Saturday, February 21, 2015

Anatomy of a Cozy Mystery

There's a lot of kerfluffle going on in Salt Lake right now over Mettie Ivie Harrison's new mystery book, The Bishop's Wife, which is set in Draper, Utah (a wealthy suburb of SLC), and is based on the well-known case of Susan Cox Powell, a woman who disappeared from another suburb of SLC a few years back.  At first, Powell was criticized by the public for having "abandoned" her children, but more and more info came to light, and it soon became apparently that it was unlikely she had.  Since her evil husband murdered their two children and committed suicide a few years after Powell's disappearance, most people now are fairly convinced that Powell was murdered by her overly-patriarchal husband.
I have not yet read The Bishop's Wife, but its negative reviews fall into 2 categories: the first is from readers offended that Harrison deals with the HUGE problem of male superiority complex in the LDS church, and the second is from readers who apparently have no clue what modern cozy mysteries have become.  It is the second issue which I wish to address.
First of all, let me state that I LOVE mystery novels.
I was never a Nancy Drew fan as a kid, but I was obsessed with The Three Investigators series, books with stories far better than Nancy's or the Hardy Boys.  With plots dealing with stolen jewels, stolen artwork (my favorite case was The Stuttering Parrot), revenge, mummies, lost pirate treasure, and reportedly haunted houses, I was entertained for hours.
In my twenties, I got hooked on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his classic Sherlock Holmes mysteries.  Once again, there was a great deal of variety in the crimes and the plots.  It never got dull or boring.
Then I discovered crime fiction and began my obsession with Ian Rankin's novels.  Although its usually murder going on here, there is a lot of variety in what happens.
Very recently, I began reading tons of Agatha Christie novels.  Now, Christie is the inventor of the cozy, but her books still have what modern cozies lack: variety.
I still read lots of current cozies, but I'm beginning to tire of their sameness.  And it is the cozy formula about which some readers are complaining with Harrison's new book.
Let me summarize the modern cozy formula here:
1) The protagonist must be a woman between 30 and 45 years of age.  She must be single -- divorced, widowed, never married.  She is generally plump, yet male characters invariably find her attractive.  (This always makes me laugh!  In real life, men do not hit on fat women.  Nope.  Doesn't happen unless the guy has a very poor self-image.)
2) The protagonist must be into some kind of small business or self-employment.  This serves the dual purpose of giving the woman lots of free time for investigating and as a hook for readers.  (Like antiques? Baking? Knitting? Crafts?  Bookstores? If so, there's a cozy mystery for you!  However, you must like traditionally girly stuff; if you're into fishing, running marathons, or dirt biking, there might not be a cozy for you.)  The book's title will also be a terrible pun on this hobby, such as Needles of Doom or Purling For Murder.
3) The protagonist must have a cop in her life.  Usually she ends up dating the hunky and conveniently single cop, but sometimes the cop is her dad, brother, or even her son.  This gives her an "in" to the police side of things -- and someone to rescue her.
4) The protagonist must be stupid.  She will always forget her cell phone when walking into the forest or the abandoned cellar.  Or she may be a luddite who cannot use a cell phone or a computer at all.  She will never have the common sense to foresee even the most obviously dangerous situations.  This trait simplifies the plot and is supposed to make the reader feel smarter.
5)  The crime is always murder.  Always.  Usually, the protagonist finds the body herself.  There is ZERO variety in the type of crime in modern cozies.
6) The setting is nearly always a small town.  I think the purpose of this is to simplify the plot by reducing the area in which the crime takes place, but it may also be so that the protagonist knows everyone and has connections.  Naturally, if the cozy becomes a series, it becomes increasingly unbelievable that so many murders would take place in a single small town, however.
7) The plot always goes as follows: a murder is committed and either the protagonist or someone of whom she feels very protective is implicated, the protagonist will then snoop and be nosy, she will be warned repeatedly by the police to stay out of the investigation, she will continue to snoop, she will then walk right into the hands of the murderer and need rescuing by either the police or her love interest (or both).
8) The book will be poorly edited.  Let me give examples from the cozy I read most recently, Victoria Hamilton's (not her real name) Muffin But Murder.  (Surprise!  A baking mystery!)
Pg 38. The word "between" is spelled with three E's.
Pg.  66 Non-dialogue writing contains the phrase "with the attention of Lizzie and I" instead of "Lizzie and me."
Pg. 68 contains a similar mistake with "for Cranston and I" instead of "for Cranston and me."
Pg. 73 contains use of the word "candelabra" as if it were a singular noun, when "candelabra" is the plural of "candelabrum."
Pg. 131 contains a verb tense shift which garbles the meaning of the sentence.  Hamilton writes, "I would have loved to pair it with natural wood trim, but it would [have] take[n] forever to strip the baseboards...."  I have shown the corrected version in brackets.
Pg. 134 contains the phrase "to whomever took over Junior Bradley's position." It should be "whoever" in this construction.
Pg. 241 contains another error of this type: "whomever you are" instead of "whoever you are."
Pg. 262 has yet another of the same: "who you met in jail" instead of "whom you met in jail."
Pg. 272 brings us back to not knowing objective case with "to snuff both Bob and I" instead of "me."
Pg.286 gives us "than her" instead of "than she is," using a subordinating conjunction as if it were a preposition.
 This is typical for cozies.  First of all, I find it inexcusable for a writer not to know the basics of English grammar, but I'm also offended that the so-called copy editors are not doing their job either.  In other types of professionally published books, I often find one or two errors, but most cozies are like the one I just dissected above: deplorable when it comes to mistakes.

So, with The Bishop's Wife all the rage as a Mormon cozy right now, I'll simply have to read it.  Perhaps it will surprise me and be different.  It's set in Draper, which is not a small town.  However, the protagonist seems to be a woman of the correct age with no job so she can snoop, and the crime does seem to be murder.  If the protagonist turns out not to be stupid and if the copy editor turns out not to be  a waste of space, I will be pleasantly surprised.

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