Cozy Up to the Bar, Pal

Jeffrey Cohen

I write "cozies."

That’s what people tell me, anyway.  When I wrote my first novel (entirely by accident–it’s really a screenplay gone horribly wrong) in 2001, and then had the unmitigated gall to show it to people in the publishing business, I was told that it was a "cozy."

This was a surprise to me, as I thought a cozy was something you put under a teapot, and I don’t drink tea.  No, they said, a cozy is a mystery story in which there is little or no gore (Al, Vidal or otherwise), no one uses "bad language," (which apparently doesn’t mean ending one’s sentence with a preposition) and there isn’t any sex.

All in all, cozies didn’t sound like much fun, but that wasn’t what bothered me.  When I looked over the book, and saw that a character is almost run over by a car, then shot repeatedly, that a major subplot hinges on the use of what has apparently become known as "the F bomb," and the main character and his wife, not to mention other characters in the book, had sex on a fairly regular basis, I figured my book was really an "Uncomfortable," or at the very least, a "Slightly Irritating."  Apparently not.

See, I thought I had written a comedy.  Granted, it was a comedy that had a murder and an investigation of the crime, but then, so did Charade, and I don’t recall anyone calling that a "cozy."  I wasn’t even sure I’d written a mystery novel so much as a pastiche of one, but the publisher told me it was a mystery, and I certainly had nothing against the word, so I agreed it was exactly that.  It was the "cozy" part that was throwing me off.

I’d never heard the term used that way before.  In college, during Detective Fiction class, I remember hearing about "hardboiled" detectives, and that was certainly a descriptive phrase, but if those stories were all about how some woman or another could reduce the hero to a quivering mass of gelatin, perhaps these heroes needed another minute or two in the boiling water.  And I loved The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep and all the Chandler/Hammett books. If those guys were hardboiled, what was Robert B. Parker’s Spenser?  Over easy?

That wasn’t the thing that bothered me, though.  You want to buy my novel and call it a cozy, be my guest.  If you want to buy my novel and call it an orangutan, you have my blessing.  Just buy the darned thing.  (Oops–that’s a little too cozy a word.  Buy the goddam thing, then.)

I wrote the book without grisly violence (except a little in one scene) because I thought graphic pain would get in the way of the jokes.  It’s hard to laugh when someone’s intestines are being pulled out, unless you have a really odd  sense of humor.  I wrote it with whatever profanity felt natural to the characters.  If they’d been gangsta rap musicians, they probably would have spoken differently, but I wasn’t gettin’ jiggy wit dat, yo.  I’m pretty sure.  I wrote the book without a lot of explicit sex because, well, my mother reads this stuff, for goodness sake.

What bothered me, once I got more familiar with the subgenres and the publishing industry in general, was the perception that cozies are not the kind of thing that a true "red-blooded" man would write.  Apparently, you can eat all the quiche you want, but Real Men Don’t Write Cozies.  Since I’ve been a man for quite some time, and I’m relatively sure I’m real, this was worrisome.

So, I took it upon myself to investigate the Cozy Caper.  Find out whether one’s masculinity was truly in question if one wrote a book that aimed to make people laugh without buckets of blood, torrents of curse words and enough sex to make Paris Hilton blush.  I consulted with other writers of cozies, like David Skibbins, Parnell Hall and Jeffrey Marks.  We met at the Malice Domestic conference, where cozies are called "Traditional Mysteries," and the ratio of women to men is about the same as at some of the colleges we should have gone to if we’d had half a brain.  We had invited Mr. Parker, Harlan Coben and J.A. Konrath, but each of them said their books weren’t cozies, they weren’t at the convention, and we should leave them alone.

We met in the bar.  Each of us ordered a beer, although one of them was lite (I don’t remember which one, but it might have been mine).  We adjusted our pants a lot, talked about The Game (although I’m not sure which sport we were discussing) and looked around for a spittoon, but there was none.  We referred to women as "chicks," called each other "dude" a lot and went off later to have steaks cooked rare.  We never did get around to discussing cozies.  But I remember a heated discussion centered around whether something or another "tasted great" or was "less filling."

(By the way, none of this ever happened.)

This didn’t help at all, I decided after the hangover went away.  But I couldn’t think of anything else to do.  A seance calling on the spirit of Agatha Christie seemed a little much.  I emailed Marilyn Stasio for clarification, but apparently the restraining order extends to computer communication, as well.  So I’m stuck for an explanation.

It’s enough to make a guy commit violence, swear and then try to have sex with someone.  Or so I’m told.  But I’ve made my peace with it.  In fact, you could say that right now, I’m downright…

Never mind.

8 thoughts on “Cozy Up to the Bar, Pal

  1. JDRhoades

    Heh. Good entry. This whole subgenre thing does get tiresome after a while. Cozy? Thriller? Noir? Hardboiled?

    And I must confess, I was an insufferable noir snob for a while. Hopefully I got over it, thanks to William Kent Krueger.

  2. Lorraine T.

    Super! Wonderful! My kind of writer, writing my kind of mysteries. Violence is fine, naturally someone has to die, but a blow by blow description detailing every spurt of blood is icky and sex is fine too, but a what-to-call-it, caress by caress description is unnecessary. Us mature types who favor cozies, vaguely remember what it’s all about and don’t need graphic reminders. And if a cozy can provide a few laughs, that’s a grand bonus!

  3. JT Ellison

    Jeff, you’re too funny. This is a great post. I think there is some prejudice going on. If a man can write a cozy as well as a woman can write a thriller, neither should be judged for their choices.

  4. Pari

    Don’t get me started on the subgenres. I used to use the word “cozy” to describe my work until I met with that snobbism you mention.

    Now, I use “traditional” and it still feels inadequate.

    I understand the need for labels but they irritate the heck out of me.

    Oh, wait, I didn’t want to get started on this . . .argh.

  5. Mark Terry

    Excellent post, Jeff. Yeah, you write cozies, no doubt, and I’ve had my hand in at least one–Catfish Guru, although some readers and critics quibble and argue that it’s really a kind of quasi-procedural. Of course, Dirty Deeds, by some standards, is a cozy, in that the character is an amateur sleuth, and she doesn’t actually have sex with anybody, although she swears just as much or less than I would if someone blew up my vehicle with somebody in it.

    By some standards Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware novels are cozies, and by some they clearly are not.

    It feels like breakfast cereal, and “You should eat this, it’s supposed to be good for you.” As a rule, I’m not a fan of cozies. Except, well, yours; and Parnell Hall’s, and I read a good one by a guy named Linwood Barclay, and another one by Roberta Isleib about a pro golfer, and… well, once I get started, I realize I’ve read a lot I liked. And a lot of PI novels I’ve liked. And thrillers. And procedurals.

    I try not to limit myself, and wish publishers wouldn’t either. But I suppose it’s at least moderately useful to booksellers so they know what section of the store to stick the books in.

    Best,Mark Terrywho clearly is writing thrillers these days, when he’s not writing

  6. Jeff Cohen

    There’s not much to tell yet, Naomi, but thanks for asking. The first book in the Comedy Tonight series (scheduled for 2007) is called SOME LIKE IT HOT BUTTERED, and concerns itself with Elliot Freed, owner of a small New Jersey movie theatre that shows only comedies–one classic, one contemporary each week. When a patron drops dead during a showing of Young Frankenstein, and it’s determined that he died of poisoned popcorn, Elliot takes it personally and decides to investigate. There will be two other books in the series, and I really should start to think about what they’ll be about. I’ll keep you posted.


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