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Get Cozy: A Chat with Novelist Nancy J. Cohen

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My mother devoured every Agatha Christie novel ever written, and though I developed an early appreciation for Christie’s fussy little Belgian, Hercule Poirot, I didn’t become familiar with the term “cozy mystery” until many years later, but the moment I heard it, I knew it described Christie’s work to a tee. Or a tea, if you will. The cozy is the gentle workhorse of mystery fiction, a reliable subgenre with a dedicated following, and one that shows no signs of falling out of favor. So pull your slippers and housecoat on, settle into your favorite overstuffed chair, and blow softly across your steaming cup of Earl Grey, as we enroll in Cozy 101 with mystery writer Nancy J. Cohen.

The author of more than twenty novels, Cohen is a premiere practitioner of the form. Her popular and acclaimed Bad Hair Day series features hairdresser/sleuth Marla Vail, who solves crimes with wit and style in the steam-bath weather of South Florida. Beyond her novels, she literally wrote the book for writers of the subgenre, with her concise how-to guide, Writing the Cozy Mystery (2014).

In an interview, Cohen outlines for me the conventions, origins, and evolution of the form. “A cozy mystery involves an amateur sleuth in a unique setting or occupation,” she says. “The setting is a character itself, giving us a glimpse into a lifestyle we might not see otherwise. These stories focus on relationships among characters and not on crime scene details. Suspects often know each other, and all may have a motive for murder. Motives are personal and do not involve terrorists, serial killers, or drug cartels.”

Christie pretty much invented the genre, and Christie’s The Mousetrap remains a personal fave of Cohen’s. But her intro to the cozy came from elsewhere. “Jill Churchill’s books turned me on to this genre with their amusing titles,” she says. Others opened her eyes to the expansive horizons of settings, characters, and themes. “Diane Mott Davidson was probably one of the earliest authors who introduced the culinary mystery, with her caterer sleuth. Pets, crafts and hobbies are other popular subgenres. Some stories may have a cat detective or a dog that sniffs out clues.”

The genre continues to shift and adapt, with cozy paranormal mysteries now in vogue. “You might have a sleuth with psychic abilities or a ghostly sidekick,” Cohen says. Despite changing subject matter, however, some things remain true. Tone is important, the cozy being more lighthearted than darker crime fiction. Lighthearted, yes, but that doesn’t mean they have to be funny, although readers like a touch of humor and a romantic subplot. But mystery remains the heart of the work. “The puzzle is the thing,” Cohen says. “Readers want to solve the mystery along with the sleuth.”

The cozy is a welcome respite from the blood-drenched content of many modern crime novels, and Cohen cautions writers to take care with execution. “Cozies do not have graphic sex or violence or use of bad language. Rape is out of bounds, as well as anything terrible happening to a child. Bad language and graphic sex or violence are no-nos. Also, never kill the family pet. You can do so in a suspense novel but not in a cozy. Readers expect an author to follow genre conventions.” Get too grim and readers might look elsewhere for their next reads.

Trends come and go in publishing, but the cozy remains among the most reliable genres, with a dedicated fan base. If anything, it seems to be growing in popularity. Of the genre’s staying power, Cohen offers a simple explanation. “We all want to escape from the horrible news out there. There’s a certain fantasy element involved, in that the sleuth always wins; justice is served; and another murder to solve is just around the next corner…and readers like solving the puzzle. These stories appeal to the intellect and engage your attention with their glimpse into a particular slice of life. They’ll always appeal to readers who want to read a mystery but who don’t want to be horrified.”

That’s key. All mystery, thriller, and crime writers would be well-served to pick up a cozy now and then and pay attention to the lightness of touch and style. Even writers of truly grim material can learn a thing or two about engaging, likable characters, and leavening with humor.

Nancy J. Cohen, by the way, will be a speaker at the Florida Writers Conference in October. I plan on attending her talk. You should too.

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Ken Pelham’s debut novel, Brigands Key, won the 2009 Royal Palm Literary Award and was published in hardcover in 2012. The prequel, Place of Fear, a 2012 first-place winner of the Royal Palm, was released in 2013. His nonfiction book, Out of Sight, Out of Mind: A Writer’s Guide to Mastering Viewpoint, was named the RPLA 2015 Published Book of the Year. Ken lives with his wife, Laura, in Maitland, Florida. He is a member of the International Thriller Writers. Visit him at kenpelham.com.

24 Responses

  1. Nancy J. Cohen
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    Thank you, Ken, for this most excellent article. You’ve said it all in a nutshell!

    • Ken Pelham
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      You’re welcome, Nancy, although I fear it doesn’t do you justice.

      • Nancy J. Cohen
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        You are too kind! Looking forward to seeing you at the conference in October.

  2. Terry Odell
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    Very thorough article. Cozy readers do love the conventions of the genre

    • Ken Pelham
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      Thanks, Terry! The genre will be a century old soon, and will be with us for many more years.

  3. Catalina Egan
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    Wonderful post about a fabulous lady. Shared everywhere.

    • Ken Pelham
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      Thanks, Catalina! Nancy and I have both been published by Five Star/Gale Cengage, and that’s how I became aware of her and her work. Glad to see she’s having success; she deserves it.

  4. Patrick Kendrick
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    Good definition of the “cozy” murder by an author who knows the genre well! And this is coming from a “crazy” writer, one who does dark thrillers that do, occasionally, off the family pet.

    • Ken Pelham
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      Thanks, Patrick. My work can get a bit grim and gory, so I appreciate those that sustain storytelling with a light touch.

  5. Jacqueline Seewald
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    I very much enjoy Nancy’s cozy mysteries. They are well-written and entertaining.

    • Ken Pelham
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      Thanks much, Jacqueline.
      Has there ever been a better title for a novel series than “Bad Hair Day?” I think not.

  6. Pamela Beason
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    Thank you for a nice article on a subject I’m frequently confused about. My Neema series includes a police detective working in a gossipy small town, a lady scientist, and signing gorillas. Cozy? Police Procedural? I usually end up listing it both ways and hope readers won’t be as confused as I am about which genre those books belong in.

    • Ken Pelham
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      Thanks, Pamela. I’m a believer in the overlapping of genres as a strategy for evolving them. Nancy, too, seems to follow this creed, and has authored other novels outside the brackets we think of as “cozy.”

      • Nancy J. Cohen
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        I agree with Ken. The lines can blur. I watch The Brokenwood Mysteries (http://thebrokenwoodmysteries.com/) which are excellent cozies but starring a police detective in New Zealand. The shows are wonderfully written and a perfect example of the small town with people who know each other. Each mystery has its own particular focus and group of suspects. I’ve ordered them on DVD; don’t think they are available elsewhere.

  7. Mona Risk
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    Cozy mysteries are exactly the type of books I enjoy reading to take my mind off a stressful situation. Nancy Cohen’s cozy mysteries are perfect for a relaxing evening.

    • Anonymous
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      Thanks, Mona.
      Reading matters! Sometimes I want to read something that will have me tied up in anxious knots, and sometimes I want something that will do just the opposite.

    • Ken Pelham
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      We are of a like mind, Mona.
      Sometimes I need a novel that induces heart palpitations from sheer anxiety. Sometimes I need a novel that does just the opposite. Cozy mystery fills that second need.

  8. Patricia Gulley
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    I disagree with you and your comparison of Christie’s work to the American Cozy now being sold. Poirot was never an amateur, and though darling Marple was, she was never 20 something taking over some ‘shop’, mooning over a love interest or handing out recipes. The British traditional mystery is IMHO completely separate from the ‘prime crime’ stuff of the American cozy.

    • Ken Pelham
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      Patricia, thank you for your comments! You make some good points.
      True, there are differences between Christie’s work and the cozies of today. But I would add that her touch, tone, and settings make the lineage pretty straightforward. Certainly, there’s a debt owed to Dorothy L. Sayer as well. The form has evolved across the decades since, and as Ms. Cohen points out, continues to evolve. An art form should never remain static.

      • Nancy J. Cohen
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        As the lines between subgenres blur, you can have a cozy mystery without an amateur sleuth. Check out The Brokenwood Mysteries set in New Zealand. These TV shows feature a police detective and his team, and yet the stories are essentially cozy mysteries. They are set in a small town with a limited group of suspects most of whom know each other. The focus is on the relationships among the characters and not on forensics. So I would define these as cozies within our parameters.

  9. Nancy G. West
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    Good article, Nancy! I especially like what you said here: “These stories appeal to the intellect and engage your attention with their glimpse into a particular slice of life. They’ll always appeal to readers who want to read a mystery but who don’t want to be horrified.”

    • Nancy J. Cohen
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      Yes, Nancy W. If we want to be horrified, we can read the newspaper. I read for escape and entertainment, and that’s what I aim to give readers in my stories.

  10. Elle Andrews Patt
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    Great profile and enjoyed the comments and answers, too 🙂 Cozies are hard to write for those of us that skew dark. I admire writers who can pull them off with apparent ease when it really takes such commitment to the genre and a strong handle on the characters and plot line to keep it all on track.

    • Ken Pelham
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      Elle, I agree. And though I don’t write cozies, I enjoy a good one now and again, and there are fine writers in the genre. Ms. Cohen among them.