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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

On the Origins of the Term Cozy Mystery


I've never been very fond of the term cozy, as used to refer to a style of mystery fiction. I could go on at length as to my reasons, but Patrick from At the Scene of the Crime did exactly that a while back and I don't have much to add to what he had to say on the topic.

I did start wondering how and when this term originated and how it came to relate to a particular subgenre of mystery fiction. So I decided to do some investigating. I'll say at the outset that this is not an exhaustively researched article and it's not intended to be the last word on the topic. Rather it's just a few thoughts on the matter using some resources that I had immediately at hand.

When I searched for the term "cozy mystery" and several variations thereof in the Google News archive the oldest reference I ran across was a New York Times article from 1992. It's called Murder Least Foul: The Cozy, Soft-Boiled Mystery and it's a somewhat extensive look at cozies. It doesn't offer much in the way of explanations for the origin of the term other than to suggest that the attributes for a cozy mystery had been spelled out by the Malice Domestic group by the time of their first convention in 1989. At their web site nowadays Malice Domestic seems to prefer the term "traditional mystery" to describe this type of work.

Going back about a decade and a half earlier to Dilys Winn's Murder Ink: The Mystery Reader's Companion (1977) you'll find several references to the cozy, with such writers as Edmund Crispin, Margaret Yorke and Michael Innes being numbered among those who write them. Because I didn't actually have access to this volume in its entirety as I was writing this piece that's about as much as I can say about that for now.

Other early references to cozy mystery include a reference to "a nice, cozy mystery story" in a 1963 edition of the New Yorker magazine. Again, without full access to this particular issue I have no context for the reference and can't even be sure what story was being discussed. Going back quite a bit further, almost a century, as a matter of fact, you'll find a character in a 1868 novel making a reference to "an air of cozy mystery." Which doesn’t seem to have much to do with cozy mystery, given that the book, The Dear Girl, by Percy Hetherington Fitzgerald, is apparently a work of mainstream fiction.

Regardless of how you feel about the term cozy or the subgenre itself, you might find this dissertation by Katherine Hansen Clark of some interest. It's called What Is a Cozy? and it takes a close look at the history of the subgenre, its readership and more. Clark states that the first usage of the term in its current context was in a 1958 article in the London Observer but doesn't go any further into the history of the term itself. It's an interesting work nonetheless and worth taking a look at.

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