This Is Your Sign To Read A Cozy Mystery
Writer Nina Renata Aron confesses that these days, she's indulging in the sweet pleasures of her childhood — including this addictive book genre.
Guilty Pleasures is a monthly interview series, featuring a conversation with one artist about their so-called guilty pleasure.
For this month’s Guilty Pleasure interview, I spoke with Nina Renata Aron. Nina writes about books, food, art, and gender. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Guardian, Poetry Foundation, The New Republic, Jewish Currents, and elsewhere. She writes a newsletter about books called Dollface. She is the author of Good Morning, Destroyer of Men's Souls, a memoir and cultural history of codependency.
Janet S. Frishberg: So, what was the guilty pleasure that came to mind when I reached out to you?
Nina Renata Aron: Well, I started by interrogating the category itself because it feels nostalgic or very 20th century. When that phrase was used really frequently, in the ‘90s or the time when I grew up, maybe there were clearer distinctions between high and low culture. A guilty pleasure was something that a person of culture would experience, but you had to know that you were consuming low culture in a slightly winky or ironic mode. Now I feel like those distinctions have collapsed so much. I was asking myself, do we still feel guilt about those things? At this stage of capitalism, it seems understood that we're all worked to death, living precariously. And if an edible and six episodes of Selling Sunset will get you through the night, so be it.
JSF: Do you feel guilt around consuming low culture, or have you deconstructed it enough that you're post-guilt?
NRA: That's what I’ve been thinking about! It’s not really guilt; I think it's more like a spiritual film that you can never wash away. It’s just the terms of living in this world right now. We've all agreed to live with that film of the Kardashians or whatever it is all over us (laughs). And because of the internet, there's no outside. You can try to escape that, but you can't actually. The guilty pleasure I want to talk about, though, is this genre of books I read called "cozy mysteries."
JSF: This is perfect.
NRA: Really? It's so weird. I recently revealed this to one of my best friends, and she was just like, "What the fuck? Who are you?" I sent her one of the series that I’m into, called Sassy Cat Mysteries by Jennifer J. Chow. They're great. It's a series about a woman who has a grooming salon in LA. She finds out that a groomer is mistreating animals, and then he turns up dead. The cozy mystery genre is where violence and gore are outside of the frame, but it's usually an amateur sleuth solving a local mystery. I didn't discover that this genre even existed really until the pandemic.
JSF: How did you discover them?
NRA: It started with TV shows. I love procedurals and kind of dark true crime shows, particularly British and Scandinavian detective shows, but they often have a lot of violence. Then I started watching the Agatha Raisin Mysteries, which are actually based on a book series by M.C. Beaton. Ashley Jensen is the star, and she's just fantastic. The show is really stupid. She plays a PR hotshot who moves to the English countryside, where she lives in this tiny town that's full of gossip and backstabbing of a very mild, local, towny level. She sort of accidentally happens upon a second career as a sleuth when she solves a mystery.
During the pandemic, I got totally hooked on the show, watched multiple seasons, and then discovered the books. From there, I discovered an entire massive world of cozies, including a million subgenres of animal cozies and craft cozies. It's this merging of fantasy lives and the big moral questions of truth and justice, but delivered in a teacup.
Cozy mysteries are all wrapped up neatly at the end. Justice is always meted out, and it's all good. I have to believe that I've developed this habit, hobby, addiction, to deal with the actually sprawling devastation of the world that we're living in and the ceaseless violence. But that seems a little too simple.
JSF: Do you have any other theories about why you like them?
NRA: I'm sober, and I think that has made me attuned to the effect that certain non-substances, like certain experiences, have on my body. Certain things give me a high, like exercise. The cozy mysteries deliver a kind of anesthetic effect. It's the same way that we numb out with any form of entertainment that's not high art and that doesn't require you to think too much. I find it very soothing. I'm not saying it's drug-like, but it is (laughs). I don't have to focus that much. It lulls me into something just below concentration. It's really pleasant.
JSF: I feel like my version of this has a similar analgesic effect where my brain is active but not too active. I totally get what you're saying about it being drug-like in a way.
NRA: Exactly. And maybe that's something fundamental to the guilty pleasure. Maybe all guilty pleasures deliver something like that.
The character at the center of a cozy mystery is usually charming and nosy and obviously is committed to the truth. And those kinds of protagonists are similar to the ones that were in the books I loved as a kid. They're in these worlds where, yes, there is murder, but usually the murder's not that big of a deal (laughs). Usually, an unequivocally bad person is taken out offstage. Then the rest of the book is dogs and cats and knitting shops. I think I like that spunky girl with an investigative, analytical mind who just can't rest when she sees that something's amiss in town.
JSF: Is there anything you don't like about the role this has in your life?
NRA: I am perplexed as to why I have the capacity to consume a lot of books that I don't particularly love or find to be super well written. I’ve never totally understood that. I think I sometimes use a certain tier of literature the way I might use television as pure entertainment.
Now that I’m realizing that I won't live forever, do I really want to read every book in the Sassy Cat series? Not that there's anything wrong with that, but there are stacks of slightly more serious books around me at all times that I also really want to read.
JSF: I wonder if it's a capacity thing. Like sometimes you have the desire to escape into something but can’t engage with a higher-tier book.
NRA: It's a way of simultaneously engaging with the darkness in the world, but not having to really go there deeply. Because of my sensibility, I see so many stories about violence, especially violence against women. Either I'm looking for them or I'm a magnet for them or people send them to me or they're in my feed because my algorithms are jacked.
I think the cozy mystery habit is an antidote to that in a way. It’s a way to not totally disavow that there is violence and darkness in the world. I'm not watching a happy cartoon or something. I'm here, and I'm reading about murder, but not really.
JSF: God forbid you spend your time thinking about something other than murder.
NRA: Exactly, I know. There are two choices. This flavor of murder or that flavor of murder (laughs).
But if you think about it, most of us are engaging with that stuff in one way or another all the time. The true crime industry is so big. Our appetite, or tolerance, for extreme violence is so crazy. I remember seeing Game of Thrones for the first time years ago and thinking: this is the world we've made. People go to work, they come home, and this is what they want to watch. And then, of course, I got pretty into it. But it's really kind of shocking how much of our entertainment is that.
JSF: Totally. Is there any way at all that this has informed your new novel? Even in terms of the creative process. Because it sounds like your writing was in a bit of a hibernation phase for a while.
NRA: That's such a good question. I've never connected those things. What if I'm writing a cozy mystery (laughs)? What if just unwittingly...that's what it turns out to be?
In all of my reading, whether it's an academic book or mass-market fiction, I pay attention to how a story is told, the shape of the thing, and how we get from one place to the next. There's something bounded about the world of a cozy mystery that’s always appealed to me. You're in the little snow globe of that town. That's why the British ones in these little hamlets are so appealing. That puts the “cozy” in cozy mystery. In the novel I'm working on, it is quite small and domestic in the way of a lot of literary novels I love, but also definitely probably informed by this reading habit.
JSF: If somebody has never delved into this genre, where would you recommend starting?
NRA: The Agatha Raisin books are a good place. They're funny and have a bit of everything. And then, if you're into that, you get to watch the show.
I do intend to go back to Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple books this year. I feel like they were everywhere when I was growing up, but I never got into them.
JSF: Yeah, that's the ancestry of your thing, so you have to. What do you think the odds are that, in your sixties, you will take on a pen name and start writing these?
NRA: High. The odds are high. The more I read them, the more I think it would actually be really fun to try to write one.
JSF: Absolutely. I know you've thought a lot about addiction and having to reorient towards new sources of pleasure. How does this relate to that process?
NRA: I definitely enjoy this phase of my life, which feels like a return to very wholesome pleasures, and I've talked to other sober people about that. I often think of it as returning to a prior version of myself that was imprinted in childhood with certain interests and things I love. There was this whole chapter of all this other wild shit in the middle of my life. But now I’ve returned to those earlier pleasures that feel really pure and make me really happy, like reading and soccer and cooking and baking. They were with me throughout my whole journey, but now I have a different relationship with them. I appreciate them a lot more.
And I’m a grownup and can do what I want, so I can spend as much time as I want on them. It's really wonderful. With these books, in a way I can see it as: a weird, middle-aged lady living in dystopian plague times finds her way to this bizarre diversion. Or I can think of it as: ten-year-old me would've laid in the backyard in the summer with nothing to do and read like nine of these novels in a row. And that's kind of sweet.