Apr 14, 2008

Guest Blog - Elizabeth Zelvin - When A Traditional is Not a Cozy

Hey Kids!!!

It's time for another guest Blooger!

Elizabeth Zelvin has her debut novel coming out on Tax Day - April 15th

I loved this book and suggest you pick it up!


When I first started sending out my debut mystery, Death Will Get You Sober, to agents, I had read thousands of mysteries. I pruned my collection of 1150 books a couple of years ago without creating any visible space on my shelves. I had even had an agent in the 1970s, though those three mystery manuscripts failed to sell. But I was a particularly naïve virgin with respect to the categorization of mysteries today.

For the first year or two of submissions, I was still getting used to being part of the mystery community: supportive, friendly, and so generous with good advice about how to adapt to the market that it took me a while to assimilate it. So in the first couple of dozen agent queries, I described my mystery as a cozy. I know some crime fiction writers use the words “cozy” and “traditional” as synonyms. I don’t agree. Does my mystery have an amateur sleuth? Indeed it does, along with two lively sidekicks. Is the story arc a murder, its investigation, and finally, a denouement and solution? It is. Do the characters all know each other? Yes, in the sense that all the suspects are known to the victim. The protagonist knows some of them and meets the others in the course of finding out whodunit. But who’s going to believe this book is a cozy when it begins: “I woke up in detox with the taste of stale puke in my mouth”?

I hasten to assure any potential reader who’s put off by that gritty opening that once Bruce gets out of detox, he cleans up his act considerably. But whether they’re homeless on the Bowery like most of Bruce’s detox roommates or living off a trust fund like his buddy who gets murdered, alcoholics come with a certain amount of grit. Not that hard drinking is the theme of Death Will Get You Sober. The serious topic that I’ve tried to imbue with heart and humor and inspiration is recovery.

Some folks recommend that an aspiring author help agents, editors, and the marketing department at publishing houses understand “what shelf to put it on” by identifying his or her manuscript as “like” somebody else’s. Everybody also wants an original twist and a fresh voice, but that’s another story. One of my writer friends, lawyer Ken Isaacson, got a fantastic break when his debut legal thriller, Silent Counsel, got paired with John Grisham’s latest book on Amazon. I’ve read Silent Counsel, and it is more than likely that if you love Grisham, you’ll enjoy Ken’s book. My book and I have flunked this matching test. The closest I ever came was, “If you crossed Matt Scudder with Stephanie Plum, you might get my protagonist Bruce.” After a couple of times, I decided that was a bit too smartass for a query letter. And fans of Lawrence Block or Janet Evanovich may or may not like Death Will Get You Sober, though I certainly hope some of them will pick it up either because it’s about recovery or because it’s funny. The more the better, considering how many fans these giants have.

If you ask me my favorites among mysteries and their authors, that I can answer. My tastes include amateur sleuths, starting with Lord Peter Wimsey and taking in such exemplars as Nancy Pickard’s Jenny Cain the fundraiser, Judy Clemens’s Stella Crown the dairy farmer, and and Margaret Frazer’s Dame Frevisse the 15th century nun.

But what I read the most of is series about cops, private investigators, and other detectives in one branch or another of law enforcement. Again, if you like Marcia Muller (private eye), Margaret Maron (judge), Reginald Hill (police), Nevada Barr (park ranger, enforcement), Laurie King (private investigator in the Mary Russell series, police with Kate Martinelli), Laura Lippman (private eye), Julie Smith (police with Skip Langdon, my favorite among Smith’s protagonists), Deborah Crombie (police), Cynthia Harrod-Eagles (police), Janet Neel (police) and others of their ilk, you may or may not fall in love with Bruce and his friends. But they share what, at heart, I read mysteries for: believable and endearing characters, a fully realized world and what, in my “other hat” as a shrink, I might call family and social systems rich in interpersonal dynamics and protagonists with an inner life, ie authentic feelings and dilemmas.

But some of those are not traditionals, you may object. They’re police procedurals and PI novels. Au contraire. Police procedurals and PI novels are subgenres, or maybe subsubgenres. Do they not have a structure of crime, investigation, and denouement and solution? Do they not feature protagonists, witnesses, and suspects who by and large know each other? They are indeed traditionals. They are simply not cozies. And if we agree that these authors write novels so rich and deep as to call forth the highly irritating comment that they “transcend the genre,” why not conclude that they are damn good traditionals, if not damn good cozies?

I made Bruce an amateur sleuth largely because when I thought him up, I didn’t know anything about police procedure or private investigation. I didn’t know I was about to meet hundreds of people who knew all about both and could give me the guidance I needed to do research. But I like the term “traditional mystery” for Death Will Get You Sober. And if anybody asks me if my book is hard boiled or soft, I tell them it’s over easy and slightly crispy around the edges.

Elizabeth Zelvin’s debut mystery, Death Will Get You Sober, is in bookstores now. Her story, “Death Will Clean Your Closet,” has been nominated for an Agatha award for Best Short Story. Liz is a New York City psychotherapist who has run an alcohol treatment program on the Bowery and currently works with clients online. Her author website is www.elizabethzelvin.com .

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thank you Elizabeth for a wonderful post. I will definitely pick up your book. I haven't been reading a lot of mysteries. I just read a wonderful trilogy by Mary E. Martin called, The Osgoode Trilogy. I guess I picked up mysteries because I'm intrigued by the characters. The action and the plot had me unable to put any of the three books down.

I hope you have incredible success with your book. I will mention it to my reader friends.

Take care and keep writing!