by Judy Hogan
We are delighted to welcome novelist Judy Hogan as our guest.
Judy's debut mystery is Killer Frost (Mainly Murder Press, September 2012 trade paperback and ebook formats).
Today Judy tells us about writing within a mystery genre, in her case, a different kind of cozy.
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I've read online arguments about how a cozy mystery is to be defined today. The usual assumption seems to be that a cozy involves some kind of craft or special shop, a bookshop, a cheese shop, an herb shop, a shop for knitters or those who make pottery or baskets. St. Martin's Press annually sponsors a Malice Domestic First Best Traditional Mystery contest, for which my debut mystery, Killer Frost, was a finalist in 2011. The Malice Domestic guidelines don't require crafts, but that the detective be an amateur, or, if a police person, that she be an interesting character in her own right. The characters should know each other and should be interesting if not likeable. No explicit sex or violence is allowed, and there should be several suspects. This is what I think of as a cozy mystery.
Photo provided courtesy of
Further, for me there should be a sense of comfortableness somewhere in the novel, and I don't mean knitting. Something has gone wrong within the limited human framework of the novel. The people who are solving it, though upset, frustrated, often exhausted, and/or grieving have bonds of affection for each other. In the Golden Age mysteries, the police detectives often had tea together, or they went to a pub and had a pint as they worked on solving the murder. The reader felt comforted, reassured. There was a puzzle to solve, a rent in the social fabric to stitch up, emotional and/or physical wounds to heal, but that process involved intimacy among those who took up the case, and the reader became an active participant in this process.
We are all — always — thrust into human situations that require transformation. Life has a tendency to disrupt our plans even if it isn't murder that intrudes and sets up our need to get our lives back on track. Murder breaks down the assumptions we make about other people, especially about those we think we know.
How do we put things back into a human order we can live with? The old Greek myths had stories of people being cut up, put in a pot, boiled, and then emerging whole. Transformation moves us, piece by piece, step by step, from brokenness to being whole again. It's a metamorphosis from one form or condition to another.
In a good cozy mystery, for me, the work of solving the crime is done by a sleuth I can identify with, whose frustration and ingenuity of mind I can feel close to. I am satisfied at the end of the novel because I have shared her experience as an agent of transformation. It isn't always a happy ending, but the crime is solved, the world of the novel is back in balance, and I, too, as a reader, have been through a vicarious transformation. As a reader I have my own troubles. I go to the novel to forget them for awhile. Reading this kind of novel reinforces my belief that I can also be an agent of transformation. My problems may seem minor compared to murder, but the same principle applies.
In Killer Frost, I set the scene in a Southern, historically black college which is being mismanaged. My amateur detective, Penny Weaver, teaches remedial English there to students, many of whom should never have been admitted to college. She and others are at work transforming the college, but then the Vice President for Academic Affairs, the Provost, is murdered. Later there's another murder, this time a professor. Penny uncovers more and more problems as the shoddy fabric of the way the college is being run is revealed.
For me, it was not enough to solve the murders. At the end of the book, the college is still in bad shape. This prompted me to write a later book in which a new president is brought in and sets about reforming the college. I plan to ask my audiences at local readings this fall how they would set about creating a real college of learning where that goal has been lost sight of. We'll see what they say.
If you are able to leave a comment on this blog, I'd be interested in how you'd solve these problems: admitting students reading and writing at grade school level; dirty dorms, poor food, mismanaged finances; students sexually abused by faculty and other students; drugs being sold on campus; low student and faculty morale. I'd be very interested to know how these tragic conditions, leading to our young African American citizens becoming an endangered species, especially those growing up in our inner cities, might be transformed.
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Judy Hogan founded Carolina Wren Press (1976-91), and was co-editor of Hyperion Poetry Journal (1970-81). She published five volumes of poetry and two prose works with small presses before Killer Frost. She has taught all forms of creative writing since 1974. She joined Sisters in Crime in 2007 and has focused on writing and publishing her traditional mystery novels. The twists and turns of her life’s path over the years have given her plenty to write about. She is also a small farmer and lives in Moncure, North Carolina.
You can learn more about the author and her books on her website.
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Mainly Murder Press
When Penny Weaver agrees to teach freshman composition at historically black St. Francis College, her teaching and relationship skills, not to mention her detective instincts, are more challenged than they've ever been. Despite being married to a man she loves deeply, she developed feelings for her boss, who is very passionate about their students' prospects because of how ill-prepared for college they are.
When murder strikes, Penny's new boss is the primary suspect. Convinced of his innocence, Penny struggles to clear his name — and to clarify her feelings for him and her husband.