What happens when technothriller meets the cozy mystery genre?
You’ve probably heard of sci-fi, thriller, mystery, and fantasy, but maybe not a technothriller or cozy. Before I delve into an explanation, here’s how I’d define these lesser known genres:
- Technothriller – A subgenre of suspense fiction that draws from thriller, spy fiction, science fiction, and action and depends heavily on technical descriptions of advanced technology (computers, weapons, Internet, machines, etc) to drive the plot forward. Famous authors include Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy. The genre first became popular during the 1980s and 1990s.
- Cozy mystery – A subgenre of crime fiction that involves an amateur sleuth (usually female) who solves a murder within a small and intimate community. The genre is reminiscent of the classic murder mysteries of the 1920s and 1930s, which were inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Of course, the most famous author of cozy mysteries is Dame Agatha Christie.
Based on the above definitions, the answer to my question would depend on how you mix things up. In some ways, the styles are polar opposites and irreconcilable. However, that depends on what feels “cozy” to you. After spending 18 years working on weapons of mass destruction (WMD) issues, I believe that cozy is in the mind of the reader.
For example, by placing thriller elements within a cozy mystery context, you could get a light and enjoyable read for the typical thriller reader–an escape from our otherwise grim reality or a “beach read” for summertime enjoyment. On the other hand, for the typical cozy reader, the addition of thriller elements provides a bit of a jolt and creates an action-packed mystery novel that tests the boundaries of a cozy mystery novel (a bit more violence, bloodshed, and perhaps a swear word or two).
I didn’t consciously pick and choose elements from the two genres; my particular blend came from an unmet need in my own life. Only now as I reflect on it, do I realize what I did and why.
When I first started writing Bionic Bug in 2016, I set out to write a novel that I desperately needed at the time–a story that was packed with tension and suspense, a story that featured concerns about the rapid pace of technological advancement, and most important of all, a story that offered me a delightful escape into another world from my increasingly grim reality.
You see, at the time, I was also writing a dystopian trilogy called Nuclear Conspiracy which examined the erosion of democratic institutions in the U.S., the rise of fringe far-right groups and domestic terrorism, and the increasing capabilities of individuals through advancements in technology.
Since the start of 2017, however, I feel like I’m living this nightmare at times. And I don’t want to read about it for fun. At least not now. It’s way too close to home. I’ve since shelved the trilogy for a later time when my concerns about the collapse of our country are a bit more distant. I need an escape.
Don’t get me wrong, I still want to confront serious and edgy issues such as the risks of emerging technologies and threats posed by WMD. I think about these things every day in my work at National Defense University. But I also need to be comforted by the ending. I just can’t do dystopia right now. It feels too real at the moment. Rather, I need a sprinkle of fantasy, a world that bears some similarities to my own but is also sufficiently different that it need not add to my daily worries.
For my fiction escape, there were a few requirements up front. I didn’t want the story to be too fantastical, so divorced from my reality that it didn’t offer me a chance to cope with it. But I knew that the good guys needed to win without question and hand sweet justice to the bad guys. Furthermore, the positive side of technology must prevail over the bad. Finally, the ending must feel highly satisfying and produce hope for a better tomorrow.
I didn’t just want this, I needed it. More than I even knew when I was writing it. For all of these reasons, I felt drawn to the mystery genre and its tidy conclusions.
I wasn’t entirely new to classic mystery novels, but admittedly I haven’t ready many as an adult. My love of mystery can be traced back to my childhood when I consumed every book in several young adult mystery series: Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys and Trixie Belden. As a reader, I loved being involved in solving the mystery. It was engaging and highly satisfying to guess the right suspect. But I also loved feeling in control. I could enjoy the suspense knowing that it would end well.
As a child during the 1980s, I also grew up on murder mystery shows like Murder She Wrote, 21 Jumpstreet, and Magnum PI. For me, these shows offered me a suspenseful journey, an opportunity participate in solving a crime, and an entertaining cast of characters. When the show came to an end, it wrapped up in a nice, tidy package so that I could go on with my life. Today, we have similar shows called procedurals like Blue Blood, CSI, and Law and Order. They are grittier than before and more directly focused on the crime at hand and police procedure. Still for me, they fulfill the same function in my life–a brief story of suspense and tension that ends with justice served and a feeling of satisfaction.
As an adult, I shifted gears to become an avid thriller reader, consuming everything from Tom Clancy to Michael Crichton to John Grisham. There’s nothing quite like a page-turner that gets your heart pumping so hard you can’t go to sleep until the story ends. And so, mystery novels lost their allure for a time. However, today, I don’t need a thriller to get my heart pumping. For sleepless nights, I need only to read or watch the latest news. Sometimes even a devoted thriller reader needs an escape…
That’s why I began writing a mystery series that combines elements of classic mystery novels (cozy mystery) with some elements of thriller.
In my mind, Bionic Bug leans more strongly toward the cozy mystery genre than technothriller, but it amounts to a perfect blend for my current frame of mind. It’s been fun to escape to a somewhat futuristic world full of suspense and tension and to follow Lara Kingsley as she solves crimes and navigates radical technological change. I hope you enjoy it, too. If you’re already interested in an action-packed escape, you can check out Bionic Bug right now.
In the table below, I illustrate what elements I’m borrowing from the cozy mystery and technothriller genres. I also provide an in-depth description about the contrast between the two genres. If you’re an avid reader of either genre, you can see here what rules I’m bending to write the Lara Kingsley Series and decide if you want to give it a shot.
SPOILER ALERT: The following contains minor spoilers from Bionic Bug for the purpose of illustration.
In a cozy mystery, the story most often takes place in a small town or community. The key word here is intimate. As a result, everyone knows everyone, and there is a limited pool of suspects. In such a setting, it makes more sense that an amateur sleuth might play a role in solving a murder. In contrast, the setting for a technothriller is expansive and global. Throughout the plot, the story moves quickly from location to location.
Bionic Bug takes place in Washington, D.C. and the surrounding region. For now, this will remain the general location for the Lara Kingsley Series. Although D.C. is a big city and the seat of U.S. national power, most who live here would agree that it is intimate in several ways. For one, I never fail to run into someone I know when I go out into the city or even visit my local grocery store. Beyond that small town feel, however, professional circles tend to be very small. In a specific field, everyone is connected to everyone else by no more than one degree of separation. For that reason, I don’t think choosing D.C. as the setting for my series stretches the expectations for a cozy mystery. However, it does diverge significantly from the setting of a typical technothriller.
In a cozy mystery, the protagonist is typically an amateur sleuth and most often a woman. The sleuth becomes drawn into the details of a crime due to specific circumstances. The sleuth then takes action to solve the crime by uncovering clues, interviewing suspects, and chasing down leads. Sometimes, the sleuth is familiar with the victims of the crime or comes across the scene of the crime in their daily routine. In a mystery novel, the sleuth drives the story, and the readers are often a step behind.
In a technothriller, the protagonist is reactive rather than proactive. Unlike in a mystery, it’s the clever and capable villain who drives the story, and readers tend to be one step ahead of the protagonist. This creates the tension for the readers. Although the protagonist triumphs in the end, he or she will end up at the mercy of the villain in a classic confrontation where all appears to be lost. The readers will question whether or not the protagonist can get themselves out of the impossible situation and experience relief when they manage to stop the villain.
In Bionic Bug, I leverage elements from both cozy mystery and technothriller. Lara Kingsley is a licensed private investigator specializing in the installation of high-end surveillance systems. Thus, she’s an amateur sleuth when it comes to homicide cases. Lara becomes involved in solving the murder because of personal reasons.
However, the storyline has a technothriller twist. While Lara works to solve the mystery of her friend’s death, she also confronts a rogue scientist (villain) who seeks revenge on the U.S. government. In order for her to succeed, she must find her friend’s killer, overcome several dangerous encounters with the villain, and stop him from harming innocent people.
The Supporting Cast
The supporting cast for a cozy mystery includes a variety of quirky, entertaining, and likeable characters. In a cozy mystery series, many of these characters make repeat appearances and have relationships with each other. Often, a cozy mystery protagonist will enjoy the company and assistance of a sidekick.
In contrast, a technothriller involves one or two main characters who are key stakeholders in the story, and their history, personality, and characteristics are described in detail. Often, these characters have no prior knowledge of each other and get to know each other as the plot unfolds. The rest of the cast supports plot points, but are not extensively developed as part of the storyline.
In Bionic Bug, I favor the approach of a cozy mystery to create a sense of intimacy and strong character development. To do this, I introduce a case of vibrant and quirky characters who will continue to appear throughout the series:
- Vikram Abhay is Lara’s trusty sidekick. To finance his graduate education at Georgetown, Vik works part-time for Lara as her cheerful assistant and computer programmer extraordinaire. Vik aspires to develop a sophisticated information-based crime mapping system using big data and artificial intelligence. His system would not only track and solve crimes, but also predict them before they occur.
- Mario Sanchez is Lara’s wily nemesis. Detective Sanchez works for the D.C. Metropolitan Police homicide division and stubbornly pursues all suspected killers in the pursuit of justice. Not fond of private investigators and their meddling, the detective does not always tolerate Lara’s involvement on a case.
- Robert Martin is Lara’s charming ex-boyfriend. Special Agent Martin works for the FBI Washington Field Office and serves as the local WMD coordinator, making him the focal point for any crimes involving weapons of mass destruction.
- Maggie Brown is Lara’s brilliant best friend. Dr. Brown the Director of the genetics laboratory of the Department of Entomology at the University of Maryland in College Park.
Each of these characters will have their own storyline which will evolve over the course of the series.
In a cozy mystery, the plot begins with a crime that usually takes place off-stage, often a murder motivated by greed, jealousy, or revenge. From that point, the author invites the reader to help solve the crime alongside the sleuth in a character-driven plot. Following a trail of clues, false leads, and red herrings, the amateur sleuth attempts to make sense of all the information and solve the case.
Most cozy mysteries do not feature violence, blood, and gore on the page, but rather between the lines. Moreover, the plot is not a rollercoaster ride of twists and turns, but rather about uncovering surprising revelations.
In contrast, a technothriller involves a life/death conspiracy to commit a crime that involves advanced technology. When the novel begins, the crime hasn’t happened yet, and the protagonist must race against the clock to stop the villain’s plan from succeeding. Rather than clues and false leads, the protagonist must overcome impossible obstacles depicted in fast-paced action scenes like chases, explosions, and shoot-outs. Technothrillers are full of plot twists which increase the tension and stakes for the characters. Finally, the plot is driven largely by technological exploration. As a result, technothrillers provide signficant technical detail about the featured technologies and how they work and contribute to the story.
In Bionic Bug, I have borrowed heavily from both genres to shape the plot. Lara must identify her friend’s killer, solve the murder, and make sure justice is served by following the clues and unraveling the truth. However, she also confronts a villain who has developed the ultimate biological weapon and plans to unleash it on innocent victims to gain revenge against the U.S. government. In addition to tracking clues, Lara has to race through several action-packed scenes where her life and the lives of people she cares about are at risk. She must stop the villain before it is too late.
In a cozy mystery, the ending typically involves the big reveal of the killer and all the clues that helped the sleuth solve the crime. The killer is brought to justice, and the good guys win. The ending for a technothriller can be somewhat similar: the good guys triumph over the bad guys, but the tone is often more grim. The ending might be a warning to all about the dangers of technology. A technothriller can also have an apocalyptic ending where things go very wrong for the world, even if the good guys still win.
In Bionic Bug, I’ve chosen to favor a satisfying cozy mystery ending over a grim technothriller ending. The crime is solved, the villain is stopped, and the killer goes to jail. Things are mostly brought back in order, albeit bittersweet at times. Technological change is generally positive. Lara lives to fight crime another day.
Cozy is in the mind of the reader.
The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.