Monday, January 4, 2010

What do you call that thing?

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?


  1. I love this topic Margot. I've been looking at genre categories academically and I confess to not being much more clear on the subject than when I began. As a reader I make a personal catagorization of sorts because I can't help myself.

    You didn't mention thriller and suspense and adding those really muddies the waters. And you can add "psychological" and get a different sub-genre - "This is a novel of psychological suspense".

    In your discussion of cozies I think you hit on the point that our definition of what goes into a genre evolves. Like cozie, hardboiled has evolved considerably since Carroll John Daly created Race Williams. I wouldn't have thought to put Travis McGee or Spenser into the hardboiled genre but there you go. John G. Cawelti's Adventure, Mystery, and Romance is an interesting text for examining formulas.

    Personally I look for a well written book which is why I can enjoy a book like Susan Hill's Various Haunts of Men because of its look at -what did one of her characters say? - middle England and also enjoy fast-paced and violent crime thrillers such as Roger Smith's Wake Up Dead.

    Publishers manipulate genres for book store placement. It seens the more popular an author becomes the more likely he or she is to be placed in general fiction in book stores rather than the mystery section. I've learned to look in both places.

  2. I still haven't figured out why some suspense novels are shelved with general fiction and some thrillers are shelved with mysteries. It's pretty confusing. Like Mack, I have to check out both sections in bookstores and libraries to find what I want.

  3. Mack - You are absolutely right that adding categories such as thriller and suspense makes the whole question of categories even more difficult to answer. That, I admit, is one reason for which I didn't bring them in. Let's face it; even if you look at only one category, there are all kinds of books and authors that might or might not fit within that category, depending on how one defines it. Since you've spent time studying this particular question, I'm glad you took the time to comment.

    You're also right that the definition of what counts as "hardboiled" has evolved over timie, just like the other genres have. It could be that, as more people have created different kinds of mysteries, the category definitions have broadened and changed to accommodate them. Whatever the reason, the distinctions among the different sub-genres of mystery aren't as clear as they used to be, and there is certainly more variety in each subgenre than there ever was.

    As you say, for a reader, this means that one can read a violent noirone week, and a light comic mystery (another nebulous category I didn't mention) the next, and thoroughly enjoy both. It also means that one has to be willing to look in more than one place in a bookstore for a title or author...

    Patricia - You and Mack bring up a very interesting point about placement in bookstores. When I went to our local bookstore to look for Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, I found it in general fiction, not in the mystery, thriller or suspense sections. I found Conan Doyle in the literature section, and I found Louise Penny in the mystery section when I returned there. That's just a quick example, too. Oh, and that's not counting the "local authors" section, which also features mysteries at times.

  4. I've given up trying to categorise the books I read. I tried for a while on the blog but I read several books in a row where I couldn't make up my mind so I've officially given up. In some ways I don't think it helps much because there's still such a variety within a category. For example I quite like a cosy if I don't feel in the mood for blood and gore but I like the funnier ones that don't focus too much on the romantic element. There's no sub-sub genre for those :)

  5. Great post and topic, Margot!

    I prefer writing cozies, but I read just about everything. In mysteries, I read mainly police procedurals and cozies.

    I read other genres, too, but not as much. Oh, and I read a lot of nonfiction, too.

    I don't mind the subgenre-ing of books too much..I have so little time that the categorizing helps me get a better idea of what I'm going to read. When I'm writing, I lean toward police procedurals...if I read cozies then I feel insecure about my own WIP.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  6. I think a "cozy" mystery is one that somewhere in the book you're going to laugh, if not once, several times. To me that's what makes it cozy. It's a murder, but it's not morbid reading. It's like comparing Myrtle (wonderful character Elizabeth) in Pretty is as Pretty Dies to Eve Dallas in J.D. Robb's series. Both solve murders. One's an amateur and one's a cop. One is a cozy mystery and the other is a thriller suspense. Both are great characters and good books.

    I guess you're right, as humans we have to put things in a category. But in doing so sometimes people don't see all the books they should. A book may be listed under only one category, when it really falls under two or three.

    If you're a reader focused on reading just one category of books you sometimes miss out on some good ones because they are listed in the wrong category.

    Thought provoking post as well. Thanks.

  7. Bernadette - It's probably just as well that you're not overly focused on categorizing books you read. For readers of your exellent (check it out, folks!) blog, it's probably much more informative to read your description of the book than it is to think about whether it's a cozy, a thriller or something else. And, as you say, too often, one reads a book and wants to comment on it, but there's no subgenre. Hard to decide what to do in those cases, anyway.

    Elizabeth - I know exactly what you mean about feeling insecure about one's own WIP; I get that way, too! You make a good point that it can be very helpful to have some sort of general category system, if for nothing else than to help one choose a book when one's in a big hurry. A general category helps one save a lot of time, and it does narrow down the almost-infinite list of books there are : ).

    Mason - I agree - Elizabeth's Myrtle Clover is a great character! It's interesting that you bring in humor. I think you have a well-taken point that cozies tend to have a lot more humor than do darker books. Of course, that brings up the very interesting discussion of what counts as "funny," too..... As you say, though, the different subgenres have so many different kinds of sleuths; that's what makes the mystery/crime fiction genre so interesting!

  8. I like a story with good atmosphere and characters and one that is not just a puzzle. I want the crime and its solution to come out of character. I don't want gimmicks. It should read exactly like a literary novel except there is a crime involved.

  9. Patti - You bring up such an interesting point! Many people argue that crime fiction should be considered literature, and there's a lot of merit to that argument. Of course....not everyone agrees, but your point is well-made. When a crime fiction novel is well-written, it is a work of fiction-literature in which a crime is involved.

  10. Thank you so much Margot, for confusing me even more. I live with this dilemma when it comes to my manuscript. Yes, it's a mystery (duh), but is it a cozy? It meets some of the criteria. Is it a historical mystery? Duh again; although I still think of historical as something more than a hundred years ago. Is it psychological suspense? Maybe; if I've written it well enough. Oh, I don't know. Is it too early to drink?


  11. Elspeth - I know exactly what you mean, as I run into the same challenge with my own work. I may be wrong about this, but I see no reason why a mystery can't fall into more than one category. Your book, for instance, can be both a historical mystery and a cozy, right? Why not? Why can't it be those two things and a psychological suspense novel? Many of Agatha Christie's are. The important point is that it will be a well-written mystery. The rest is, arguably, more a matter of semantics.

  12. I agree with everyone in that I think it is not possible to categorise a novel (of any kind) cleanly, unless it is so formulaic that nobody would read it!
    One point that is made sometimes in these discussions is that Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins (for example) would be categorised as "crime fiction" if they were writing today, whereas of course they are regarded as "classic literature" in most present-day categorisations.

    I have read novels that weren't "categorised" as crime fiction but might as well have been. The two examples I usually give are The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penny (which won not only the Costa award for best novel of its year, but the "Costa of Costas" that year for best overall book, as well as winning the Theakston's Old Peculiar Crime award at Harrogate the year after, ie "mainstream" and "genre" awards); and The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield, marketed by Random House (very heavily!) as "mainstream fiction" but when I read it, it could just as easily have been classified "crime fiction". Other books that defy categorisation between "crime" and "mainstream" are What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon. I highly recommend all four of these wonderful books, incidentally.

    I think of "cozies" as being somewhat formulaic; of glossing-over the pathological details of the crimes; often with an amateur detective or small-town/closed setting (as you've pointed out in another post, Margot); often with a touch of humour, either obvious or subtle; and often a series that does not have a lot of character development from book to book, as if the reader is comfortable reading something rather similar every year.

    However, I do concur that one simply cannot categorise books (or anything!). Categorisations are notoriously subjective. I try to provide subject categories for the books I review when I archive them, but as Bernadette says it is very hard, probably I am not even self-consistent. One can give a rough idea, but probably what I might call a thriller or noir, someone else would not.

    Bookshelves in stores are a whole other story. I often find copies of the same book in crime and mainstream fiction - and wonder if this is deliberate or accidental. At least one does not have this problem with Amazon and other online bookstores!

  13. Maxine - Thanks for those terrific examples of books that are billed as mainstream fiction, but really could be called crime fiction. They really highlight so clearly the point that it's hard to categorize anything neatly. It also supports a point that I've read in more than one blog that too often, crime fiction isn't considered literature when the truth is, some of it should be.

    I understand completely what you mean about categorizing when you review, although I don't really do reviews, myself. I've read different reviews of the same book by different people, all of whom refer to the book in a different subgenre. That's why I respect reviews like yours and Bernadette's where the reviewer gives enough infomration about the novel so the reader can decide what the subgenre is - without spoiling the story, of course : ).

    You've also hit on one reason for which it can be much easier to find what one's looking for online rather than in a bookstore (much as I love bookstores). There's much less difficulty establishing whether a particular online dealer carries a book one wants; either it's there or it's not, usually. It's an interesting question whether booksellers place their books in two different areas deliberately; I sometimes think they do. My husband's background in marketing has taught me that merchandise is often placed in more than one location to generate more sales. No reason that shouldn't happen with books.

  14. That's a good point about review categorisations, I think, Margot. I think that as authors are increasingly writing for this overcrowded market (encouraged by publishers to write "crime fiction" as it is popular at the moment), some of them are doing quite deliberate "mash ups", eg Nigel McCreary's "Core of Evil" (aka Still Waters)- my review is here: . One of the most succesful aspects of that book for me was the way that the author wrote a "cozy" mystery as a police procedural/noir - or do I mean vice versa?

    I agree with you about online vs real bookstores. Like most people I love browsing in bookstores but unfortunately, if one likes reading books that aren't "current bestsellers" or part of the standard stock of the shop, one is almost forced online. I find this for translated fiction. Even stores (eg Waterstones) that have a good selection only carry a relatively small number of titles. So one is really forced to go online. I always check out a web resource first, though, before ordering on Amazon or wherever (eg the Euro Crime dbase or Fantastic Fiction which is not as accurate, but still quite good), so that I get the order right, and title substitutions, etc. Online bookstores are really quite bad on these kind of professional details (for example Amazon does not give date of first publication, only the edition, and often the only indication of a title change is if one of the external reviewers has noted it. I once ordered a Pirates of the Caribbean book for one of my children when they were younger - and what arrived was the music score! Funnily enough, they loved it. But I did go back and write a warning on the Amazon page!)

  15. A very fine point!

    I have learned to check, before I call a novel ´cozy´. When I began blogging, I used the term very losely about all the crime novels I enjoyed, particularly the ones with a strong sense of (country or small town) environment. It sometimes confused my readers who made judgements based on the plots, and some of mine were rather gritty!

    I have probably said it before, but though I tend to prefer police procedurals, I love a varied diet so whenever I have read a handful of one subgenre (or language, or theme, or setting), I enjoy switching to something else.

    NB: I just realized today that somehow I had quite forgotten you when I wrote my list of new authors the other day. My only excuse is that I wrote it in a hurry. I have added you immediately, of course, but I am really sorry I left you out, because you are not only a great author, but also such a good and reliable blog friend!

  16. Dorte - How kind of you to include me in your list of new authors : ). And to say such nice things, too! I am quite flattered and honored. Please don't worry about leaving me out at first. Believe me, I know all about being flurried and harried. I'm just so - chuffed is the best word - that you included me at all.

    That said, I think you have a good point about what one calls a cozy. Many people associate cozies with a small-town or rural environment, perhaps some humor, and so on. Some novels have some of those qualities; yet, they couldn't really be called cozy. For instance, I think of Louise Penny. Some people call her work cozy; others think it's too gritty to be cozy. That's why I so much value the reviews of folks like yourself who are thoughtful and detailed about what they write, so that others can make informed decisions.

    That's also why it's such a good thing that there's such a variety of crime fiction out there. As you say, when we tire of one subgenre, there are always others : ).

  17. Rex Stout was writing an early mash-up with Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin ... a brilliant armchair detective whose right-hand man was a hardboiled(ish) private eye.

    My favorites among the classic mysteries are those with a puzzle -- but also populated by characters I enjoy spending time with.

  18. Oh - and a more recent mystery series that comes to mind is Christopher Fowler's Bryant & May ... which some might be tempted to categorize as "police procedural" because the lead characters are (usually) employed by the police department. But the cases they get are so bizarre -- as are the methods of the lead detectives -- that these mysteries are more a tribute to the classic mysteries of John Dickson Carr and the like. And the lead characters are a hoot! The author is definitely having fun pushing against the boundaries of all sorts of sub-genres.

  19. I stopped by your blog today. Very well covered. Thanks for the definitions. I think the modern cozies have a little more personal crisis thrown in for the protagonist which differs from the Agatha Christie cozies. Thanks for summing it all up.
    Ann Summerville
    Cozy In Texas