Those familiar with Game of Thrones will recognize the hallmarks of “grimdark” storytelling. In a grimdark world, morals are flexible. Dark aesthetics and gritty details dominate. Today’s hero could be tomorrow’s villain, if external circumstances change. Given the headlines of the past few years, the moral uncertainty of such stories has a “ripped from the headlines” feel that seems appropriate for our chaotic era.
On their face, grimdarks are everything cozy mysteries are not. Grimdarks are gritty and explicit where cozies are saccharine and romanticized. Cozies are fluffy and escapist. Grimdarks are meaty, heavy, real.
But the more time I spend reading and writing cozies, the more I think of them as tools for confronting, and reckoning with, the same (un)ethical landscapes as grimdarks. Even as I type this, I can hear the distant sizzle of frying synapses as readers try to suss out what a cozy mystery stalwart like bakery owner Hannah Swensen has in common with #teamgrimdark soldier of fortune Jamie Lannister, other than perhaps Nordic good looks and an intense love for their sisters.
Hear me out.The more time I spend reading and writing cozies, the more I think of them as tools for confronting, and reckoning with, the same (un)ethical landscapes as grimdarks.
Modern cozy mysteries are often dismissed as fluff, or as mere “puzzle books,” in which a writer arranges clues, suspects, and motives into what is, essentially, a novel-length Sudoku. The characters have a few lighthearted chats, maybe eat a cupcake or two. This cozy-mystery-as-puzzle line of thinking reaches its pinnacle in G.T. Karber’s wildly-successful Murdle books, a series of solve-it-yourself deduction workbooks that boil the trappings of the genre down to the barest essentials—Whodunnit? Howdunnit? Wheredunnit? There’s little focus on the whys and wherefores.
(Full disclosure: I have a near-pathological Murdle addiction. I blurbed the first book and even collaborated with the author on a custom Murdle puzzle featuring the characters and settings from my Deep Dish Mystery series.)
The conventional wisdom tells us that the point of a cozy mystery is that a murder happens, and then the murder gets solved.
If they’re not being dismissed as glorified story problems, cozy mysteries are being accused of glossing over the realities of murder. Take a crime, slap a knitted shawl on it, accessorize it with an adorable purse dog, and you’ve got yourself a cozy, right? Here again, the comparison with grimdarks shows us the mistake of that kind of dismissal. Grimdarks are said to show too much violence, while cozies show too little. Both of these tendencies allegedly erode the ethical integrity of the reader/viewer. But, real talk—how are our puny little primate brains supposed to comprehend the horror of violence and murder? Face it? Dodge it? Whether we choose to bear witness to humanity’s worst instincts in the blood-spattered vivisection party of a grimdark world, or we instead prefer to confront murder next to a gently-crackling fire with a cup of cocoa and a fluffy cat, it’s all a feeble attempt to understand something dreadful and to control our fears. Cozy readers exercise that control by micro-dosing violence; grimdark aficionados handle it by plunging into a Olympic-sized pool of gore.
The phrase “cozy mystery” itself emerged in the past few decades to describe crime stories where the gritty details are scrubbed off the page, replaced by homey elements like crafts, pets, and baking. Cozies are supposed to be a nice option for readers “who like to puzzle over a whodunit without all the bad vibes and viscera.” These books are supposedly for people seeking escape from real life and from real, complicated problems.
The past century has witnessed several distinct fads in mystery writing. The traditional Christie and Sayers mysteries of the Golden Age of Crime skimmed over graphic details in a very stiff-upper-lip, keep-calm-and-carry-on way, befitting the prevailing ethos of interwar England. Poirot was squeamish about dirt and gore, and rational to a fault. Lord Peter Wimsey had money and manners to insulate him from the more unpleasant aspects of homicide. To him, sleuthing was an amusing distraction to occupy his copious leisure time.
(Another full disclosure: This is not meant as a criticism. As with Murdle, I am an obsessive fan of Poirot and Wimsey.)
The next crime-writing trend crested around and after World War Two, with the popularity of noir and the hard-drinking, hardboiled detective. In mysteries of that era, we see a sharp turn away from the epoch of crime solving as a gentlemen’s pastime. In noir, it becomes a blood sport, and the reader is right there, in the arena. Morals are messy and the line between good and evil becomes blurry. As one flabbergasted character in my latest book, Public Anchovy #1 observes with great distress, at the end of The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade’s ostensible “good guy” doesn’t win. Nobody does.
The tumultuous era of the 60s and 70s mixed things up a bit, with crime fiction that encompassed everything from changing social norms, to nihilistic detectives, to horseracing dramas that hearkened back to the Golden Age era.
In contrast to all of that, cozy mysteries are held up to exemplify a return to tradition—when men were men, whodunnits were whodunnits, and cupcakes were frosted with pink icing and rainbow sprinkles. To some extent, this is true. As other genres embraced anti-heroes and unhappy endings, cozies emerged as stalwart defenders of a moral order, a world where goodness and justice are enduring values.
But this idea of cozies as a conservative corrective is an oversimplification, and thinking of cozies primarily as whodunnit puzzles or as fluffy escapism does a disservice to a genre that holds surprising moral complexity.
Cozies, instead, should be viewed alongside other genres that have sought to stake out and define a new and distinct moral vision that meets the challenges of our era. Book by book, cozy writers are creating a defined moral universe. The essential conflict is between the murderer and the sleuth, but it’s not as simple as saying these are conflicts of good versus evil. Cozy crimes typically take place in small, closed settings, where the separation between the wrongdoer and the crime solver can be measured in fractions of degrees. They might work at the same café or be part of the same knitting circle. The murderers are often rational and articulate, able to explain coherent motives—motives that are rooted in legitimate grievance or adverse life circumstances, rather than psychopathy or nihilism.
Cozies, like grimdarks, are products of our fractious modern world. These genres share an understanding that ordinary people are capable of both extraordinary evil and extraordinary good, and that life can drive people one direction or the other.
The divergence comes in the cozy mystery’s robust embrace of a universal or innate sense of justice and a deeply-rooted belief that there are correlations between the way we live our lives, the choices we make, and the things that happen to us. In cozies, there is something called the truth, and it must be discovered. Beyond that, though, we see recognition that moral justice and legal consequence are not identical. This perhaps owes a debt to the highly-public, real-world failures of law enforcement and the justice system, but the tradition reaches back further, to sleuths like Poirot and Sherlock Holmes, who often recognized that the two are not the same. By letting the protagonist decide who to turn over to the cops and whose secrets, once uncovered, are better off reburied, cozies allow the reader to consult their own moral compass and decide which way points to true north.
I don’t expect Hannah Swensen and Jamie Lannister to become BFFs anytime soon. (Although, frankly, I would pay him handsomely to solve the Norman-Hannah-Mike love triangle by any means necessary, up to and including a mercy killing.) I’m confident, however, that Hannah and Jamie both understand a fundamental truth—in the unexplored lands at the edges of our moral understanding, there be dragons, and stories exist to help us fight them.