The term “cozy” was first used to describe a particular type of mystery fiction in 1958, when it appeared in a review in the Observer, Great Britain’s oldest Sunday newspaper. Since then, the word has proven to be useful to both readers and critics. However, it has acquired several slightly different meanings, so care must be taken in its use and interpretation. For example, some critics equate “cozy” works with those that are considered “traditional” within the genre, thereby emphasizing the fact that this kind of fiction developed during the early days of mystery fiction and flourished in what has come to be known as the Golden Age. Other critics quite appropriately describe such fiction as “cozy/domestic,” for usually much of the action takes place within homes, whether they be great country houses, modest vicarages, or temporary abodes, such as the train in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (1934). Moreover, although there may be serious consequences at the national or even the international level when persons of high standing in society are accused of criminal behavior, at their core novels about such cases typically involve personal sins and private enmities.
Like comedies of manners, which in many ways they resemble, cozy mysteries are traditional in that they are light in tone. Their appeal is intellectual rather than emotional. They are filled with the kind of wit and humor, even satire, that one would find in a play by an eighteenth century British playwright such as Richard Brinsley Sheridan or Oliver Goldsmith. Even though they necessarily involve murders, cozy mysteries are not meant to stir readers emotionally. Violence is kept offstage, and gory descriptions of bodies are avoided. Within a cozy mystery, a pool of blood is simply that—a pool of blood. Emotionalism is also avoided in that while sexual involvements may be mentioned, there are no scenes of explicit sex.
Cozies also resemble comedies of manners in that their authors’ intentions are to deal with lapses from an ideal order. Within this context, murder is simply another example of bad manners. When murderers are exposed and expelled, the closed societies in which cozy/domestic/traditional mystery novels are set can return to normal. As a result, cozy mysteries always conclude on optimistic notes. Thus, they simultaneously provide intelligent readers with intellectual challenges while enabling them to escape from a world in which the news always seems to be troubling.
Amateur Crime-Solvers vs. Professional Criminals
Crimes and criminals began to appear in novels and in short stories as soon as those genres were invented. The original picaresque novel, written by an unknown Spanish author, La vida de Lazarillo de Tormes (1554; The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes: His Fortunes and Adversities, 2005) is the story of an amoral trickster living by his wits. Transplanted to England, the form was used by Daniel Defoe for novels such as Moll Flanders (1722). That picaresque novel’s title character is a thief and occasional prostitute who is caught, imprisoned, and transported to Virginia but nevertheless ends up so wealthy that she can afford to repent of her sins.
The early nineteenth century American writer Edgar Allan Poe is usually credited with inventing modern detective fiction, and it is generally agreed that Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin, who first appeared in the short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in 1841, was the first important amateur sleuth in English literature. Significantly, both Dupin and the anonymous narrator of Poe’s story lodge in a large, gloomy Parisian mansion, the same kind of setting that would later be used in countless mysteries called cozies. It is also significant that most detectives in early cozy mysteries were amateurs, like Dupin. In Poe’s other Dupin stories, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” (1842) and “The Purloined Letter” (1844), he has professional policemen turn to the amateur for assistance. This pattern would become a staple of the...
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