by Janis Patterson
I like cozy mysteries - admittedly more the traditional kind (amateur sleuth, real world, adults who act like adults, lack of gratuitous sex or violence) than the currently trendy kind (talking animals, ‘cute’ jobs, ditzy heroines with shoe fetishes, witches and paranormal abilities, etc.) I do read both kinds though, as well as an occasional noir or hard-boiled one just for a little bit of variety.
However, like too much sugar or salt can ruin a dish and make it unpalatable I am noticing a disturbing trend in the ‘new’ cozy tales, namely a blatantly advertised cast of ‘quirky’ characters.
Now everyone has (or should have) at least one quirky person in their lives, if for no other reason to give them a laugh or at least make them appreciate the sanity of everyone else. When an entire village, or apartment house, or island or whatever physical location of the story is populated with nothing but quirky characters - and they are touted as one of the desirable draws of said location - I begin to feel that this is not so much a place of mystery as an open-air asylum.
You know the type I’m talking about - the grandmother who habitually crawls out windows because she wants to avoid the nosy neighbors. The heroine who puts herself into a known and extreme danger without a compelling reason, just curiosity. The cat/dog/horse/mongoose who not only investigates the crime but generally solves it, though it generally gives the credit to the heroine. Sometimes they even talk.
And while I enjoy an occasional ghost story, the mysteries where the ghost becomes a helpful partner in investigating the crime, or a coven (or several) of witches solve crimes through their magic powers or just about anything like that can make a book fly headfirst into the garbage can. Don’t let me get started on shapeshifters or other magical entities... my thoughts on them are not suitable for public pixilation! I know many many people like all of these kinds of characters - they have to, or there wouldn’t be so many of them - but I don’t. Those of you who do, I wish you good fortune and much joy of them. I just won’t be joining you.
The most ubiquitous offense to my mind is the stupidity of these quirky characters. Some of them do things and say things that would get them arrested at the least and institutionalized at the worst, and with no visible reason other than they have to do it in order to further the story. And that, unfortunately, crosses the line from plotting/character preference into the realm of bad writing. I am a firm believer that characters shape the storyline - the storyline doesn’t dictate the characters.
So, to keep from appearing a total grump, I guess I should tell you what I do like. Real people, understandable people, people like you could meet at the store or church or live next door to, who are suddenly and irrevocably thrown into an extraordinary situation which they feel they must investigate either to save themselves or someone/thing that they love, or (depending on their character) to prevent a miscarriage of justice. Yes, there still are people like that. Perhaps they are nosy more than being involved, but asking a few questions of people is different from beginning the investigation by breaking into a deserted factory at midnight. And yes, these stories can have humor, but it is a real, organic humor that grows out of the situation rather than the author visibly thinking, “I need to put a laugh in here, so So-And-So has to do something quirky.” (I admit that is an exaggeration, but not much of one...)
I have a dear friend of many years, a lovely, accomplished and very intelligent lady who will not read anything which does not make her laugh. No matter the author, no matter the location, it has to be a cozy mystery, but if it doesn’t make her laugh out loud in the first five pages out it goes. I don’t understand that and think she is missing out on a boatload of good stories, but that is her parameter of reading pleasure, so joy go with her. Needless to say, we have agreed on the merits of very few novels.
So perhaps the best definition of what I like are scenarios in which I can picture myself or my friends being caught in and how we handle things which are to us totally alien - and none of us are ‘quirky.’
At least, not much.