Recently, I published my second mystery novel, entitled Murder at the People’s Theater. Mystery fiction is generally divided into two categories, the hard-boiled and the cozy. Typically, the hard-boiled detective is a solitary figure who walks the mean and often rain-swept streets of a major city in pursuit of justice, whatever that means in the morally relative—at times, corrupt—universe that the detective inhabits. Traditionally, that city is Los Angeles, but at this point, pick anywhere on the map.
This investigator acts according to a moral code from which he—or she—never waivers. The violence committed by the perpetrator or by the detective is right there on the page (and in this context, it can be hard to tell them apart), as is the sexual content of the novel. Although the detective may be a solitary figure, living and working alone, the investigator does take time out for a liaison or two, often with someone who may or may not be in handcuffs at the conclusion of the case. The hard-boiled detective bears the scars of this profession, which can include not only physical injuries but the deeper emotional wounds that take longer to heal. And there is often a more-than-medicinal dose of alcohol to lubricate the lonely nights experienced by an individual who still operates according to a clear sense of right and wrong, at times hampered by a justice system that appears to have forgotten the difference.
Murder at the People’s Theater falls under the category of cozy. Here is a synopsis:
Taking a break from the academic life, Erica Duncan starts a new job in the producer’s office at the prestigious People’s Theater but soon discovers that the position holds more drama than expected. In search of its next big hit, the theater is presenting Michelangelo: The Musical, focusing on the life and loves of the artist. When an unassuming co-worker is found murdered in the theater lobby, her body posed in a copy of Michelangelo’s The Creation of Man, this is the kind of publicity that the show does not need. At the People’s Theater, Erica assumes the role of detective, never an easy part, especially in a place when almost everyone is an actor, and self-invention is a way of life. Murder at the People’s Theater is also a story of mothers and children, from Michelangelo and his mother, and the actors who play them, to the birth mother who has no interest in being found by the daughter she gave up for adoption 20 years earlier.
The cozy is supposed to serve up a more “genteel” form of murder. Violence is underplayed and sexual activity can be suggested but occurs offstage. This detective is often an amateur, unlike the hard-boiled detective for whom it’s not just a job but a life. The amateur and, at times, unwilling detective holds tight to a moral compass that directs her—or him—to do the right thing, even when deterred or actively discouraged by those who insist that he or she move on, nothing to see here.
The detective in a cozy could well be risking his or her (day) job but still persists, even when faced with polite but pointed threats to life and limb. The hard-boiled detective may work alone, but the detective in cozy fiction is part of a community: a theater or a college are two that spring immediately to my mind. Essential to the cozy is an understanding of the world in which the mystery unfolds, the code by which this culture operates providing an essential clue to the solution of the mystery itself.
In the twenty-first century, we have come a long way from the cozy being the exclusive domain of ladies who sip tea at garden parties and wear funny hats. Hard-boiled fiction, considered the more masculine genre, has been taken more seriously in part because it is more serious: unlike the sometimes humorous approach to murder in a cozy, there are not a lot of laughs in the cynical and world-weary perspective of the typical hard-boiled detective. But it would be inaccurate to suggest that the cozy is a “kinder, gentler” form of murder.
Yes, the detective usually emerges from the experience physically unharmed, but the same cannot be said for the murder victim, who still dies a violent death at the hands of another. (Based on my first two novels, I have a thing for head wounds, apparently, something I had not noticed until recently.) And the cozy does what all mysteries do: after the murder, we learn unflattering information about the victim in order to shift the emphasis from sympathy for the deceased to solving the case.
Making the victim less sympathetic cannot change or erase the fact that we have someone who has been handed a punishment far worse that the wrongs, real or imagined, that he or she may have committed because someone has decided to serve as judge, jury, and executioner. But the point of the exercise, for both the amateur and the professional detective, as well as the reading audience, is to solve the crime, so that is where the emphasis should be.