Stretching the limits of the cozy
by Judy Alter
Writing across genres is a big deal these days. Writers worry about the non-traditional novel, the one that doesn’t quite fit in any of the standard sub-genres but has touches of all—cozy, thriller, supernatural, whatever.
I have always been comfortable writing—and mostly reading—cozies. I think it harks back to my Nancy Drew introduction to mysteries—no blood, no guts, no vampires, but fun. The kind of reading where you like the characters and find yourself immersed in their world, so much so that you are reluctant to finish the book and close it. The kind of reading that occasionally makes you laugh out loud. The kind of reading that supplies suspense and a puzzle but doesn’t scare you to death.
|A Craftsman home from the|
Kelly O'Connell mysteries
So what’s verboten in a cozy? Well, a lot of things—on-scene violence, rape, child abuse, torture, but not murder or sex either one. They just happen off-screen. I felt I pushed the boundaries with No Neighborhood for Old Women, because it revolved around a serial killer. Somehow I didn’t think the villain was your standard serial killer novel. The victims were all older ladies—doesn’t make it less horrible, as I can attest, being an “older lady” myself. But they were specific targets, and they weren’t killed for the joy or thrill of killing. I think the last point made the difference for me. I could not get into the mind of someone who killed for the pleasure of it.
When I started writing Danger Cones Home, I discussed it with my longtime mentor, the man who has seen me through everything from a dissertation to western novels to mysteries. When I outlined my ideas for the novel, he nodded and then slowly asked, “Are you sure you want to touch the subjects of child abuse and drug rings?” I said I thought I should spread my wings and do it.
In the end, as you’ll see in Danger Comes Home, I pretty much bowed to the conventions of the cozy, though the drug ring aspect is a bit dark. The child abuse is emotional, never physical, though the child fears being hit in anger. But she has a protector. I simply don’t write dark.
I recently read a thriller by Polly Iyer, who is in my opinion a wonderful, talented writer. But she writes of the dark side of humanity and all the while I was reading—and perched on the edge of my seat—I was both captivated by a riveting story and fascinated by her ability to write scenes that I could never ever put on paper.
I write cozies. If I add a dark touch here and there, I don’t think that makes them cross-genre novels. I could never reach the tension that Polly Iyer achieves. And maybe I don’t want to, just because I’m me—Pollyanna in Mary Janes who happens to write about murder.
A Note about Craftsman Homes, which Kelly O'Connell Restores
The Craftsman movement grew out of revolt against the disappearance of the individual craftsman in the assembly lines of that Industrial Revolution. Many architects, artists, and others believed that the Industrial Revolution devalued nature and the human touch in favor of progress and production, the result being second-rate mass-produced objects. The movement encompassed architecture, furniture, landscape, almost all areas of design, and was tied to a lifestyle philosophy.
Mixed materials were another hallmark of Craftsman homes, and exteriors were generally wood or shingle with frequent use of stone. Gabled or hipped low-pitched roof lines sloped gently down to the exterior walls. Encircling front porches were large and generally covered by an extension of the main roof of the house. These porches and often the interior sported open rafters and brackets. Tapered square columns supporting the roof at the front of the porch were common. The bungalow, a house reduced to its simplified form, is the most common Craftsman house.
About Trouble in a Big Box
Kelly O’Connell’s husband, Mike Shandy, insists she has a talent for trouble, but how can she sit idly by while her world is shattering. Daughter Maggie is hiding a runaway classmate; protégé Joe Mendez seems to be hanging out again with his former gang friends and ignoring his lovely wife Theresa; drug dealers have moved into her beloved Fairmount neighborhood. And amidst all this, reclusive former diva Lorna McDavid expects Kelly to do her grocery shopping. In spite of Mike’s warnings, Kelly is determined to save the runaway girl and her abused mother and find out what’s troubling Joe, even when those things lead back to the drug dealers. Before all the tangles in the neighborhood are untangled, Kelly finds herself wondering who to trust, facing drug dealers, and seeing more of death than she wants. But she also tests upscale hot dog recipes and finds a soft side to the imperious recluse, Lorna McDavid. It’s a wild ride, but she manages, always, to protect her daughters and keep Mike from worrying about her—at least not too much.
Excerpt from Trouble in a Big Box
And so we chattered away about plans for the summer as we rounded the corner onto Magnolia. Pony Tail leaned against the building, idly watching us, and didn’t move. Thus began the longest two-block walk I’ve ever taken. I couldn’t ask Mona if she was as wired as I was, but I felt as though my back had a bull’s eye painted on it. Each time we took a step forward, I told myself we were that much closer to the office, but half of me didn’t believe we’d ever make it. There were people on the street ahead of us, and I didn’t dare turn around to see if Pony Tail—or anyone else—was behind us.
“You’re walking too fast,” Mona said. “Dead giveaway, slow down and tell me what you’re cooking for supper tonight.”
Wow! She’s better than I am at this. She’s probably had more practice. I waved a hand vaguely in the air. “I don’t have any more idea about that than you do about Jenny’s summer. I bet you and Jenny will have supper with us so something that feeds a crowd. Maybe Mike will grill hamburgers, and I can pick up some potato salad or something.”
An award-winning novelist, Judy Alter is the author of three books in the Kelly O’Connell Mysteries series: Skeleton in a Dead Space, No Neighborhood for Old Women, and Trouble in a Big Box, and Danger Comes Home. She is alsoof the author Murder at the Blue Plate Café
Her work has been recognized with awards from the Western Writers of America, the Texas Institute of Letters, and the National Cowboy Museum and Hall of Fame. She has been honored with the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement by WWA and inducted into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame.
Judy the mother of four grown children and the grandmother of seven.