Sex and the Cozy
I’m writing this blog in February, and I’m a writer of cozy mysteries. So what’s my theme? Why, romance, of course. This, after all, is the month of roses, hearts, and cupids celebrating the annual cornucopia of love known as Valentine’s Day.
What role does romance play in a cozy mystery? Does a cozy merely hint at romance, with speckles of innocent infatuation and undertones of hidden affairs? Or does a cozy actually lay out carnal lust and steamy sex on the bedsheets of its pages? Although there are no absolute “rules” for what constitutes a cozy mystery, there are conventions. So what can a reader expect when it comes to sex and the cozy?
I’ll begin by examining my own cozy mysteries. Romance is a minor character in my first mystery, A Brush with Murder. There’s a lot of wining and dining when Grace - one of the small-town painters attending the watercolor retreat at the lush garden resort - meets handsome, debonair Arthur. There are other tinges of romance in the story, too, but they’re all pastel - a painter breaks off her illicit affair with the stable manager; another painter is married to a man who is rumored to be unfaithful. These romances color the plot and help to reveal the characters. But none of the love (or loveless) affairs are described in graphic details. Romance is not so much an action figure as it is part of the setting - like puffy clouds and leafy trees.
In both of the novels from my Watercolor Mysteries, the main sleuth, Jane Roland, is a single woman with a keen ability to observe and deduce. Although there is love in this older woman’s life, it’s not revealed until the second book, Skeleton in the Art Closet, when we are welcomed into her home. There, we find Jane being soothed by two sensual and handsome companions who often lie with her on couch and bed. Whoa - I’m not describing a kinky threesome! Jane’s attractive and attentive housemates are two Siamese cats. (Definitely not the targets of romantic love as it's usually conceived.)
Perhaps romance plays a more lusty role in other author’s cozy mysteries?
Most people look to the prolific Agatha Christie as the “classic” writer of cozy mysteries. She is best known for her two series, each starring (like my Jane Roland) an older sleuth: Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple. As is often the case with a cozy mystery, both of Dame Agatha’s sleuths lack a detailed past. They don’t have damaged psyches from early traumas. Nor are they are portrayed as carnal beings. Their bodies are simply vehicles that support their healthy, nimble, extraordinary minds. While it is true that spurned love and jealous rage are the motives for the carnage that turns the plot in some of Dame Agatha’s books, the reader encounters the motive when whodunnit is unmasked. We don’t revel alongside the guilty parties in their bedrooms.
What about dramatizations of cozy mysteries? Several TV series have popularized this genre, and TV is certainly a graphic medium. From “across the pond” (starting from my home in Georgia), the long-running “Midsomer Murders” is a well-known cozy mystery series. And, traveling north along America’s Atlantic coast, we can watch twelve seasons of sleuth Jessica Fletcher starring in “Murder She Wrote.” In both of these TV series, the sleuth is (like Monsieur Poirot and Miss Marple) basically a head case. Although Detective Barnaby (both the former and the current) of "Midsomer Murders” does have a home life, complete with spouse and child, his closest encounter with his wife is a chaste peck on the cheek. Fletcher of “Murder She Wrote” is a widow, and her relationships with the town sheriff and doctor are strictly platonic. The sleuths are never portrayed in anything more than a mild flirtation. And, although lust or jealousy may supply the motive for the mayhem in either series, romance is never displayed in its more graphic form - sex.
Lust - including both blood and sex - is certainly a notable feature in darker mysteries; the kinds of books that aim to terrify or horrify a reader. Graphic scenes involving blood, terror, and sex are standard fare in crime, psychological thriller, and noir genres. Moving to the romance genre, erotic scenes are featured in bodice-rippers and sometimes even in the lighter rom-coms.
But the cozy mystery is a gentler, genteel genre. I don’t think its goal is to scald the reader with a boiling cup of coffee or douse the reader with a shot of hard whiskey. Instead, reading a cozy might be compared to afternoon tea poured from a china pot. In my opinion, and in my novels, a cozy mystery is a chance for the reader to meet some delightful characters who resemble the folks next door. The reader is invited in for tea and joins with these hometown inhabitants to solve a mystery. Can a cozy be surprising? Definitely. Charming? Certainly. But shocking? I don’t think that’s what our readers are looking for. Yes, Cupid’s arrow may kill off our victims, but we don’t force our readers to mop up the dripping gore or crawl through the sweaty linens. When it comes to romance, I’d say that the cozy mystery is masterful at cuddling, but not curdling.