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Monday, March 22, 2021

Cozy Mystery Tropes: The Good, Bad, and the Ugly

There are many tropes ("a common or overused theme or device" Merriam Webster) in the cozy mystery genre.  Here I will compile the tropes I know of and a little about what is good and/or bad about them for consideration.  I certainly am not a final say and these are just my thoughts on them for consideration.  

Let's begin with the broad definition of what makes a cozy mystery a cozy.  IngramSpark's blog "What is a Cozy Mystery and Why is it So Popular?" gives us this definition:

 "The tone of a cozy should be upbeat, optimistic and light-hearted. The setting should be the kind of place that the reader might long to live in or to choose for their vacation."

That is a fairly wide open definition that provides plenty of room for an author to be creative while still being a cozy.  A more strict definition will state there is an amateur (usually a woman) investigating a crime, there should be no blood, guts, or gore and definitely no on-page sex, swearing is anathema along with overt violence.  Don't ever hurt an animal or a child in a cozy either! Oh, and the setting should be a small community of some sort to keep suspects limited.  That is the more specific elements of a cozy mystery and what's acceptable.

But, you knew there would be a "but", the cozy genre seems more defined by unofficial guidelines anymore in the form of tropes.  Some of the tropes have been good for the genre, and others I feel aren't helpful.

Somewhere in most cozies today, you will read the amateur sleuth repeatedly admonished, harangued, and downright hounded to not sleuth - don't even consider the possibility of asking even somewhat innocent questions.  This is by far the trope I dislike the most.  An entire genre based on the premise of an amateur solving murders is weighed down by this lazy attempt (in my opinion) at creating story tension.  Sadly, this hounding is usually done by the romantic interest.  I find myself yelling at the star sleuth to immediately break up with the fictional boyfriend, he isn't adding to the story, just being a nuisance.  Some argue that such haranguing is more realistic.  Cozy mysteries are the closest to a fantasy world with a smidgen of crime.  If you want realism, then you want police procedurals - but those have violence, swearing, sex, and blood because... that's realistic. If you are reading a cozy, you don't really want realism.  So please, can we ditch the nagging the sleuth to not sleuth?

Whew, glad I got that out of my system.  Now on to the next.

A police officer must be the sleuth's boyfriend.  I have nothing against police in fiction, but again this seems like a lazy way for the sleuth to gain certain information for their investigation.  This is a setup for the harassment mentioned previously.  I find these policeman boyfriends tedious at best because they are duty bound to talk down to, nag, and deride the sleuth for asking any question at all - in some cases even charge them with obstruction or interference to make a point.  

Obstruction is officially defined as:  "an act that "corruptly or by threats or force, or by any threatening letter or communication, influences, obstructs, or impedes, or endeavors to influence, obstruct, or impede, the due administration of justice."

 I haven't seen many sleuths that fit this definition even minutely!  So the cop boyfriend claiming that the sleuth essentially gossiping for information constitutes obstruction is absurd.  The setup is most often a gossiping situation or asking round-about questions of who was where.  That isn't interfering with the administration of justice, or influencing either.  If that were the case, every time people around a water-cooler gossiped about a murder in town then gossiped with their neighbor over the fence about the same murder, they would be arrested.  Again, the entire point of the genre is this amateur will be snooping like your nosey next-door neighbor, so I wish more would have boyfriends who aren't a cop and get the info they need via other methods than a defensive cop boyfriend.  Granted, this may just be me.  

Next up is the trope of two eligible men (one probably a cop!) are trying to date the female sleuth.  When handled well this can work for a book or two.  The biggest problem with this trope is it has been used so much and for too long in a given series that the reader gets sick of the situation.  I'm not a fan because I think it makes the woman out to be rather insipid and opportunistic.

Often the amateur sleuth is a prime suspect in a murder which kicks off the penchant for sleuthing.  From that point on people look to this amateur for assistance when there is a murder.  This is a useful way to start an amateur's foray into sleuthing and it leaves plenty of room to not be the same old thing every time.  

Another often used introduction to a cozy series is the sleuth left the big terrible city and high powered job for small town life.  Often this is because of a messy breakup or occasionally a job loss.  This same driven and highly successful woman finds fulfillment working a small town job like a retail store of some sort or a librarian (without the usual prerequisite degree in library science.)  Somehow, this is when realism isn't a big deal.  This sort of woman would need more mental and creative stimulus than what most small towns have on tap, if we are true to the origin story of the character.  The second part to this trope is how a small town retail store, like a bookstore, yarn, or bead shop, makes enough revenue to support one or more employees.  I don't know about all small towns, but the ones I have been a tourist in see the owner slaving long hours with no help and barely scraping by.  So if you want realism in your cozy mystery - forget the nagging boyfriend and be more true-to-life in this aspect perhaps.

One of my favorite tropes is the animals.  Who doesn't love an adorable dog or cat?  Their involvement can just be devotion to the sleuth or sometimes an intuition that aids the sleuth in their snooping.  These animals help to round out the character and humanize them.

Another good trope is the funny or quirky sidekick friend or family member.  This gives much needed "girl time" and comradery that rounds the character and helps us witness what kind of a friend our sleuth is.
Family is a tough one in the cozy mystery.  They are either quirky or too judgmental of our sleuth.  I love when they are an eccentric or funny family who provide support and aid in snooping.  I really don't have much tolerance for the difficult, nitpicking, disrespectful, or judgmental trope family.  Usually the sleuth takes the verbal lashings and doesn't stand up for herself, which drops my opinion of the sleuth right off.   There is the subset trope of a parent pushing and prodding our sleuth to marry and have kids.  I had my sleuth push right back on that score.   

One of the definitions of a cozy is they take place in a small, tight community so there are limited suspects.  I love the authors who do this within a big city such as Cleo Coyle's cozies in New York City, or Juliette Blackwell's two cozy series set in San Francisco.  An intimate community doesn't have to mean a small town.  I enjoy the quirky denizens of the setting best.

Finally in this list is the trope of a food or hobby theme.  This has been done so much that forecasts for the future trends in cozy mysteries say food and hobbies may have been overdone and travel is the next trend.  We will have to see, because food and hobbies are comfort and spirit enhancing, which is part of what makes cozies so lighthearted and upbeat.

Thank you for indulging my short rant and opinions on the most common tropes in the cozy mystery genre.  What are your thoughts on cozy tropes?  Share in the comments.

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Chris Wallace said...

I love Donna Andrews books and specially because her husband volunteers
to watch the kids while she sleuthing. And the Police Chief is happy
to hear what she has learned! Of course there are many other reasons
why she is my favourite.
Chris Wallace

Anonymous said...

The trope of the fabulous house thanks to the death of a long-lost or forgotten great-aunt (usually) is funny to me. Or the inexpensive housing for some unlikely reason like they are perpetually house sitting

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