It started with a profile of Hillary Clinton that appeared in the May 10 issue of New York Magazine. Among other topics, author Rebecca Traister wrote about Clinton’s reading preferences:
In person, she presents, at 68, as a nana. When she tells me what she reads, she sounds just like my mother and so many other women I know, describing how she has become addicted to mystery novels. She cites the Maisie Dobbs books by Jacqueline Winspear and Donna Leon’s series set in Venice, explaining, “I’ve read so much over the course of my life that now I’m much more into easier things to read. I like a lot of women authors, novels about women, mysteries where a woman is the protagonist … It’s relaxing.”
I was pleased to learn that Clinton enjoys the works of Jacqueline Winspear and Donna Leon. Both are fine novelists, especially Leon who, with The Waters of Eternal Youth, has just hit it right out of the ball park. May I venture an opinion that by saying these books are easy to read, Clinton is comparing them to some of the policy papers and similar material that she has to not only wade through but also master. To then allow herself to become engrossed in a good story well told and peopled with interesting characters must be a profound relief.
In late June, an article by Maureen Corrigan in the Washington Post amplified the subject of Hillary Clinton’s reading taste. Corrigan claimed that in the New York Magazine piece, Clinton was guilty of “a minor flub.” She quotes Rebecca Traister’s ad hoc clarification to the effect that “…Clinton is no cinnamon-scented Mrs Tiggy-Winkle” (a reference which I found baffling and had to look up). Corrigan counters:
But that is, indeed, the patronizing image that bedevils female readers of cozy mysteries. The idea that these writers — and “women’s mysteries” in general — are “easier to read” sounds a tad trivializing.
Right off the bat, let’s assume that Maureen Corrigan – frequent reviewer of mysteries for the Post – did not mean to imply that Donna Leon is a writer of cozy crime fiction. On the contrary, her novels are concerned with the most basic truths and the fathomless complexity of human motivations. Winspear’s works may be somewhat lighter, but I don’t know that I’d call them cozies either. (The last one I read, Pardonable Lies, was excellent.)
So, then – what exactly is a cozy:
Cozy mysteries, also referred to simply as “cozies”, are a subgenre of crime fiction in which sex and violence are downplayed or treated humorously, and the crime and detection take place in a small, socially intimate community.
From “The Immense Popularity of Cozy Mysteries,” a piece by Kristen Houghton on the Huffington Post site:
Cozies are fun to read. There’s a formula to the cozies that work very well drawing readers back again and again. The amateurs in such stories are nearly always well educated, intuitive women. Books, especially in series form usually have the story line relate to the detective’s job or hobby. Murderers in cozy mysteries are generally intelligent, rational, articulate people, and murders are pretty much bloodless and neat. Violence and sex are low-key and supporting background characters bring comic relief to the story. Some cozy series are set during holidays such as Valentine Day or Christmas making them more intimate to the reader.
See the article on the Cozy Mystery List site for a yet more extended treatment of this subject.
I seem to recall reading somewhere that Lawrence Block defines a cozy mystery as one in which a cat figures prominently in the plot. (I believe this was a tongue-in-cheek offering, but one can never be sure, especially where Block is concerned.)
Finally, a spirited riposte appeared earlier this month in the Post’s Letters to the Editor column. Written by Claire Tieder, it’s entitled “Intellectuals like reading mysteries, thank you very much:”
As one egghead to another, and on behalf of my many egghead friends: Thanks Claire!
Let me also add that I read my share of cozy mysteries, chief among them M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth novels and the No.1 Ladies’ Detective novels and the Corduroy Mansions series by the prodigiously gifted Alexander McCall Smith.