How does one describe a mystery? Besides being hard or soft-boiled mysteries can also rub shoulders with thrillers, classics, crime, fantasy, espionage, and other genres. Even within the pure mystery genre, there are police, private-eye, amateur sleuth, and other sub-genres.
Years ago, when people used to ask me what I write, I would tell them I wrote mysteries. I would often have to explain that, no, I didn’t write thrillers, horror, or medical suspense. I wrote more old-fashioned mysteries, more like Agatha Christie’s stories; classic whodunits, with a fairly small cast of characters, a clever sleuth, a charming location, and nothing too offensive or graphic. You know; just fun, old-fashioned murder mysteries.
Until one day, someone nodded approvingly and said, “Oh, you write cozies.”
Cozies, I learned, are a subgenre of mystery where the sex and violence happened “off stage,” and the primary focus is on solving the “puzzle” of the crime. So far, so good. I did some research. Stephen D. Rogers (who knows his stuff) even wrote that cozies are “typified by Agatha Christie.” Brilliant. My books apparently had found a home; they were cozies.
But it’s not that simple.
With two completed books, I boldly went to my first writers’ convention. And a prominent agent (who also knows her stuff) promptly informed me that my books were not cozies. Her explanation was that cozies absolutely must have an amateur sleuth (sorry Poirot!) and even though I have an amateur sleuth in my character, Victoria, the presence of the handsome Inspector Riggs disqualifies my books as cozies.
I did a little more research and while I couldn’t find a universal definition, most people in the cozy-loving world seemed to agree (more or less) that cozies should: 1) balance the protagonist’s personal story with the mystery, 2) contain a cat, dog, or some other adorable animal, and 3) should not contain more than two victims per book. That’s 3 strikes agaisnt me. (But only 2 strikes if you happen to consider seagulls “adorable”).
Maybe genres evolve. Maybe it’s a great big world of mysteries and we don’t always define genres the same way. That’s okay. As long as we get to read what we love, right?
These days, if you ask me what I write, I’ll say I write mysteries. If you don’t walk away or change the subject, I’ll probably add that they’re historical (they’re set in the 1950s Seattle). If you’re genuinely interested, I’ll call them “traditional” because readers can sort through clues and red herrings to solve the puzzle of the crime before the hero does. Not too dark or graphic, just fun, old-fashioned murder mysteries.
You can read Roger’s excellent article: From Cozy to Caper: a Guide to Mystery Genres at http://www.writing-world.com/mystery/genres.shtml. And for further insights on the exact definitions of the various mystery sub-genres, just ask anyone who reads mysteries.
The important thing is to remember that it’s your life, so read what you love!