Cozy Mysteries and Careers Outside Academia

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Lately, I’ve been reading cozy mysteries in bulk. The ease of doing that is certainly part of the attraction.  My mom is an aficionado of the genre, going so far as to keep a little journal of authors she likes, which books of theirs she’s read, and which ones she’s bought and saved. This is no surprise, as she spent years assembling a collection of all the Nancy Drew books (both canon and sequel series), most in multiple editions. When I asked her if there’s a cozy series or two that she would especially recommend to me, she answered militantly and without hesitation, knowing that my interest came from the fact that a couple of popular cozy mystery writers are local to me and active in the local literary scene.  In both of the series I borrowed, though, the heroines/amateur detectives shared one trait I hadn’t expected: they’re both academics pursuing alt-ac careers. 

First: what is a cozy mystery, exactly, as opposed to an un-cozy one?  Think of TV shows like Murder, She Wrote or Diagnosis Murder—there’s usually a murder, but one with minimal violence or one that happens off-screen, and everything is wrapped up in an episode by a plucky detective who is not an investigator by trade. These TV versions are perfect examples because the tone and language are tame, suited to a prime-time network TV audience.  In the more recent book series that most deliberately fortify the stereotype of a “cozy mystery,” the investigator likely faces crimes that are themed after her line of work.  I know, and have always known, that many people find academics inherently interesting, but not usually so positively as to cast them as main characters in mainstream novels.

From what I gleaned from the descriptions of other books in my mom’s hoard, it seems like these female detectives often have the complicated lives of real people—they’ve returned home after a major failure, or they’ve been thrown into circumstances not of their choosing.  The first alt-ac detective I met was Violet Waverly in the Magical Bookshop Mystery series by Amanda Flower. Violet is an American Literature ABD (all but dissertation) student who has been tricked by her grandmother into returning to her very small hometown and assuming her destined role in running the magical bookstore that her family has run for decades. Though she picks up work as a professor at the local community college and never expresses any hint that she will not finish her dissertation, she regularly applies her academic knowledge and the core of who she is as a literary scholar in the service of helping the people who enter her shop as writers and readers.

The second alt-ac character I met, in the Haunted Home Renovation series by Juliet Blackwell, was Mel Turner, an anthropologist-turned-general contractor who applies her love of research and history to sussing out the pasts of the houses her company renovates. This is for the purposes of both accuracy in restoration and in knowing how to soothe the ghosts who begin to appear in these old structures.  All the history, emotional intelligence, and analysis prove key to solving the murder mystery of each novel. A big part of Mel’s past is her divorce from a fellow academic whose increasing success meant that her career came in second; she speaks at times about how it became harder to finish her dissertation and remain herself in the midst of trying to be a perfect faculty wife.  Her struggles to reassert her own identity, and even to figure out what that means, define her personal life and her interactions with each new person (and ghost) that she encounters.

I don’t think that either of the authors would deny that their detective’s academic qualifications set them up to be who they are and to solve these mysteries. There is shame (for Mel, mostly) about the state of their academic work, there is stress about whether or not they’ve made the right decisions, and there is angst about dreams deferred—but they both enact the transferable skills and the pursuit for learning and knowledge that any Ph.D.-focused career coach would emphasize as a message of hope for pursuing careers outside the academic field in which a person trained.  In the biography on her website, Juliet Blackwell notes that she has degrees in Latin American Studies, Social Work, and Anthropology—very similar to her main character—and that she then began running her own design studio in California.  A lot of people might dismiss these books as fluff, and I did for many, many years of watching my mom read them. And yet—at least these two series are tremendously cathartic fluff, perfectly calibrated for my mood and alt-ac moment.