myself smiling as I close the book. It can be bitter-sweet. A beloved character can have died. But I want to feel satisfied. 

That’s why I’ve never been a fan of noir. Too often a crime is solved but you know for the characters there will still be no peace in their souls.
I suppose that’s why some of us are cozy writers and others are noir writers: it all comes down to the way we see the universe. I write a universe that is essentially a good safe place but is fractured by a violent crime. My sleuth’s task is to make that universe whole again.

For the noir writer the universe is a place of chaos. When one small part of it is healed through the solving of a murder it remains an unsafe place. I don’t want to live in that universe. I want my world populated with people who are essentially good. Who maybe commit a crime because they have been pushed to breaking point. And I want it to end in a satisfactory way. Justice being served. Broken lives healed. This must mean I’m an optimist, right?

 When I started writing mysteries I got all these reviews that said “This charming book. This delightful story. This charming and delightful series….” And I wanted to be taken seriously so I said to my editor, “In my next book there will be cannibalism, Satanism and strewn body parts.” And she said, “And I bet they will be charming and delightful body parts too.”
You can’t fight it. Your nature directs you to which books you read and write. So it’s interesting that I’ve been fighting for a less happy ending than my editor wanted. Oh no—am I becoming more noir in my old age?

And I'd just like to add that I'm not thrilled about being dubbed a cozy writer. That somehow implies lesser, lighter, therefore not to be taken seriously. I don't understand why one would take a murder in an English village or country house less seriously than one in the backstreets of a city. Surely it is all the more shocking because it is unexpected. 

What about you? Do you believe our own basic nature drives us to see the world and write about it as cozy or noir? And what do you feel about the word COZY?

54 comments:

  1. This is interesting, Rhys.
    Although I can be satisfied with a less-than-perfect ending, sometimes I like that Disneyesque happily ever after. And I definitely like those worlds populated by essentially good people.

    As for that comforting, warm “cozy,” I’m good with it as a description of a story well-told with everything set right again when I reach the final page . . . .

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  2. At the end of the story, Rhys, I want a resolution that makes sense in terms of the story--I hate loose ends, contrived ends, etc. As you said, I want the end to be satisfying and it all ends happily, that's a bonus.

    I don't care for the term 'cozy.' I'm perfectly capable of reading the blurb about a book and deciding if it's the kind of book I want to read. 'Cozy' sometimes seems to imply 'silly,' and I've read plenty of writers whose books are classified as 'cozy' but they explore themes and issues as interesting as any 'noir' or high-faluting literary works.

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  3. I am definitely with you on the notion that crime is a deviation from the general goodness of most people, and the sleuth's job is to restore the order of the universe.

    I think the term "cozy" is a remnant of the sexism that used to keep women out of crime writing all together in the mid-twentieth century. Back in those dark days, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and John D. MacDonald wrote gritty stories about loner detectives working the mean streets of Noir-town, and women were either dangerous dames or spineless victims. Never mind that Agatha Christie practically defined the modern mystery genre. In a publishing world dominated by the shell-shocked survivors of two world wars and the Great Depression, MEN wrote about crime, and crime was dark. They grudgingly allowed women to set pen to paper only if they stayed on the Miss Marple side of the genre. Naturally those men gave it a cute name - cozy - and looked down on it.

    I vividly remember the uproar when Sara Paretsky and Patricia Cornwell broke through with their dark, gritty, and compelling books, and friends who had been stuck in the romance genre felt empowered to try their hands at mystery once more. I also remember the pushback when women wanted to be full-fledged members of Mystery Writers of America, and win awards for their books. Some curmudgeons pushed back so hard, the women started Sisters in Crime to have a support group that welcomed them, rather than shunning them.

    Today, of course, Ingrid can write as grittily as she wants and Jenn can go full cozy with humor and cupcake recipes; we will enjoy them all. I think a good story with compelling characters will win readers over every time.

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    1. Well said, Gigi. I say yes to everything in your comment! Thanks.

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    2. Thank you, Amanda. I wrote it when I let the dogs out at 3 am, and came back just now to see if I'd made any sense at all. Glad I not only made sense, but struck a chord.

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    3. Gigi, when I first joined the MWA board it was all older men who simply tried to talk over us if we made a point. We staged a coup and got rid of them!
      At least women writers are now taken seriously, even if we don't win many Edgars!

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    4. Hear, hear, Gigi, to all of that, and very well said. I have to wonder if those who call Agatha Christie "cozy" have ever actually READ Agatha Christie? The settings, at least for the Marple books, might have been described as cozy, but many of the crimes are truly horrible.

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    5. Gigi, you have nailed it. I so agree that the term "cozy" was meant to demean women's crime writing and prevent it from going noir.

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    6. I never thought that "cozy" was a demeaning term. To me, it is like the PG version instead of R version.

      Now I have a question:
      What would you prefer your mystery be called instead of cozy? Thank you.

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    7. Gigi, you have absolutely hit the nail on the head. I also think that publishing does us no favors by insisting we be team noir or team cozy. Life is full of gray area. I don't think the world is generally all good or all bad; I think it's complicated and nuanced, and context and perspective are extremely powerful.

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    8. Ingrid, so true about life being full of gray areas.

      Diana

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    9. Very interesting, Gigi, and thank you for sharing that. I had no idea. Maybe my ignorance is why I don't find the term "cozy" to be demeaning, although I can certainly understand why some would. I'm so thankful for all the women writers who have worked so hard for us to have a more equal playing field.

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    10. Bibliophile, I think mysteries should be called mysteries. I tend to chafe at genres and categories and subcategories all together.

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    11. Brilliantly stated, Gigi.

      My personal favourites lie somewhere between the two: I found this blog through Julia's and Deborah's books and have been reading my way through the group since. The one thing I have found, overall, is that even with noir a female author's voice is different, and I nearly always prefer it.

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  4. Rhys, I think you are right! Cozy? That's a label I don't need for a book. Actually I don't need any labels, do I? I've enjoyed all kinds of books, even some that are considered noir although I don't seem to gravitate to them often. I just want a damn good book, and yes, with a satisfying ending. And if I am crying at the end I prefer the tears be happy ones and not sad ones.

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  5. I don't write "gritty" or "dark", but I loathe the term "cozy." I write traditional mysteries with many small town elements and an amateur sleuth.

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    1. Is traditional mystery preferrable to cozy mystery?

      Diana

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    2. Diana, cozy is a subset of traditional. What's preferable is totally up to the reader.

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  6. I'm with you, Rhys. My cozies are not frivolous or trivial. They often deal with serious sub-themes beyond the murder. Justice is restored to the village in the end and it becomes, as you say, safe again, which is how I want my world to be. I write the best book I can using the most elegant language I can, as long as it serves the story. (I confess I just finished writing a Christmas novella and sure enough, the last scene is a safe happy Christmas Eve dinner.) All that said, I no longer fight the term cozy. Cozy fans are rabid readers and are my customers. They know I won't violate the pact to keep sex, violence, and obscenities off the page. Gigi might have a point about men inventing the term, but we're beyond that now.

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    1. Edith, I am with you. I enjoy your Quaker midwife series. I did not know that it was the men who invented the term cozy mystery.

      Diana

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    2. I'm delighted. I would call that series "traditional" - but of course it's shelved as historical because it takes place in the past. It can be a bit darker than cozies, but still has an amateur sleuth.

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  7. For me, cozies are simply mystery novels that operate within conventions that restrict what I will find on the page. And I like those conventions a lot when I want a read during which I will be entertained, moved and challenged -- and I know going in that I won't have to read about the actual crime happening, because the convention is that it happens off the page. At least, that's my understanding of the cozy genre.

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    1. that is my understanding of the cozy genre too.

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  8. I agree completely with Gigi when she says, "I think a good story with compelling characters will win readers over every time." I find I return to certain authors not because of a genre label but because they've told a great story. And, I agree with Flora. No contrived, slipshod resolutions at the end!

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  9. Rhys, as I was reading this I thought it the best differentiation between cozy and noir I had come across. kudos.

    Gigi, YES, perfect, and so true. Does anyone else remember the big to do a few years about about cozies are dead? Big houses culled their lists, excellent writers were looking for new venues? Cozies weren't dead, and big houses were wrong, and readers, who are the ultimate decision makers of what is dead and what isn't were quite clear about that. Perhaps what was dead (or dying) was the term cozy and it's implications.

    Rhys is correct. A cozy is a contract with the reader. No graphic violence or sex on the page, an amateur sleuth, or at an amateur protagonist working with the police in an essential way, and a satisfying ending that restores the status quo. Readers at the end of a cozy rarely want to swallow hemlock rather than live another day in the protagonists world.

    Noir makes a contract with the reader too - it's going to be gritty ride and anything can happen. Buckle up, sweetheart. And about that hemlock - well, keep the tree watered, you might need it.


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  10. This is completely fascinating, Rhys! I am so intrigued by the question of “do we want a happy ending… ?”Well, yes, we do! We want to feel satisfied and complete. Just when the audience cheers when I wonderful symphony ends.
    In real life, and I know this sounds odd… There are no happy endings, because we all die. So there are only happy moments, right? Or happy resolutions to a story. So: tender poignant realistic satisfying… Maybe Just? Maybe when there is some sort of justice, that’s what we’re searching for?

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    1. I think we want the happy ending because in real life the crime often goes unpunished, the victim's family left in limbo. We can at least bring justice in our books.

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    2. I like that in books too. With no loose ends, please.

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    3. Yes, I think we read for many reasons, and one of these is to soothe and heal ourselves from the harsh world. So it is satisfying to have justice done, and also to see the humor in human nature.

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  11. So interesting, Rhys. I need a satisfying ending, not necessarily a "happy" one. And for me at least it's not either or, cozy or noir. I like to linger in the a vast territory in the middle.

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  12. I need an ending, happy or otherwise, n cliff hangers. My preference runs to those with an unforeseen twist. And if something is labelled "cozy", it's unlikely that I'll read it. Police procedurals rank high, and I read lot of books that come under the literary novel category, which to me means that it isn't a mystery. Although tell that to Ann Tyler, Donna Tartt, James Lee Burke, Zadie Smith, Ann Patchett, Kate Atkinson, and Shakespeare.

    Presently, completely exhausted from the trip to England in which we stuffed too many things into too few days, I want only entertainment. I have a stack of unread books on my Kindle but have started rereading the Shetland double quartet, about halfway thru. Not that this is light reading, but it is uncomplicated and restful, sort of like crawling back into my recliner was this morning!

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  13. I need a satisfactory ending, though not always a happy ending.

    I usually refer to my tastes in mysteries and thrillers as being a "blood, bodies and bullets" kind of guy.

    "Cozy" used to be a dirty word to me only because the ones I found myself reading just didn't really do it for me. The main character was only confident in life when stumbling over a dead body and then solving the whodunit. The rest of their lives, they were always doormats. People walked all over them book after book after book.

    But then I started finding myself with far more entertaining options when it came to cozy type mysteries. They were, frankly, better written and had characters who had more of a sense of self so that their moments of "weakness" didn't extend for the whole darn length of the series.

    I found myself finding more of this type of cozy when not reading international thrilling derring-do adventures with high body counts. And I can't say enough good things about the Country Store series by the delightfully awesome Edith Maxwell! I've also loved the Ireland set series by Carlene O'Connor and now Sheila Connolly's Irish series as well. Vicki Delany has two cozy series that have been very entertaining too. There are more but I don't want to write forever.


    What I want to read varies depending on my mood. I can read a cozy one day and when I'm done, need an adrenaline fix with something like "Red War" by Kyle Mills (out on Tuesday) or Jack Carr's "The Terminal List". Then I'll go back and read a Barbara Ross Maine Clambake mystery.


    Happy ending or not, my one true expectation is to be entertained. Otherwise, what's the point?

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  14. Happy endings are lovely, but I have issues with two types of endings:

    The ambiguous ones, where you are at the end of the book, and you say "WHAT?!" The ending is written in such a way that one of two or more things could actually have happened, but there's no way of knowing which. That, to my mind, breaks the contract between writer and reader.

    The other ending that grates on my reading nerves is the one where it's painfully obvious that the writer was going to overwrite the allotted word count. They blather on and on for chapters, and the denouement of the story is rushed and crammed into such a small space of prose that it is very unsatisfying. This kind of wrap-up always makes me wonder if the poor editor had just given up by this time.

    Like anything else, some cozies are better than others. I used to read a lot of thrillers, but soured on them after too many used the tired vehicle of putting the woman in jeopardy, or torturing her. I just don't need that in my life, so I stopped reading that genre. It seems there are more cozies than any other kind of mystery, probably because of their series aspect. Any thoughts on this, Reds?

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    1. I've read novels where I thought the author should have stopped a few chapters ago. And I agree about the thrillers. I do not like the women in jeopardy theme. I noticed that there is the series aspect to cozies.

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  15. Rhys, so interesting. I certainly don't think of you as a "cozy" writer. If you catalogued the things that have happened to Molly Murphy in her life so far, would you call any of those events cozy? Georgie's life has not exactly been a barrel of fun, either, if you look at her circumstances without her good humor and optimism. And in the Amazon books, you are dealing with how people deal with war and loss. So if it's the fact that the characters want what most people want, relationships, family, and a reasonable expectation of happy life, and that is what makes the books cozy, I say, "Bah, humbug."

    I've never liked the categorization of books, although I understand that it helps marketing. I do like a satisfying ending, with some sense of order restored or growth in the protagonists, but that doesn't mean it has to be happily ever after into the sunset.

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    1. Excellent points. Maybe the "cozy" label includes so many writers as to have lost its meaning. It's easy to think of "cozy" writers whose work is not similar at all, and who would not attract the same readers.

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  16. I've never been comfortable calling an author's books cozy, because I fear it will make the author unhappy, with them thinking I consider it less of a writing accomplishment. I never consider a cozy less in any way. They are a different way of writing a mystery than a noir or a psychological thriller, but all forms of mystery/crime take talent and hard work to write well. I have an eclectic taste in mystery, and when I was on the reviewers' panel at Bouchercon, I considered myself in the middle of preferred tastes. I like a bit of all, but I will admit that noir is probably less favored than others. I like stories to have some redeeming value, one of the reasons I wasn't a fan of Gone Girl. I do like twists in books, one reason I loved Clare Mackintosh's I Let You Go.

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  17. Rhys, what an excellent topic! To me, cozy means that if there is any violence, it is "off the screen". It is left up to your imagination. Sometimes a noir mystery can be scary though the violence can be left up to your imagination. I think of black and white films when I think of noir mystery novels.

    For me, it does not necessarily have to have a happy ending Hallmark movie style. However, I like a mystery where the mystery is resolved at the end of the book. Sometimes I would reach the end of the novel and we never find out who the killer is, for example. Or there was a lingering mystery that was never resolved at the end. Someone said that is real life. Yes, that is true, though I expect novels to be different. It is frustrating when there is a cliffhanger.

    There is a series I have been enjoying and there are 14 books already and they continue to have one cliffhanger and I am starting to lose interest in the series. It is about a young man who is trying to find out who his biological father is. I'm thinking "enough already!". it is not going to be the end of the series when he finds out. There are always things happening and I think I would enjoy the series more.

    Although I like many cozy mysteries, there are some mysteries that I enjoy that are not quite cozy.

    Diana

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  18. For me , there are good books and bad ones in any genre but "cozy " is not less. I've read many good cozy novels and liked them. I' m not a fan of descriptive sex or violence.
    Put me in a library and I'll first grab a cozy to read the blurb before to take the noir one. And I like resolution in line with the story at the end of the novel.

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  19. Darn, Google ate my comment and then claimed this:
    Input error: Memcache value is null for FormRestoration

    Very helpful.

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  20. Arrghh! It killed the 2nd try, too.

    Luckily, THIS time I saved the text first. Ha!

    3rd try....
    Surely there are many shades of sub-genres between cosy and noir. And many more beyond them at each end.

    But Rhys, I've never thought of the Georgie books as cosy. Too cosmopolitan, for one thing.

    A Royal Threesome? Definitely not cosy.

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    1. i was rather shocked when they came up with that title! It's only 3 books in one

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  21. Well, you know I'm all about the cupcakes and there are no cupcakes in noir unless they're hooker named Cupcake. ;)

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  22. I favor cozies because they have interesting settings and characters without a lot of swearing and graphic details. I don't think they are less just different from noir or thrillers. I dropped a series because they did a Lady or Tiger ending. If I wanted to guess who did it, I'd read the newspaper! Cozies can still deal with serious subjects like human or animal trafficking or drugs. Yes, people should read Agatha Christie's books before commenting. And There Were None is not a cozy! Neither are some of the others.

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  23. I like cozies for the same reason you do. I like to escape the real world. The real world is too noir for me, thank you very much.

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  24. I don't think I've ever read a thread where I've wished so hard for a "like" button!

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  25. Very interesting! I write historical mysteries about real-life rival gangs in 1920s Texas but they're not gory or graphic. My books are often called "cozies" though I prefer the term "soft-boiled" since my series has elements of both types of mysteries (somewhere in between). I don't mind a label since I definitely don't write gritty, noir stories--I'd have nightmares!

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