Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Would You Say a Louise Penny Book Is a "Cozy" Mystery? I Say It's NOT!

Louise Penny's 2011 title, A Trick of the Light, showed up on crime fiction reviewer Marilyn Stasio's list of best crime novels of the year last Sunday. That's great -- no question that Penny is a powerful writer and the titles keep amassing awards for her. What shocked me, though, was Stasio pronouncing the book to be her Favorite Cozy for the year.

It's not that I want to argue for another title -- rather, I disagree vehemently about classifying A Trick of the Light, or any other Louise Penny book, as a cozy.

Yes, Penny's series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache was initially nicknamed the "Three Pines" series, after the apocryphal Eastern Townships (rural Quebec) village that anchors many of the continued characters in the books. Maybe that conditioned some readers to think of the novels as "cozy." It's a subgenre label, and I checked in with www.cozy-mystery.com to get one authoritative version of how the subgenre is described:
Cozy mysteries have become a booming business. Many cozy mystery readers are intelligent women looking for a “fun read” that engages the mind, as well as provides entertainment… something to “look forward to getting back to.” This is not to say that intelligent men don’t read cozies…they do!
The crime-solver in a cozy mystery is usually a woman who is an amateur sleuth. Almost always, she has a college degree, whether she is using it or not. Her education and life’s experiences have provided her with certain skills that she will utilize in order to solve all the crimes that are “thrown her way.” The cozy mystery heroine is usually a very intuitive, bright woman. The occupations of the amateur sleuths are very diverse: caterer, bed and breakfast owner, quilter, cat fancier/owner, nun, gardener, librarian, book store owner, herbalist, florist, dog trainer, homemaker, teacher, needlepoint store owner, etc. These are just a few examples of what the amateur sleuth does…. When she’s not solving crimes, that is!
The cozy mystery usually takes place in a small town or village . The small size of the setting makes it believable that all the suspects know each other. The amateur sleuth is usually a very likeable person who is able to get the community members to talk freely (i.e. gossip) about each other. There is usually at least one very knowledgeable and nosy (and of course, very reliable!) character in the book who is able to fill in all of the blanks, thus enabling the amateur sleuth to solve the case.
Okay, there's that village hook I mentioned -- and the website author has even written an extra piece about the role of the village in the "cozy." Particularly in terms of the scope of plot and characters, the village setting creates a boundary: The villain/murderer must be part of the village, to satsify the "cozy" conventions. The village also allows the amateur sleuth to apply her (or his) understanding of the frailties and resentments within a small group of people. (I'm probably least concerned with the "niceness" of the subgenre -- many of its devoted readers say that they like it because there won't be material that makes them uncomfortable.)

But Penny and her publisher made a decision quite a few "titles" ago to change the name of the series, and thus the books' subtitles, away from "Three Pines," to "A Chief Inspector Armand Gamache Novel." And it's my contention that it was done for two reasons: (1) so Penny could alternate settings, which she now does regularly, putting one book in the village, the next well outside it (Montreal, say, or Quebec City), and (2) to escape the subgenre implications of the village name.

In fact, the later name of the series says quite clearly that it's a police detective series. And I maintain that A Trick of the Light is not just a police detective novel, but a segment of the ongoing dark underplot that links all of these books: Something is seriously rotten in the Sureté, the Quebec police force -- Armand Gamache has discovered the rot, attempted to expose it, been wounded both physically and emotionally by the forces of evil that thrive on that rot.  Even when he's in Three Pines, urging his detectives to pursue the trail of a criminal, Gamache is dogged by the knowledge that he hasn't actually rooted it out of the very organization he works for.

In fact, if my nose for plot is accurate, I'd make a guess that the arc of the series will position Three Pines as the (somewhat poisoned) pole of strength that pulls against the darkness ahead. Of course, because Penny creates complex plots and characters, it will run deeper than that; there have already been frightening hints that significant local resident Clara and her husband (their viewpoints are often narrated) are headed for disaster and that their quandary will drag others along. In fact, the reason Gamache and his team keep returning to the otherwise idyllic Three Pines (a sort of Brigadoon village that people discover when they "need" it) is revealed, over and over, to be related to a mirror-version rot in the pretty little town. Why else would it have such a terrible murder rate and such dreadful twists in the people living there?

I could go on with more reasons that this isn't a cozy -- the sleuth is not an amateur but a professional, the violence may not be gory but it's still horrible, the betrayals are not confined to one or two characters, Gamache is likeable on the outside but clearly a dangerous man when you know him better, and there have already been quite a variety of "uncomfortable"  scenes in the book. Plus, if you look further on www.cozy-mystery.com, you'll find the site author admitting that in cozies, "The victim is usually a character who had terrible vices or who treated others very badly. Dare I say…. the victim 'deserved to die'?”

And that's my final discussion point: Penny's crime fiction portrays what we readers already know from our daily news -- that many of the people who die violent deaths, especially when they live in places where we may actually know them, are not people who "deserve to die." They are innocent victims (like one whose death literally haunts Gamache) or potentially retrievable idiots whose stupidity has led them to bad choices.

So: I maintain that the Louise Penny series is absolutely not a cozy series. I understand the urge people have to apply the "village" rule and classify some of her titles that way. But I feel it's a serious mistake in reading the books and their very savvy, sophisticated, and determined author.

Discussion, anyone??


Suzy Hillard said...

I agree wholeheartedly that the Armand Gamache series by Louise Penny is not a "cozy". They are complex mysteries as you indicate. I love the cast of characters and their interactions, which delve deeper and deeper in each book. (I'm going through them in order and have 3 to go.)

I'm so glad to have found your blog! I love reading mysteries and have already read/liked a book I discovered here . . Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter.

Beth Kanell said...

Thanks, Suzy Hillard; great to hear from you. I'll be interested in what you think after reading the most recent three of Louise Penny's books, too.

suzy hillard said...

just reading Notable Crime Books of 2011 at NYTimes and they call Trick of Light the "best cozy" of 2011. darn!

Beth Kanell said...

Yes, that's where I started this discussion: with that discovery. I feel strongly that the term "cozy" is being misused for the Penny series. See the next post, later this evening, for a discussion of a different way to name the types of mysteries.

ckubala said...

Agreed and you say it so well. I'm only on the second in the series but can already see the tone is changing from light to something much more complex. Thank you for your excellent argument and rationale against calling these cozies.

Beth Kanell said...

This year's upcoming release from Louise Penny should be well worth the wait; CKubala, I hope you have a chance to enjoy the rest of the series before the end of August, when the next book arrives!