Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Why Louise Penny’s Cozies Are Creepier Than My Noirs

John McFetridge

I guess this is a sub-category of Dave’s terrific One Stop Blog Shop “Literary vs. Genre,” topic, the Cozy vs. Noir. Or really, this is about how I learned to stop worrying and love cozies.

People have all kinds of reasons why they like those small village, quirky character, brilliant detective stories we call cozies. They can be like comfort food, spending time with “old friends,” seeing justice served, bad guys (or bad women, oh so may bad women) arrested and sometimes you get a good recipe for scones – whatever they are.

A few years ago Louise Penny burst onto the scene and I seemed to be running into her everywhere – Arthur Ellis Awards in Toronto (she won Best First Novel for Still Life), Bouchercon in Madison, BookExpo Canada – and she was always, as you would expect from a cozy writer, so nice.

Except her books aren’t nice. No cozy is nice. They’re creepy. Way creepier than my urban crime books.

Still Life is a terrific book. The setting is great, it’s a small village called Three Pines in an area of Quebec southeast of Montreal called the Eastern Townships. Pretty much the only rural part of Quebec with a history of English-speaking residents, though nowadays the majority is likely French. Three Pines is a great place to spend time. The people are so wonderfully... quirky.

Oh, and they’re also all cold-blooded, calculating murderers.

Okay, they’re not all murderers, but every single one of them could be. Think about that for a minute.

People keep getting murdered in this small town and the brilliant police detective Armand Gamache has to look at everyone as a suspect.

And that’s where cozies creep me out. Every one of these people, every relative of the deceased, every friend (ha!), acquaintance, neighbour, employer, employee -- everyone could reasonably have committed the murder. Everyone had a possible motive, possible means and apparently, the ability to do it.

And often the murder itself is creepy. Crossbow? Electrocution?

In my urban crime novels murder is the last resort of a business deal. Really, we’ve tried everything, bribery, negotation, compromise, everything, and it just didn’t work so someone had to be killed. And they were just shot. In the head. No one gets strung up in the woods or posed to look like they worship the Devil or anything like that. Characters in my novels would never stop to think about how someone was going to be killed. Oh, maybe they would want them killed in their own home or in their place of business to make the point that they’re always vulnerable because what’s really at stake is power and sometimes people have to prove they hold the more powerful position but if they can't manage that easily enough, anywhere will do really. And the police know pretty much right away who did it – at least which group did it, if not the specific triggerman.

In my urban crime novels the only people who kill someone to solve a problem are professional criminals, people who spend all day everyday breaking the law in one way or another. Even these criminals would be shocked if someone they knew killed a family member in order to inherit an old house.

But that happens all the time in cozies.

So, what do you think? Are cozies creepy?


Steve Weddle said...

Good points. This is why I don't travel to New England. That place is full of cozy killers.

Scott D. Parker said...

You know, I never truly thought of it this way. My eyes have been opened. Too often, the violence is off-screen for cozies and there's the perception that the events in cozies are not violent. They truly are and, like you say, take forethought. That's creepy.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Set cozies in the city and you might have a real winner.

John McFetridge said...

As self-promotion is completely okay on this blog, I should have linked to my flash fiction, Cozy Noir.

Jay Stringer said...

You know, i'd never thought of it that way before. I see your point.

Bernadette said...

I once watched 2 seasons of the TV version of cozies (Murder she wrote) in one weekend (don't ask why) and came to the same conculsion. If I had a choice on which one to live in I'd certainly go for urban decay over village charm with where everyone but person COULD be a nasty, petty killer. You'd have to sleep with one eye open.

Barbara Martin said...

I see your point, perfectly.