Monday, November 14, 2011

A Rant Against the Word "Cozy"

The term “cozy” really rubs me the wrong way. It’s not necessarily the word itself, which describes a niche of the mystery market decently: a book where everyone is nice and polite, the detective has a perfect love relationship, and there are plenty of cats to act as animal sidekicks. What really irks me is how this term is abused and stuck onto books and authors that do not fit the label in the least. As a result of this tomfoolery, many authors are branded with this simplistic and unfair “cozy” label.

Agatha Christie gets the most unfair treatment in this regard. Critics gleefully describe her books as “cozy”, citing her idyllic villages and how order is restored to these idyllic villages after some crime, with life going on as before. (Not to forget the usual snide remark about her upper-class worship.) To this I loudly proclaim: “Bah, humbug!”

It would interest me what would happen if critics of Agatha Christie and her contemporaries actually bothered to read up on the genre before making these sweeping generalisations. Let’s start with Christie’s idyllic villages. First things first: the entire point is that they’re not idyllic. They seem to be just that to an outsider, but beneath the supposedly still waters, there are violent currents. The dotty old Major or that prying old lady can harbour secrets and grudges, and in an Agatha Christie, relationships, personal vendettas, and snobberies in all shapes and sizes can lead to murder. The point is not that “order is restored” and life goes on as usual in the idyllic village after the crime has been solved— the point is that the villages were full of conflict and strife before the crime even occurred. In fact, order is quite often not restored... but more on that later.


How can it be that nobody notices the satire these villages are filled with? You have the gossipy old ladies who know absolutely everything that goes on in the village moments after it happens— not even the Internet could spread scandal this quickly. This is intended as humour, something many books today seriously lack. When Miss Marple is involved, this aspect sets up her character as a private detective nicely. What about that dotty old Major who keeps talking about his experiences in India? Again, this is intended as a fun poke at just these kinds of figures— Colonel Appleton in The Moving Finger exists solely to corner the main characters every once in a while and start talking about nothing particularly important. (In fact, the recent ITV film version felt the need to have him blow his brains out to bring Miss Marple into the setting, because of course, Miss Marple wouldn’t be caught dead in a village, and all traces of humour must be sucked out to make for an “edgier” and more contemporary adaptation.)

What’s this? Agatha Christie engaged in social commentary, you say? She poked fun at some of the genre’s conventions? There’s genuine tragedy in her books? “Poppycock!”, say critics like P. D. James and Gilbert Adair. Well, it’s true. After the Funeral is a traditional country-house murder, in a way, although the murder doesn’t take place in a country house. Cora Lansquenet was the semi-dotty sister of Richard Abernethie, a rich man who has just died. Cora isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, and at the funeral, she blurts out how very well everyone is covering things up, because it was murder, wasn’t it? This pokes fun at the convention that no rich man can ever die a natural death in a mystery. But a short time afterwards, Cora is found hacked to death with an axe. This turns everything neatly from satire to horror; Cora was an inoffensive and simple woman, and her brutal murder shocks the reader: who would possibly want to kill her and in such a ruthless way?

The rest of After the Funeral is heavily steeped in social commentary, as the action is concentrated on the country house, where the entire Abernethie clan gather together, including Miss Gilchrist, Aunt Cora’s late companion. We see the interactions of those who were born into money with those who have been deprived of it. There’s genuine tragedy for Miss Gilchrist, who once was an independent woman who had her own tea shop, only to have the war force her out of business. The rich characters are not romanticized, but many of them are shown in particularly unflattering light, particularly Richard’s brother Timothy, who acts like a helpless invalid but could quite easily get up and draw the blinds of a window for himself if he had to. That’s right, Agatha Christie did not romanticize the upper classes.

While I’m at it, let’s blow up another typical Christie myth: her female characters are quite often far stronger than the male ones. Think of male-female duos, like Tommy and Tuppence for instance. Tuppence is the brains of the operation and Tommy does the blundering. Back then, male-female detective teams often worked the other way ‘round (especially when they got popular after The Thin Man): Nick Charles is the detective, but his lovely wife Nora makes for a beautiful and capable assistant. Jeff Troy does the thinkin’ and the investigatin’, but Haila shouldn’t worry her lovely little head about such things. And so on.

Finally, let’s tackle this nonsense about order being restored to the village after some violent crime, be it murder, robbery, or what you like. The point is, order is not always restored. The Hollow is one of Christie’s most poignantly tragic works, with characters that aren’t altogether good nor altogether evil. Dr. John Christow is a womanizer who cheats on his wife, but he knows that he is doing the wrong thing and tries to stop. The problem is he’s at heart an insecure man who never really knows his own mind, and eventually this tragic flaw leads to his murder. The last time he saw his children, he failed to humour them as his daughter tried telling his fortune with cards. They are left fatherless, and their mother is a very dependant woman who is far from the best mother figure for them despite her genuine love. When you find out what happens to the various characters at the end of the book, you see that order is never restored; moreover, it was never present to begin with. These people all had problems in communicating with each other, and the murder has brought this all to light most clearly. It is a genuine tragedy with no simple resolutions, and you feel that the characters will be affected by the events at The Hollow for a long time to come.

The “cozy” generalisation and label are most unfair towards Agatha Christie, but I draw the line when critics start applying it in nonsensical way to other authors who most certainly are not cozy! The Golden Age mystery is not, by definition, cozy: for instance, J. J. Connington’s Sir Clinton Driffield is cold, methodical, and sarcastic— nothing cozy about him! Freeman Wills Crofts’ Inspector French is a plodding and methodical man, not a dashing aristocrat with a string of potential lovers chasing him. Nobody could possibly mistake Sir Henry Merrivale or Dr. Gideon Fell as a handsome, dashing young man! I could stand here for days continuing this list…

But the following quote (which Curt Evans brought to my attention) chillingly sums up critics’ attitude to the Golden Age, which largely consists of completely false misconceptions about generalisations:

The American writer John Dickson Carr, to the exclusion of all else, wrote variations on the locked-room formula....The locked-room mystery was immensely reassuring for the inter-war reading public, reducing the world, as it did, to self-contained, enclosed, manageable proportions and dimensions. —John Scaggs, Crime Fiction (Routledge, 2005)

To that, I would say a very rude word, but I will contend myself with resorting to “Baloney!” to get the point across. This is the silliest generalisation about John Dickson Carr I’ve ever heard and makes it quite clear that someone has not done his homework. Carr’s locked-room mysteries are never assuring, and if anyone brings the term “cozy” up, it’s straight to the guillotine for them! The locked room doesn’t reduce the mystery or the world to “manageable” dimensions— it seems to go completely against the world’s ways, which is what makes it so disturbing! Killers in John Dickson Carr sidestep gravity, locked doors, rooms sealed with tape, crypts that are sealed off with concrete, locked rooms at the top of an inaccessible tower… The list goes on! These deaths are disturbing because the reader gets the feeling that nothing can possibly keep someone safe— the victims are never safe, even with an entourage of policemen, locked doors, barred windows, etc. Carr also suggested that the universe is irrational at heart, suggesting that werewolves, vampires, witches, or ghosts are at the bottom of the crime until the last possible moment. And of course, Carr wrote many, many books that do not include an impossible crime. The Emperor’s Snuff-Box is one, and one of his finest. There are plenty others.

So, to academics and mystery critics everywhere: do your homework. Absorb yourself in an Agatha Christie! Read a book by John Rhode! Devour a Carter Dickson! Wolf down some Henry Wade! Cogitate on J. J. Connington! Read up on the genre and its evolution not through Wikipedia articles or Billy Bob’s Mystery Website, but through the books that were published at the time; only once you’ve got an appreciation of these neglected authors down, try to write about the Golden Age Mystery. Don’t exclude the richness that can be found in the genre in order to sing Hosannahs to the Crime Queens and no one else. P. D. James might be a mystery writer herself, but she’s got the wrong end of the stick about Agatha Christie. Don’t buy into this worshipful cult that has formed around figures like James.

Dorothy L. Sayers with Eric the Skull
And above all, never use that blasphemous and entirely untrue generalisation that I despise— that wretched term “cozy”…

21 comments:

  1. Good post, thanks. One of my favorite Miss Marple stories is The Body in the Library and it is definitely not a cozy. Rather dark, in fact.

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  2. Thank you for this excellent post! The word "cosy" is definitely over-used and as you've brilliantly shown, mis-used.

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  3. John Scaggs' observation seemed to me like a classic case of the triumph of theory over sense. Had Scaggs even read Carr, I wonder. His observation makes no sense to one who has. The locked room convention is all about order being violated. What's more unsettling than the idea that you're not safe from murder even in a locked room?

    A lot of critics seem to assume that "Dear Old Agatha" was somehow too dumb and conventional to know anything about satire and so they apparently willfully occlude their vision of what's right in front of them when they read her books.

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  4. An excellent defense, Patrick!

    I wanted to write a piece on this as well, but a lack of time and clear mind prevented me. The problem is basically that people are either ignorant of the genre (mistakenly confusing it for a direct ancestor of actual cozies, involving talking cats and cookie recipes) or have already made up their mind (they sound more intelligent if they say that detectives restore order instead of merely providing (intelligent) entertainment).

    Yes, can we please guillotine everyone who misuse that term in an inexcusable way. I'm still reeling from the comment I read that put Anthony Gilbert in the cozy corner. I read three Arthur Crook novels and if they are cozies, than I'm a care bear!

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  5. Patrick, it would be great if this great post could be listed in the upcoming (Nov 24)Agatha Christie Reading Challenge Blog Carnival. Past carnivals are found here. Submit your post URL here.

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  6. Auden's to blame for a lot of this, with his essay The Guilty Vicarage. Though he never said it was supposed to apply to all Golden Age English mystery. That Auden essay has had almost talismanic sway over critics, who keep telling us that all the books back then took place in perfectly ordered country houses and villages, with the temporarily disrupted order perfectly restored after the nasty murderer is eliminated. Obviously there are books like that, but it's an oversimplification.

    Most mystery, even today, involves some element of restoration of order at some level. Solving a mystery helps to restore order. It celebrates reason.

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  7. When I was doing an English course many years ago, I found that it was quite often easier to read the books about the books, rather than read the original books. This is what those who use the 'cozy' term as a sort of blanket description of non-hardboiled stuff have obviously done. The Marple novels are often surprisingly dark and cynical; what is AT BERTRAM'S HOTEL if not a warning about the dangers of nostalgia? There are creepingly unpeasant elements of obsession and perversion in NEMESIS and SLEEPING MURDER.

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  8. A really interesting post. I agree 'cozy' has become a term of abuse aimed at books that in their own way have quite a good sense of irony about the genre in which they're writing. I've just reviewed Patricia Wentwoth on my blog, who again comes under the cozy banner and she is frankly quite bitchy in her books. I don't think that Agatha Christie's books are particularly dark but I've loved them (and read them) since I was a teenager. I've mentioned this before in another reply but people read her books in the WW2 blitz as bombs were falling on London. It was escapism in dire circumstances - 'cozy' doesn't even begin to describe the comfort of these books.

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  9. Great stuff Patrick - and it it helps take the sting out of it any, I spell it 'cosy'... but seriously, you are dead right to complain about the over-use of the word as some kind of synonym for the GAD period as a whole. It's just a cheap journalistic shortcut - annoyingly though i must admit, i do find myself using the phrase from time to time to get myself understood to those less well versed in the genre (I know, mea maxima culpa for perpetuating the myth of tea and crumpets school of detective fiction).

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  10. Thank you very much to all of you for taking the time to comment on this post!

    @Mack
    You’re right— the “other” death, apart from the main murder, is absolutely chilling, as the killer goes to extreme lengths to make sure the crime isn’t detected!

    @Margot
    Thank you for the kind words—it seems that I’ve succeeded at doing exactly what I wanted with this article; at least it’s gone far better than my last article of this sort on Father Knox’s Ten Commandments.

    @vegetableduck
    Anyone who’s read a Carr knows how silly Scaggs’ words about him are. There seem to be only two options: (a) Scaggs hasn’t read him, or (b) Scaggs finds people getting decapitated in locked rooms would be comforting to the 1920s/1930s public. (a) seems more likely.

    I think you’re perfectly right about how those elements in Agatha Christie are ignored. As you say, there are obviously books like this, but using it as a blanket term for the Golden Age is just silly and ignorant. I’m going to have to read Auden’s essay to comment much more, but if you count “restoring order” as solving the puzzle, than yes, every mystery is about restoring order. But “restoring order” is most often considered as restoring society to the nice, tidy, ordered way it should be, with servants happy to be just that and old ladies having tea at the Vicarage. Which doesn’t apply as often to Christie as critics would lead you to believe.

    @TomCat
    I first tried writing this a few weeks ago, and then gave up. But I opened the file today, found that the stuff I’d written wasn’t as awful as I thought it was, and finished it up. “Cozy” isn’t just inaccurate and overused, it also encourages a condescending sort of attitude to the Golden Age, as though only old grannies would read such stuff.

    @Kerrie
    Thanks for your suggestion—I have submitted this post as you suggested. :)

    @Sextonblake
    Ah, I admit it, I’ve done just that on some occasions, and I wish I had done this on others! But there’s a bit of a difference between bluffing your way through an essay that only your prof will read and writing a huge book on the subject that you proceed to sell and make money off of. It’s a good explanation of what’s happened to the mystery landscape, and your examples are quite valid. I went with others because I know those books more.

    @Sarah
    It’s true that Christie was read during WWII, but so were others and they provided some entertainment in a war-ridden London. However, Christie is a lot more complex than she’s given credit for, and the term “cozy” is applied to all non-hardboiled stuff, encouraging not just myths but a condescending attitude towards mystery fiction.

    @Sergio
    Oh, it’s perfectly forgivable to use such a term in those circumstances, but I know you actually do know your stuff in terms of mysteries! I bring these terms up only to demonstrate how inaccurate they are—when people on Amazon complain that a book wasn’t “cozy” enough and thus deem that a reason to give a one-star review despite admitting there’s a good plot and characters, there’s a real problem. I’m not sure if the “cosy” spelling makes it any more palatable than “cozy”, though...

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  11. Three cheers for you my friend! Thanks! It bugs me that the "Agatha Award" uses the word "cozy."

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  12. Thank you for commenting, Christopher! I must acknowledge a debt that I owe to you and your posts on the AC forum, which has become the way I want to write articles like this: informative, intelligent, insightful, highly readable. (I've subverted the formula terribly, of course, but I think I've progressed considerably since writing nothing but praise about Agatha Christie back in the 9th grade.)

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  13. Thanks, Patrick! If people are to gain a better appreciation of Agatha Christie and other quality mystery writers, there needs to be better criticism that transcends the clichés. "The Hollow" is one of Christie's best-written books, and she doesn't get enough credit for going far beyond the boundaries her condescending critics draw for her. You've made a major step in the right direction here by criticizing the notion of "coziness."

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  14. Spot on,Patrick!

    It is only natural for the critics who don't read enough Golden Age Mystery books to make a general statement. They label ALL GAM books based on the assumption/idea they have made by reading a few of GAM or articles by others.

    Same goes to other readers/critics who don't read enough cozy mysteries(or modern mysteries for that matter) but make a general statement about those genres based on their assumption and what they *like* to think about them.Usually by bashing those genres.

    Lin

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  15. @Lin
    Generalisations are rarely used by people who are being positive about the genre, because they prefer to acknowledge its inherent richness. The "cozy" label that is stuck onto GAD books is basically trying to say that there was no variety, and that's why the genre has "evolved" to the angst-filled soap operas we get today.

    @Christopher
    Thank you, and I agree that "The Hollow" is one of Christie's best books. It flies directly in the face of the generalisations critics of Christie make. I could go into further detail if I went deep into spoilers, but there's no fancy Blogger feature where you can hide text under a "spoiler" tag.

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  16. I don't know when the term first came into use but perhaps Christie was concerned that her books were becoming a bit too cozy/cosy when she wrote Hercule Poirot's Christmas, a work in which she consciously upped the violence a notch or two.

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  17. Well, it depends on what you mean by "cozy". To me, "the Hollow" is definitely not a cozy, and "After the Funeral" contains a definitely non-cozy element.
    On the other hand, I can definitely imagine a work that engages in mild satire while having a locked-room murder, yet is still a cozy.

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  18. Oh, and an unjustified complaint against Christie that usually goes hand in hand with the "cozy" stereotyping is the "in Golden Age detective books the victims are always unlikeable, since they don't permit any genuine tragedy" nonsense. GAD books contain victims which completely vary in their likeability and development.

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  19. Good post - I've been bothered by the term 'cozy' being applied to Agatha Christie's books too, because I think it gives the impression that they're light or frivolous. They're not. I've read almost all of Christie's books and, aside from her obvious supremacy at plotting mysteries, I'm continually impressed by her skill at crafting characters and the quality of her writing in general.

    Regarding the 'cozy' label, I can see why it happens - I think it's because modern-day mysteries involve much stronger violence, language, etc. as a matter of course, there is a need to distinguish books that don't, and a lot of Golden Age mysteries fall into that category no matter how serious they are. Awkward for new mystery writers, too, who may want to write in a Golden Age style, but need to find a genre category to give their potential readers an accurate impression of the book.

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  20. Patrick, thank you! I loath the term "cozy", I hate it applied to A.C. and found it a real pain in the backside when I was trying to get my own work published (1920's English detective fiction) that publishers, faced with a book that wasn't hard-boiled, would dismiss it as "cozy". Detective stories are logical; they engage the brain; they require thought. Thank goodness, I did manage to win out at last (book 6 is about to be published) but it was far harder than it need have been because of this dreadful term that seems to promise nothing but fluff.

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