Friday, October 14, 2005


Who uses it: Mystery readers, writers and booksellers
What it means: A type of mystery novel that is non-violent, in which the crime or murder happens off-stage, and the detective is usually an amateur thrown into the investigation by circumstance.
How you can use it: To describe something that is not as taxing as it might be.

Some people in the crime fiction community (how's that for a phrase) have strong feelings about the word "cozy," and about the very idea of a murder mystery that is not violent and painful. Some authors aren't crazy about the term, and lots of mysteries -- Julia Spencer-Fleming's, for example -- are not particularly violent, and feature a non-professional detective, but hardly make light of serious crime. Discomfort with the "cozy" label caused The Mystery Bookstore to change the name of one of its subscription clubs from "Cozy" to "Delicate but Deadly."

A couple of the books on this week's reading list challenged my ideas about "cozy" mysteries, and about the nature of mysteries altogether. It was a good reading week -- insomnia has its compensations.

What I Read this Week

Jane Cleland, Consigned to Death. New Hampshire antiques dealer Josie Prescott discovers a potential client murdered, with all the evidence pointing toward her. I often find “cozy” mysteries unrealistic and inappropriately cavalier about murder – but Cleland, in her first novel, manages to spin a non-violent mystery that is entirely plausible and strikes just the right tone. The book doesn't come out until next April, though, so you'll have to wait to see for yourself.

Chuck Hogan, Prince of Thieves. Chuck Hogan knows more about bank robberies than I do – in fact, he knows more than anyone outside of law enforcement should know, and we can only hope he uses these powers for good. Prince of Thieves is an epic novel of last chances and lost chances, as criminal mastermind Doug MacRay tries to leave his past behind for the woman of his dreams – who is also the victim of his most recent crime. It won this year’s Dashiell Hammett Award for best literary crime novel, and it’s a great thriller, but it’s an even more powerful story of doomed love, and I was crying at the end.

Bob Dylan, Chronicles: Volume One. This rambling memoir – more a series of essays than a sustained narrative – is astonishingly generous, even intimate. It feels like a long dinner over a bottle of wine with your oldest, smartest friend. Over 300 pages, Dylan offers us his insights into everything from the causes of Civil War to the evolution of rap music, with great humor, gratitude, and not the slightest hint of score-settling. At 64 (he’s exactly the same age as my mother, born in the same week), he still feels enthusiasm and wonder, and shares it with us. At the end of it, I wanted to write him a thank-you note.

Stephen King, The Colorado Kid. I discovered Stephen King and Bob Dylan in the same year, I think it was the summer of 1977. They’ve always been linked in my mind, and it’s not just because King quotes Dylan frequently – they seem to share a similar worldview, though I couldn’t explain exactly what that is. The Colorado Kid is a very short novel that challenges all our assumptions about what mystery novels are and should be. The characters tell us the story, rather than show us, and leave us without the resolution the genre demands – and yet, as I turned the last page, that felt okay, even right. An author I know prefers to call his books “mysteries” rather than “crime fiction,” because he likes the traditional sense of the word “mystery,” as something unexplained and only partly revealed to us. The Colorado Kid suggests that Stephen King feels that way, too.

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