Victoria Houston


Eccentric Sleuths,
Off-Stage Murders
And Very Little Sex

Must Be a 'Cozy,' the Genre
For Nancy Drew Graduates;
Author Credit for a Cat



(See Corrections & Amplifications item below.)

Victoria Houston writes fishing mysteries set in the fictional Wisconsin community of Loon Lake. Her heroine is a police chief who is also an ardent fly fisherman. With the help of a retired dentist, she solves murders. In Loon Lake, eccentrics are welcome, including Ray Pradt, a local guide and champion loon-caller who wears an earflap leather cap topped by an enormous stuffed trout.

Ms. Houston, 58 years old, has written nonfiction, but she found her true literary calling in Loon Lake, with the publication of "Dead Angler," the first in a series of five novels. Her books have sold a total of more than 100,000 copies.

Ms. Houston's readers know what they're getting, because her books fall squarely into a genre as clearly defined as thrillers or mysteries or romance novels or science fiction. Readers don't have a name for the genre but the book industry does: She writes "cozies."

You know you're reading a cozy when an amateur sleuth helps solve the murder, when nobody swears and when oddball characters abound but are seldom frightening. People are killed, but only off the page. Cozies often unfold in small towns, and they frequently dole out information about hobbies. Author Earlene Fowler writes books that feature quilting. Crossword puzzles play a key role in cozies written by Parnell Hall. Sarah Graves, author of the series "Home Repair Is Homicide," offers up tips about stripping paint from radiators and fixing gutters.

As for sex, there's very little of that. "Cozies are successful because they appeal to women who can feel secure passing them on to their 14-year-old daughters," says Otto Penzler, owner of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York and a mystery publisher. "Many of these books feature cats or recipes." Mr. Penzler, who himself prefers grittier fare, adds: "If they have both, I want to burn that book unless the recipe involves a cat."

Cozies now constitute about 75% of the hundred or so new books published annually by the Berkley Prime Crime imprint, up from 50% five years ago, says Natalee Rosenstein, vice president and senior executive editor at Pearson PLC's Berkley Publishing Group.

Jane Dentinger, editor of a book club called the Mystery Guild, estimates that her members last year spent a bit more on cozies than the $2.7 million of 2002. "These are women who cut their teeth on Nancy Drew, went on to Agatha Christie, and today don't want the viscera of crime," says Ms. Dentinger, whose Mystery Guild membership of 350,000 to 400,000 is 90% female.

The Guild's top-selling author is cozy queen Lillian Jackson Braun. As the author of "The Cat Who..." series, Ms. Braun is probably the most successful American cozy writer. She has completed 26 of these novels, and her editor estimates that there are currently 10 million copies in print world-wide. Ms. Braun is popular in Japan and also sells throughout Europe. Her next book, "The Cat Who Talked Turkey," is to be published in hardcover later this month with an estimated press run of 200,000 copies.

In a coarsening culture, many readers appear to want to curl up with a book that is a safe haven. "Murder is a horrible act already, without having a reader and writer relish the details," says Ms. Houston, who lives in her hometown of Rhinelander, Wis., population 7,900.

The cozies are an alternative to books such as the recent blockbuster "The Da Vinci Code," which begins with the grisly murder of the heroine's grandfather in the Louvre. Women's magazines that were once genteel now shriek sex. Even romance novels, originally chaste stories of Prince Charmings sweeping damsels off their feet, evolved into "bodice-rippers" and have gravitated in some cases to X-rated sex.

Cozy authors don't go there. "We've had our fill of blood and severed ears," says Jeanne M. Dams, who has written a dozen cozy novels. "Let's face it, there's only so much one can say about sex before it becomes hackneyed."

The genre annoys Jeremiah Healy, a prolific novelist known for his private-investigator series featuring John Francis Cuddy. "I'm troubled by how cozies soft-sell violence by placing it offstage ... yet they still try to benefit from the oomph effect of a homicide. It's not realistic for a cat to solve a crime, or a retired schoolteacher to come into contact with 10 murders."

The origin of the term "cozy" is murky, but it's often associated with Agatha Christie, whose Miss Marple series is considered the English prototype. Jane Marple, an elderly spinster, drank a lot of tea while sussing out who killed that mysterious stranger in the library. Much as tea cozies keep teapots warm, literary cozies are comforting.

"Cozy readers want people they can relate to, not loners, but people with lives, pets and mortgages," says Kate Miciak, an executive editor of Bertelsmann AG's Bantam Dell Publishing Group. "That's the joy of the cozy: These people could live next door to you. The typical noir novel is about an outsider with no friends, no home, and if he has a girlfriend, she gets murdered at the end."

Among the best known cozy writers is, improbably, Rita Mae Brown, who won literary acclaim three decades ago with "Rubyfruit Jungle," a lesbian coming-of-age novel. Today Ms. Brown writes cozies with feline Sneaky Pie Brown, who receives full co-author credit. The twelfth in the series, "Whisker of Evil," will be published in April. Instead of an author photo, Ms. Brown uses a picture of her cat. More than two million copies of her 11 mysteries are in print.

Readers know that Ms. Brown is a top-of-the-line cozy writer because her books come out first in hardcover. Many cozies are published as original paperbacks, priced at less than $7 each. Cozies are rarely supported by big promotional budgets and often are ignored by critics. "The secret to the success of cozies is repeating the same story, and reviewers don't want to be bothered," says John Cunningham, vice president and associate publisher of St. Martin's Minotaur imprint. "These series are known commodities, and the audience wants that."

Ms. Houston, the fishing writer, still must supplement her income with free-lance public-relations work. When she decided to try her hand at mystery writing, she resolved to write about what she knew -- hence, Wisconsin and fishing. Her editor at Berkley Prime Crime then explained the cozy facts of life to her. "I didn't mind leaving out the four-letter words, or graphic violence," she says. "The effect is better than if you give every detail."

Some writers simply hate the word cozy -- even if it fits. "Our members find the term insulting, and we don't use it any more," says Tom O'Day, chairman of Domestic Malice, a group of mystery fans and writers whose annual convention weekend is capped by an exotic-hat contest. "It suggests something less than a full-fledged read. The only thing missing is excessive gore, explicit sex and serial killers."

Write to Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg at

Corrections & Amplifications:

The name of the organization of mystery fans and writers cited in the article above about "cozies" is Malice Domestic. The article incorrectly called the group Domestic Malice.

Updated January 20, 2004 11:43 p.m.

Comments: Webmaster
Last updated: June 17, 2006