Recently, I had a very interesting comment exchange with Maxine from Petrona about what “counts” as a cozy mystery. Our exchange highlighted the fact that when it comes to crime fiction, there aren’t always easy categories and definitions. Of course, it makes sense that that would be so in a genre where frequently, things aren’t what they seem. Some authors and novels do tend to fall rather neatly into one or another subgenre, but very often, that’s not the case. That’s why (and this is just my opinion, so feel free to differ with me), it’s probably more productive to think about whether a particular author or novel is a well-written crime novel rather than whether it’s billed as a cozy, a police procedural, a noir thriller, or something else.
There are some authors whose work seems to be a clear example of a particular subgenre. For example, M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth series, Joanne Fluke’s Hannah Swensen series, Lilian Jackson Braun’s early Cat Who… novels, Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, and Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover series are all well-written examples of the cozy mystery. Cozies focus on interesting, sometimes quirky characters, inter-relationships among the characters and of course, a sleuth who uses her or his ingenuity to solve the mystery. They don’t tend to be graphic and they don’t typically feature dark themes. While they don’t have to take place in small towns, they often do.
What’s interesting about the cozy genre is that its definition has been expanded to include several authors that aren’t so clearly “cozy” writers. One example (and thanks, Maxine, for this thought) is Colin Cotterill. He’s been called a “cozy” mystery writer, but his Dr. Siri series is certainly not light reading. Since Dr. Siri is a medical examiner, the cases that he encounters are often more graphic than one would think of for a cozy mystery, and the themes that Cotterill explores are often darker than are typical for a cozy mystery. Another example of a series that isn’t so clearly cozy is M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin series. While the murders in that series aren’t graphically described, Beaton does explore slightly darker themes than one sees in her Hamish Macbeth series, and in some ways, one can argue that the Agatha Raisin novels are a little “gritty” for a cozy mystery. There are, of course, lots of other examples of authors whose work is called cozy, but who don’t write clearly cozy novels.
Another category name that’s commonly used in crime fiction is the police procedural. Police procedurals generally focus on a sleuth who’s a member of the police force, and in them, we learn the details of how murders are discovered, detected and solved. Police procedurals are sometimes light; Rhys Bowen’s Constable Evans series is an example of this. Other times, they can be darker. Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano series and Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series are solid examples of police procedurals with some dark elements to them.Some of Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley/Sergeant Havers novels explore very dark themes. So do some of Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford novels. Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse series isn’t always dark, but in that series, we also see a clear example of police procedural novels.
You would think that it would be easy to categorize police procedurals, but it’s not as simple as it seems at first. For example, Ian Rankin’s John Rebus series is certainly a police procedural series in that those novels include details about police investigation that we expect in procedurals. It’s partly those investigation details that lead to the killer, and we get to see the “inside” of a police station, as we do in other procedurals. And yet, the Rebus novels could just as easily be categorized as “hardboiled” detective fiction. Rebus is, in many ways, an anti-hero, as is typical for “hardboiled” novels. He’s a loner who has no problem bending and breaking rules if it’s going to lead to the solution of a mystery. Again, that’s typical of “hardboiled” novels. So is the level of violence and the treatment of dark themes that we see in many Rebus novels.
Martin Edwards’ Lake District series is sometimes classified as a police procedural series. One of his sleuths, DCI Hannah Scarlett, leads a Cold Case Review team, and we learn a lot about the police work involved in investigating crime in those novels. And yet, Edwards’ other sleuth in the series is Daniel Kind, who’s an Oxford historian and amateur sleuth. On that score, some people have also categorized this series as a cozy series, especially since much of the action takes place in small towns and involves the kind of characterization we see in cozies. On the other hand, some of the themes that Edwards treats in these novels are much darker than one sees in the “typical” cozy, and there’s more violence, too, than one sees in a “typical” cozy.
My own Joel Williams series might be called a police procedural series, since Williams works with the local police force (although he doesn’t do so officially), and the murders he helps solve are investigated with police techniques. Williams himself is a former police officer, too, so it makes sense to call the series a procedural series. And yet, my sleuth is an amateur; he’s a college professor. I don’t tend to write graphic, violent scenes, and the themes I explore aren’t as dark as the ones explored in other police procedurals. So, some people have told me that the Williams series is a cozy series.
Private detective novels aren’t any easier to classify neatly than are police procedurals. The one thing they all happen to have in common is that the sleuth is in private practice, hired by someone to solve or prevent a crime. But there are many kinds of private detectives, so it’s really not easy to categorize the genre. For instance, Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe is a private detective. That series is, by most people’s standards, a cozy series. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is a private detective, too. Christie’s work’s often classified as “cozy,” although it may not be as simple as that. M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin is a private detective, also, and those novels are arguably cozies, too, although again, that may not be clear-cut. On the other hand, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, John D. McDonald’s Travis McGee and Peter Temple’s Jack Irish are private detectives, too. Those series have often been categorized as “hardboiled” mysteries. Those are only a few examples, but it may be that there is no neat “category” for the private detective genre.
Classic mystery fiction isn’t always easy to categorize, either. For example, many people think of Agatha Christie as a writer of cozy fiction. Her Miss Marple novels could certainly be categorized that way. Yet, in novels such as Passenger to Frankfurt and in her Tommy and Tuppence Beresford novels, Christie’s work falls arguably closer to the spy subgenre. In some of her Hercule Poirot novels, there are strong elements of the police procedural. That’s arguably the case in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and The Murder on the Links, among others.
The same is true of Ellery Queen’s work. Most people classify the Ellery Queen novels as Golden Age detective fiction, and they certainly are. They’ve also been classified as private detective novels. They are that, too. But there’s also an argument that many of them are police procedurals. In several novels, we get a strong dose of the routine of police investigation. There are also several novels and, especially, short stories, that one could classify as cozies, although most people don’t think of Ellery Queen as a cozy series.
The question is, then: if mystery subgenres aren’t as “neat” as we’d like, why do we use them? One reason is that it’s very natural for humans to categorize. We want to organize, because research shows that’s how we add new information to what we already know. Another reason is that it’s easier for authors, publishers, booksellers and book reviewers to let readers know about books if they can use categories.
What’s your view? Do you have a subgenre preference? If you do, do you also enjoy books that don’t fall neatly into that category? Which are your favorite “crossover” authors?