Mystery and Suspense Novels: revealed!

So, I’m currently listening to a Great Courses offering called (somehwat amusingly) The Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction. I do get a kick of the use of the word “secrets” in this kind of title — LOOK! SECRETS! Obviously there are no secrets to reveal; how could there be? It’s just a set of lectures about the development of this genre of fiction, from Edgar Allen Poe on forward.

Thirty-six lectures. The lecturer is David Schmid of, let me see, Stanford.

I’m enjoying listening to these lectures, mostly. The topic is inherently interesting but low-key. I mean, when I listened to a Great Courses offering on terrible military blunders, I literally could not bring myself to listen all the way through some of the lectures because hearing all about the drawn-out tragedy crashing down was sometimes too stressful. Obviously this topic isn’t like that.

So far Schmid has emphasized three stories by Poe, then the Sherlock Holmes stories and Agatha Christie, then the hardboiled detective era with a lot of emphasis on the Maltese Falcon, and honestly he has barely mentioned any of the mystery authors I most would like him to bring up. He did discuss Ngaio Marsh, not too extensively. Not a word yet about Rex Stout, though I have some hope he will appear at some point.

But what I want to rant about here is Schmid’s take on cozy mysteries.

I really would like to be in his actual class so I could write a paper (I assume he assigns papers) tearing apart his view on this subgenre. Let me summarize his position as clearly as I can:

a) Cozy mysteries are criticized for their lack of realism given the lack of on-stage, dramatic violence and career criminals and the central presence of amateur detectives rather than police or private detectives, but it is that very lack of realism that appeals to readers, especially in trying times, and

b) Cozy mysteries are defined by the above characteristics and by their setting in a small town or suburb, and if we look closely at mysteries and suspense novels with those sorts of settings, we will see how many such novels push against the perception of small towns and suburbs as safe and comfortable. Just look, for example, at Gone Girl and various other novels, which show us the dark underbelly of these settings! Thus we see that human tragedy and terror lurk even where we should feel safe.

… and I listened to this lecture all the way through thinking, Good heavens, what are you SAYING? Have you never actually READ cozy mysteries?

I surmise that David Schmid likes noir detective novels and psychological suspense novels and so on and that he doesn’t like cozy mysteries, and probably hates cutesy mysteries (if he acknowledges them at all), and that’s all very well, but I can hardly see how he could be more wrong if he tried. I mean, he’s right about the small town setting and about the protagonist being an amateur sleuth, and he’s sometimes right about the lack of realism (though not always!), but he’s totally wrong about the heart of the whole subgenre.

I’m certain I wrote a post on cozy mysteries not so very long ago, but whatever, here again are the actual defining characteristics of cozies, which do not overlap in any substantial way with psychological suspense regardless of setting:

Cozy mysteries —

–Generally have a small town or village or rural setting, so that’s fine.

–Generally center a female protagonist who is a the owner of a small and quirky business rather than a cop or detective — Schmid did not mention either of the bolded characteristics, just left it as “amateur detective.”

–Generally or always involve an important romance subplot that unfolds over the course of the series, frequently though not necessarily involving a cop or detective as the male lead. Schmid does not appear to have noticed this at all! This is completely antithetical to “showing us the dark underbelly of village life,” which he considers so important to the best writers of cozy mysteries.

Let me go way out on a limb and say that if the central point of the story is to show the reader the dark underbelly of anything, that story is NOT A COZY MYSTERY. Why do you think the word “cozy” is in the name of the subgenre? The whole POINT of a cozy mystery is to center and develop positive relationships, not only romances but friendships, between the female protagonist and a bunch of supporting characters, while also involving a mystery plot. The emphasis on positive relationships and romance is the single most central feature of cozy mysteries. THIS is what appeals to readers who like the subgenre! It’s like you dropped romance novels, mystery novels, and chick lit in a blender and hit the “blend” button. That’s what cosy mysteries ARE — mysteries with much more emphasis on romance and relationships than you will find in any other subgenre within mystery and suspense fiction.

This is OBVIOUS.

And Schmid does not seem to have noticed.

And that is why I would love to write a paper in his class.

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5 thoughts on “Mystery and Suspense Novels: revealed!”

  1. Apropos of cozy mysteries, and sort of Alice Degan’s book, too, I don’t normally read mysteries, cozy or otherwise, but heard excellent things about Dave Freer’s Joy cometh with the Mourning which is a cozy set in a small Australian town, featuring a timid female city-bred priest. (Anglican, by the indications.) It’s charming.

    Opening of Ch 3, which is as far as I’ve gotten:

    “The next morning Joy got half a brick thrown through her window.
    As the window was open at the time and the brick landed on the carpet, it was somewhat less serious than it might have been. The brick was also gift-wrapped. Well, a piece of paper had been tied around it with string.”

  2. I’ve read more of the English country house mysteries — not too many even of them — but as a sage soul once observed, they were about the intrusion of murder into a place where it doesn’t belong, and its expulsion.

  3. I’m going to go out on a limb and say cozy might not mean what he thinks it means…

  4. Mary, I agree, but country house mysteries are a very different subgenre — though Schmid conflates them with cozies. The only real point of resemblance is the non-urban location. In fact, I’ve no doubt that some cozies do have an urban setting, because setting is not intrinsic to the cozy subgenre. Country house mysteries overlap more with locked room mysteries — though they’re different from those as well. I do think they’re a specific subgenre of their own.

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