Tuesday, June 26, 2012

If it's dark it must be better.

This title only applies to chocolate!

Amazon just sent me a list of the best mysteries and thrillers of the year so far. And I read it with a growing sense of annoyance. They were ALL dark, violent and mostly by men.  I.e the typical list of nominees for the Edgar award.

So can somebody tell me why darkness and violence is somehow equated with higher quality? And why the traditional mystery is now called cozy and we less violent mystery writers are given a condescending pat on the head? After all the most successful writer of all times--Dame Agatha herself--wrote exactly what I write: a good story, among ordinary people, with no excessive guts or gore. And there are plenty of terrific writers still following in Agatha Christie's footsteps: Louise Penny, Julia Spencer-Fleming, Margaret Maron, Nancy Picard, Carolyn Hart, Deborah Crombie to name a few. (and you'll notice they are all women).

These writers show us the human condition at its frailest--when relationships and communities are shattered by a murder. They explore the depths of character. They take us somewhere with vividness of setting. Who has not shivered when reading Louise Penny's novels set in wintertime Quebec? Or smelled the fresh scent of the great plains in Nancy Pickard's Kansas?

These writers create a world, people it with real people and make us care about them. We so called cozy writers write about people you know, people who could be your next door neighbor, and thus when murder strikes on an ordinary street it is all the more shocking. If we wrote about loners and alcoholics, drug runners and CIA operatives then murder would be commonplace. Life would be cheap.

For us life is precious and it is devastating when it is wasted. 

It seems that too many people think that what is wanted today is fast pace, lots of explosions, people dying on every page in horrid ways--in other words A VIDEO GAME!
But I can tell from the number of people who check out my books from libraries, who write me lovely fan letters and who put me on the New York Times bestseller list this year that many people long for well crafted books, decent people, interesting settings and a good chuckle sometimes too.

I'd love to hear your comments on the cozy versus noir debate. Please chime in.


  1. I really don't like the term "cozy." I know publishers or booksellers like those kinds of terms, for marketing, but I think that term is a little dismissive. I think you make a good point that writing about everyday people can make fictional murder as shocking as it would be in real life.

  2. Amazon can send me all the emails they want with dark gloomy mysteries. But I won't buy them. I like my mysteries with less gloom and darkness, thank you very much.

  3. I don't read mysteries for the blood and violence--I read them for the intrigue, the unfolding of the characters, and the fun in trying to figure the puzzle. Thank you so much. Molly, Evan, and Georgiana feel like real people!!! I always look forward to the next book...Laura

  4. I'm also stumped as to why "they" think dark & violent equals award-winning material. The same issues are prevalent in the Oscars. It annoys me no end when The Academy keeps doling out awards to movies that are dark & depressing. Occasionally an uplifting movie gets nominated, or even wins, but by & large the Best Picture category is dominated by dark, violently depressing movies.

    Getting back to mysteries, though, I don't understand what constitutes a "cozy." I always thought cozies didn't have murders in them, but you say above that some do. I personally like my mysteries to have some murder or serious mayhem in them, but they ABSOLUTELY have to have well thought out characters, too. Otherwise, I wouldn't care about the outcome.

  5. Andrew T. KuligowskiJune 26, 2012 at 3:45 PM

    Old joke ... 1 week back from the honeymoon, and the bride is disputing with her new husband ... "Monday, you liked my spaghetti. Tuesday, you liked my spaghetti ... now, here it is Saturday and you don't like my spaghetti???"

    I like to read mysteries and thrillers, but I don't want to read the same kind of thing in every book. I like reading about Evan Evans (I still have a few to go) and Hamish MacBeth, but I probably won't grab them consecutively. The same is true for John Sandford & Chelsea Cain - maybe moreso, because there's no way I can deal with a steady diet of the darker and more graphic stuff.

    And ... I even mix in some other genres and non-fiction, as well!

    In general ... a well plotted and paced story with well-written and well-rounded characters will draw my interest, regardless of what category the publisher wants to label it as. (And, as a bonus, make the setting an integral part of the story - it wouldn't work or at least be the same if it was shifted from Baltimore to Las Vegas, for example ...)

  6. I hate it when publishers categorize books so simplistically. I love a mystery with an intriguing plot, interesting, well developed characters, exotic locales (or not), but do not love unnecessary violence and gore. Your books are so much fun, as are those of Jacqueline Winspear, Elizabeth Peters and others. I also like C. J. Box a lot, although there is sometimes too much violence there for me. Thanks for writing such delightful stories for us!

  7. One good thing about the term "cozy" is I know that the book will not be graphically violent. I will be not have to read through the terror to get to the story only to realize that was the story.

    I love your books, Rhys. They are stories that mean something. Thank you.

  8. I've pretty much quit picking up most mysteries that aren't cozies because after a while they all run together. All the protagonists have failed marriages because they've been cheating on one another--probably during an alcoholic binge. I don't pay any attention to the books Amazon tells me are the best picks because if everybody else reads them, I know I probably won't like them. Like most of the other commenters, I like characters, settings, and a puzzle.

  9. For me its all about the stories and the characters that live them. I read mostly mysteries, because mystery writers generally write the best stories and for the most part are better writers then so-called mainstream authors. However, what really attracts me is the mystery and not the murder and mayhem. I love finding a good series, because as others have pointed out the protagonists are like real people, and I can hardly wait to find out what Molly and Gorgiana and the many others that I love will get up to in their next adventure.

  10. I ready mysteries for the intrigue and characters. I, too, am tired of the plethora of blood and gore.

    I'm also tired of vampires, werewolves, and zombies.

    Give me a good "cozy," although I don't like the term.

    Plus, it doesn't have to be murder to be a good mystery. How about blackmail or embezzlement instead?

  11. Don't forget to include Mma Precious Ramotswe, heroine of The 1st Ladies Detective Agency series in your list of mysteries that are as much about wonderful characters as about interesting mysteries. This series is never described as a Cozy. Could it be because they are written by a man?

  12. I've never been a big reader of mysteries. I think my idea of them was the gothic suspense tales or the tough PI. But last year I saw your contest that required reading of Naughty in Nice - so I read it and Loved it (then read the rest of the series. I didn't understand the term cozy mystery, but now I'm open to more of them. I don't know why I didn't realize I would like them cause I've always adored the PBS mysteries from the BBC like Miss Marple, Inspector Lewis & Sherlock Holmes. But I don't want those really dark bloody mysteries.

  13. The "cozy" thing is what does us in... it seems frivolous or feminine somehow. I adore "cozies" and Susan Wittig Albert's new series Darling Dahlias is a perfect example. But I agree with earlier commenters, although I would read mysteries for the rest of my life, happily, I do not like "thrillers" "dark noir" or any Sam Spade type hard-boiled detective. I think the key here is to avoid labels - I understand the marketing necessities, yet I deplore the categorizing which mocks the beauty of the genre!

  14. If I want dark and depressing, I turn on the news. I read fiction to escape from reality into a world where there is a clear difference between the heroes and the villains and right always wins.

    As someone else mentioned, the trend in our culture right now (again) is that to be artistic and good, it has to be depressing. Look at the "popular" shows on TV that get all the awards. Look at the list of best movies. What you saw from Amazon is a reflection of the same thing. (And it's the only way to explain how a comedy/action show like Chuck ended on such a depressing note.)

    I don't follow that philosophy, and it's why I will stick to cozies, thank you very much. (And it's why I am addicted to the USA Network, too.)

    But I completely disagree with your crack about chocolate. Milk chocolate is so much better than dark chocolate.

  15. Rhys, I think the choice of dark and violent for awards may be connected to literary fiction, which is often dark, violent, distant and contemptuous of most of its characters, etc. Therefore, the thrillers and serial killers seem more "literary." I've noticed a tendency on the lit side to only count writers of violent noir as having any literary quality.

    I also think the term "cozy" has a lot to do with dismissing excellent mysteries. Like Julia Spencer-Fleming, I like the term "traditional" rather than "cozy." I think it doesn't make the genre seem so easy to dismiss. I think true "cozies" are a subset of the traditional mystery genre. I also think it's interesting that lots of women are now writing the dark, violent thrillers, yet they're not represented in Edgar nominations nearly as well.

  16. Rhys, I'm with you. "Cozy" sounds quite a bit condescending. In German it's even more so: the german equivalent to "cosy mystery" is "Häkel-Krimi". "Häklen" means "to crochet". What do I have to think of that?! That your books - and the many other wonderful woven stories that belong to that "category" - are supposed to be read by old women sitting by a fire?! (No offense to anyone having crocheting as a hobby! :-) )