Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Trending Cozy Mysteries

According to those who know, and don’t ask me who they are, cozy mysteries first gained popularity with that master of the whodunit, Agatha Christie in the early 20th century.

Ms Christie had two main characters, the professional private detective and the little old lady with a sharp mind and an extensive knowledge of human nature. Her stories were contemporary, though now fall into the ‘historical’ genre, and many types of cozy mystery novels have evolved since then.

Everyone likes a puzzle, especially when the most work needed to solve it, is to read to the end. More dedicated readers will try and work out the clues as they go along in an effort to beat the author to the punch.

Interestingly, Ms Christies’ novels rarely provided the appropriate clues to do so – she tended to reveal the connections in the final round up of suspects and pull the proverbial bunny out of the hat. A bunny no one knew existed.

Arguably, cozies sell better in a series, where a reader becomes familiar with a specific sleuth, and follow his/her adventures  chasing a variety of villains round the town where they live and/or work.

One series I particularly enjoy which conforms to this model are Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone , where her heroine's relationships with partners/mothers/cousins neighbours and quirky friends while they are crime fighting adds greatly to the appeal. Crime is an important part of the charm but characterisation, the personal struggles of the sleuth and thus familiarity is paramount.

Another favourite is Harlan Cobens’ Mylon Bolitar; a former sportsman turned sports agent who solves crimes as well – mostly because his clients get themselves involved in all sorts of scrapes he has to get them out of. Myron has a fascinating backup team, Win Lockhorn, a wealthy high functioning sociopath, and a Mexican bombshell assistant/secretary Esperanza Diaz. 

Tastes and styles change of course, and Agatha Christie’s style of writing would never get past a slush pile now [slush pile? Aren’t they disappearing fast too?] Like Ellery Queen, and Sherlock Holmes - not the new TV series, that’s a masterpiece in its own right and doesn’t count – I refer to the original Arthur Conan Doyle books.

One of the early styles is the solving of a seemingly impossible puzzle which is solved by the cunningly clever detective to the amazement of his audience. Of my favourite Agatha Christie's is where Hercule Poirot discovers how Sir Gervase Chevenix-Gore was shot inside a locked study.

The intellectual mystery became less popular in the 1940’s, giving way to the study of the criminal mind and serial killers. The crime fighter tended to be a professional, a detective or an intellectual who had to work out how the killer’s mind worked and get to the next victim before he did. [And serial killers are mostly men, which says a lot about the difference of the sexes]

Then there is the courtroom procedural, where the crime itself is secondary; the real action being how the lawyers present their case for the defence and get them off, or not, in the face of damning evidence.

Then there is the forensic scientist, who in the absence of human witnesses, puts a case together a tiny scrap of metal from a car, a cigarette butt or a drop of blood that takes them in the right direction – most of the story being carried out in a science laboratory. These tend to drift away from the ‘cozy’ label in that they also examine the mind of the killer, like Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs, but they satisfy our need of gruesome details by descriptive morgue scenes!

Are these cozies? I hear you ask? These are real men with real guns going after the bad guys, not WI members who bake cupcakes between finding villains [My apologies to the WI – that was just a generalisation]

In fact yes, because the ‘crime’ is usually over in chapter one and there is no ‘psycho’ aspect to it. No gore, detailed insight into the killers’ twisted mind and no nasty description of how the crime was committed and the fun the killer had doing it.

My question now is what’s popular – or rather what can I get written, edited and out on the bookshelves while readers still want to read it?  Clues anyone?


Petrea Burchard said...

I suggest you don't worry about what's popular now. By the time you get it out there the trend will have passed. Write what you're passionate about and you'll do well.

Having said that, I'll add that mysteries of all kinds are always popular.

Lisa Elm said...

Just write a great story and let the shelves take care of themselves.