Cozy mysteries: also referred to simply as “cozies,” are a subgenre of crime fiction in which sex and violence are downplayed or treated humorously, and the crime and detection take place in a small, socially intimate community.
The noir crime story deals with disorder, disaffection, and dissatisfaction…The typical noir character (if not the typical noir writer) has a jaundiced view of government, power, and the law. He (or sometimes she) is often a loner, a social misfit. If he is on the side of the angels, he is probably a cynical idealist: he believes that society is corrupt, but he also believes in justice and will make it his business to do whatever is necessary to see that justice is done. If he walks the other side of the mean streets, he walks them at night; he is likely a predator, and as morally bankrupt as any human being can be. In the noir world, extremes are the norm. Clashes between good and evil are never petty, and good does not always triumph, nor is justice always done.
At the Left Coast Crime Conference 2014, one of the panels was titled “Cozy Noir: Murder on the Edgy Side.” I’d been struggling with my cozy mystery because though I want to keep the humor, I also want to give the story an edge. This panel seemed tailor-made.
The members of the panel (Andrew Macrae–moderator, Sandra Balzo, Terry Shames, Susan C. Shea, and James Ziskin) got into a great discussion about the two genres and how they can be woven together. You might read the two definitions above and wonder if that’s possible, but we’re writers, yes? We can imagine anything. Each of the writers on the panel placed their work in different positions on the spectrum, yet came up with points upon which they agreed.
For example, they said that Cozy equals Mood and Noir equals Setting (my simplification). Cozy signifies an intimate world, a sense of community. Noir gives the world a more realistic spin, allowing the writer to delve into the darkness of life: that justice tempered is not always justice served, that outcomes are not always fair.
I also have written in yet another genre for which there are conflicting definitions, “magical realism”. For me this means that people and events are not what they seem, that reality can be scratched off at any moment to reveal what lies below, which might be fantastical in either a good or bad way. Noir taps into this for me: it can be the buried inner world of the cozy which a writer can let out of its cage from time to time to paint a deeper picture. The language of magical realism reminds me of the language of noir–it can be lyrical and haunting, and woo you into wondering if the pebbles in your driveway spell out secrets or how the scar came to be on your neighbor’s wrinkled face.
Read this sentence, from one of the masters of Noir, Raymond Chandler:
“On the dance floor half a dozen couples were throwing themselves around with the reckless abandon of a night watchman with arthritis “—Playback
That’s a sentence. He paints a vivid and oppressive scene, a place where you just know the frenetic hedonism on the surface hides big trouble lurking. In my book, about a Hollywood stand-in who is faced with the murder of a star on set, a murder that takes her into some strange byways of Tinseltown, there’s room for Noir.
I use images often to help me write, so I’ll leave you with this one: Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks”.
This painting for me is the visual equivalent of a Cozy-Noir. Inside, the diner is lit with bright yellow light. The light bathes the people safe inside, but fades to black as we look through the fragile glass to the dark street outside. See that shadowed doorway across the street? Anything could be hiding in there. What’s going on in the murk behind those windows on the second floor? What do they sell in that eerie shop across the street? Anyone can be waiting in the alley you know is only just out of the picture. What wonderful/horrible twist to the story will happen when the door opens to admit the next person?
A thousand people could write a thousand completely different stories about this painting, but I imagine most of those stories would weave in both the light and dark you can see in this painting. Jeremiah Moss, in a piece about “Nighthawks” in the New York Times, said when he first came to New York , he “knew it largely, romantically, as a sprawling Hopper painting filled with golden, melancholy light.” Golden and melancholy–Cozy and Noir.
Want to try your hand? Andrew Macrae (moderator of the Cozy-Noir panel at Left Coast Crime 2014), has announced a call for submissions to an anthology of Cozy-Noir Fiction at http://www.darkhousebooks.com/
See also these wonderful stories: http://www.spinetinglermag.com/issues/Fall2006.pdf and http://www.spinetinglermag.com/issues/Winter2006.pdf
And see also this blog post from Wicked Cozy Authors: http://wickedcozyauthors.com/tag/cozy-noir/