How Cozy Is Noir?

The genre question used to be so easy for a mystery writer. One wrote hard-boiled private eye novels, or cozies (under whatever name). The choice was, to a certain degree, determined by one’s nationality and sex. English women wrote cozies. American men wrote noir.

Yes, I know I’m over-simplifying, but there really was, once upon a time, a pretty clear dichotomy.

Then that began to change. For one thing, with the likes of Sara Paretsky and Marcia Muller, the hard-boiled private eye was, lo and behold, a woman! No longer was Miss Marple drinking tea and knitting her idyllic English village; she’d shed a good many years and put on running shoes and some salty language and quite a lot of attitude. The world would never be the same. And then the men in the field began to learn that they didn’t have to have a bottle rye stashed in the desk and a blond sitting on top of it. They could express emotion. They could, on occasion, cry over the death of a child.

Slowly, the situation evolved into what we have now, which could be expressed as “anything goes.” Now that sounds like a huge dose of freedom. I can write anything I want, not bound by any genre rules. I can put my private eye (of either sex) in a pink suit and set him/her down in either a tea shop or a mean street corner. He/she can crack wise with every word uttered, or spout profundities. My protagonist can be gay, straight, black, white, tan, happily or unhappily married, single, or divorced, with or without kids. Heck, she can even be a kid, in a book written for adults. There are no rules.

The trouble is, rules make writing a lot easier. It’s easier to write a sonnet or a haiku than free verse, because the structure is laid down for you. You just need to fill in the blanks. Note I didn’t say, to write a good sonnet. That takes a lot of hard work and no small helping of genius. But any fool can crank out fourteen lines with the rhymes in the right places.

I’ve been writing cozies for nearly twenty years now. I knew the genre and its conventions well, and could fill in the blanks with a certain amount of style. But although the genre was a bit old-fashioned even when I began, and was beginning to metamorphose, it has certainly changed now, almost out of all recognition. The trouble is, I haven’t changed with it, or not very much. What should I do about that? I’d love to make my protagonist a little more solid, her environment a little less pleasant and more like the real world. I’d love to introduce some issues I could get my teeth into. In fact, I’d love to write like Louise Penny, who is my idol right now.

But there are problems. First, of course, I’m simply not as gifted a writer as she, and I recognize that. But even if I could do it, would I lose my readers? They’ve come to expect a certain kind of book from me. Would I alienate them if I evolved as a writer? Or should I start a new series with a different color, a slightly darker shade of pale? The thought terrifies me. What if I couldn’t find a publisher? Would I have to write under a pseudonym?

It must have been lovely to be Agatha Christie.


3 Responses

  1. You and me both! I didn’t know Louise Penny until someone compared me to her, but when I read her books I could hardly believe that anyone would think of us in the same breath.

    I can’t be anybody but myself, but that doesn’t mean I can’t change at all. Right now I’m messing with the idea for another book that I feel good about (yes, in spite of the ethical minefields I worried about in an early blog). Should I try a whole new series, different from my comfort zone? Or should I shoehorn it into the one I know so well? And use the shoehorn to stretch my characters?


  2. I think there are writers with one voice, and if it’s a good one, that seems enough. Other writers have many voices and try them all. It’s a choice.

    We all know what happens when a writer forces a voice and is (un)lucky enough to get it published.

    I think Stephen King did that in his “literary novel” recently. IMO, each page sounded more forced than the last. The same with John Grisham’s and — alas — Sara Paretsky’s attempts.

  3. If something terrifies you, maybe that’s a good sign–maybe you should go with it. “I can’t be anybody but myself”–but there are many “myselfs” inside you.

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