I credit author Andrew MacRae for birthing the term Cozy-Noir. He coined the phrase to describe his first mystery, Murder Misdirected. At Left Coast Crime 2014, he moderated a panel on Cozy-Noir, which in turn engendered a hashtag. Now there is to be an anthology devoted to this newly invented mystery sub-genre.
So, what happens when we throw the disparate cozy and noir together in a blender? First let’s look at the two ingredients:
The on-line Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines noir as “crime fiction featuring hard-boiled cynical characters and bleak sleazy settings.” In America, I think of the tradition born with Dashiell Hammett, extending through Elmore Leonard and beyond. Noir is atmospheric and moody. The main character does not have to be a detective. He is often a victim, suspect or even perpetrator. The writing style is lean. There may be hints (or more) of steamy sex.
While in noir the protagonist is usually male, in a cozy the protagonist is likely to be a female amateur sleuth. This woman is smart and intuitive. She often has an occupation which factors into the crime solving. It could be anything from running a yoga studio to concocting herbal potions. A cozy usually takes place in a . . . well . . . cozy setting—a village like Cabot Cove. The amateur sleuth is often aided by a friend or love interest with connections to law enforcement. A cozy keeps the violence off-stage and the language PG. Look for a cat, dog, or perhaps an amusing parrot.
In Andrew MacRae’s Murder Misdirected we end up with a great blend of the two traditions. The book is set in a thinly disguised San Francisco, the home of Hammett’s writing. MacRae’s protagonist is The Kid, a pickpocket, the kind of person we might find at the center of an Elmore Leonard novel. And one of my favorite places in the mystery is a strip joint called The Pink Poodle. All very noir-ish.
However, this pickpocket is more loveable than cynical. Some scenes take place in the rain and fog of the city, but just as often The Kid hangs out in the wonderfully cozy Book Nook, complete with a bookstore cat, Junior. The narrative drive and gentle humor is more cozy than noir. There may be a strip club in the book, but there’s no T & A, and no foul language. So, there you have it—one sample of Cozy-Noir.
The discussion of Cozy-Noir raises the larger issue of the restrictions of genres and their more discrete sub-genres. Definitions may be useful for readers with a particular taste, but don’t we all want a little surprise? What reader of mystery doesn’t like a twist? I enjoyed Murder, She Wrote until I figured out its formula. Once I did, I always knew who the murderer would be and lost interest.
When I was on a panel presentation at a library, the librarian complained of the difficulty of shelving some of the new mysteries. Janet Evanovich, she pointed out, has broken all the rules. On one hand, her books look like cozies. Her female protagonist stumbles into the world of bail bonds. However, Evanovich’s world is full of “cynical characters and bleak sleazy settings.” Beware if R-rated language is not your thing. Yet, the books are humorous, more a feature of cozy than noir.
My own books defy a neat pigeonhole, too. The cover designer stated she wanted an image that conveyed “not gory, but dark.” In the first book, my female protagonist is an amateur sleuth (cozy), but also a suspect (noir). Cara Black once remarked that my heroine Carol Sabala “has a mouth on her,” and yet, like Evanovich, I aim for a degree of humor. And there is a cat!
Cozy-Noir is certainly a better fit for my books than cozy or noir. I’m glad that Andrew MacRae invented the phrase.
Vinnie Hansen writes the Carol Sabada series of mysteries. To find out more about Vinnie and her books, see www.vinniehansen.com.