First a story…
Years back a reader showed me her paintings. She hated the flood of Thomas Kinkade “Painter of Light” landscapes. You know, the thatched cottages surrounded by flowering shrubs, a thread of smoke rising from the chimney, the warm glow of a single lamp in one window, behind lace curtains. So this painter’s reaction was to create almost exact copies of those paintings, but to a darker end.
At first, they seemed duplicates of the quaint village squares. The stalwart stone lighthouses beaming hope and salvation to ships on the horizon. Then your eye would catch on something. A sex worker plying her trade on the picturesque market street. A zombie or horned demon almost hidden in the latticed gazebo. Her paintings were wonderful.
Which brings us to the “Cozy”
Go to the Mystery section of any chain bookstore, and you’ll find miles of shelf space devoted to tabby cats solving axe murders. The vicar’s dog unmasks a savage chainsaw killer. A much-beloved dotty grandma is found beheaded at the parish jumble sale, and the game is afoot! Rita Mae Brown, who wrote one of the landmark gay liberation books—Rubyfruit Jungle—now writes mysteries in which her cat, Sneaky Pie Brown, solves murders: The Purrrfect Murder or The Big Nap.
These are known as “cozy” mysteries or just “cozies.”
What’s more, they sell. Hence the linear miles of shelf space devoted to carrying them. I just don’t get it. So over a year ago I bought a stack and dove in. In one, a doddering, dithering granny finds her neighbor, a similar granny, dead in the garden, run through with a pitchfork. A rusty pitchfork. Run through the chest, in a tableau as bloody and violent as anything depicted in American Psycho. In another, the whole merry village is gearing up for the annual charity bake sale, a good-natured competition to see whose iced cakes will sell first. In a moment that seems to surprise no one, the front-running baker is dismembered with a cake knife and found sprawled between the plates of gooseberry tarts and custard topped with dried currants. Oh, and the recipes for all the baked goods were salted into the story—let cool to room temperature and sprinkle liberally with fresh blood.
That winter, I read books in which aged clergymen solved triple homicides. Books where rural booksellers solved the murder of the village strumpet. They all seemed to be written by Americans, but Irish-Americans and Scotch-Americans and whatnot, because they described those far-off lands the way Thomas Kinkade painted cottages. All twee lanes and twittering hedgerows and jolly chip shops and the grinning lorry driver doffing his cap as he yields the right of way. A kind of anglophile snuff porn.
What’s more, none of these ironmongers and alewives, these proctors and clerks seemed the least bit freaked out to discover one of their own hacked to bits down ‘round the crossroads. There was something very sinister, very Wicker Man, about how readily the nannies and hod carriers accepted the clockwork occurrence of violent torture killings. One minute a nightingale is singing and the sheep are grazing, the next the proprietor of the sweet shop has been garroted. Yes, right there among the Turkish Delights and Maltesers, lies his diminutive grey-haired corpse. Bespectacled corpse.
The level of violent crime in Irish and Scottish villages puts American killers to shame. Reading those cozies I vowed that the next time any Brit mentioned American gun crimes I was going to hit back with the insane—really bonkers—level of butchery that takes place in Welsh hamlets and the Lake District of Cumbria. Please, don’t lecture me about Chicago when the average life expectancy in County Meath is seventeen years.
Every chapter or two I’d have to splash my face with cold water and walk around outside. Just to remind myself that not all of life is chaos and the senseless slaughter of tradesmen who are then stuffed up chimneys. And then it came to me, what that painter had done with her Thomas Kinkade ire. My only salvation lay in seizing control of the hideous murderous mess that is the British Isles.
Why not take all the twee, fey, twinkling, gossipy conventions of the cozy mystery and push them to the limit?
John Berendt was a travel writer flying on cheap airlines to explore small cities. A meal here, a night there. Then he stumbled upon Savannah, Georgia and a murder. What had begun as travel writing—a la Bill Bryson—exploded into a courtroom drama and mystery. With lots of local color. A book that broke records with 216 weeks on the Times bestseller list.
Similarly, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time depicts an autistic boy trying to solve the murder of a dog. A twist on a genre that made the book a success. Add to that Snow Falling on Cedars, a historical romance that becomes a courtroom murder drama.
The novel Cold Mountain is a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey. Michael Cunningham’s The Hours is a retelling of Virginia Wolff’s Mrs. Dalloway. People like what they like, with a twist.
If you can’t beat them, join them. No, the cozy mystery is not my cup of tea, but it was a springboard. Why not adopt all the conventions—all the skewed anglophile sandwich cakes and mushy peas, silage and cenotaphs—and run with it? Downton Abbey-meets-Freddy Kruger-meets-The Turn of the Screw. My point is that even if you don’t enjoy a genre—cozies or travel writing or Homer—you can learn from it. You can use all of its irritating qualities to create something new. Something you DO like, and that others might also.
That’s how Not Forever, But for Now came about. Me snowbound, reading cozy murder mysteries by the fire for a few weeks. So I invite you. If there’s a genre of fiction that you don’t appreciate, get inside of it. Study how it works, and then reinvent it using its own rules.
This goes beyond parody or satire. It’s not about just exaggerating the qualities of the genre—the twee village, the deadpan reaction to bloody death, the over dependence on baked goods and cute animals—it’s also about adding a greater element of heartbreak and raw emotion to those Thomas Kinkade stereotypes.
What genre(s) of fiction do you dislike?
How can you play their game, but to your own end?
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YA Wizard books are a genre ripe for perversion.
Brilliant advice. I've always had the same thought upon seeing the cats all over the mystery section - I don't get it.
When I was taking art classes in community college, an instructor told the class [3d art] that he didn't want to see any cats. His take was that cats were overdone in the art space.
Being a cat-lover, I was annoyed. So the first sculpture I made was cats. I fully expected him to be upset. But he loved it. And he addressed the class and told them that if they were going to make cat sculptures, they should make sure they do it as well as I did.