Wednesday, January 20, 2016

When Amateurs Investigate

Over the holidays I read several Nancy Drew mysteries form the cache in my mother’s house. In one of them, the police chief of Nancy’s hometown of River Heights was particularly supportive of Nancy’s sleuthing efforts and even asked her to help him out on a case. Even though this is something that you can bet would never happen in real life, it didn’t take away from my enjoyment of Nancy’s adventures.

It did get me to thinking about mysteries featuring amateur detectives and how a writer justifies a non-professional becoming involved in a murder investigation. I mean, how many chefs, soccer moms, computer programmers, etc., would dare to sleuth in real life?

Don’t get my wrong, I’m a big fan of amateur detective mysteries, myself. In fact, they’re my favorite to read and to write.

So, what constitutes sufficient justification for an average person to investigate? Idle curiosity isn’t enough. All of the books I’ve read on writing mysteries note that the crime must matter to the sleuth. The following reasons are given as sufficient:
  • the victim is a friend, colleague, romantic interest or relative of the sleuth
  • the sleuth is accused of the crime (you can’t use this more than once in a series)
  • a relative, friend, romantic interest of the sleuth is accused of the crime
  • the sleuth identifies with the innocent person accused of the crime
  • the sleuth identifies with the victim
  • the next likely victim is a friend, colleague, romantic interest or relative of the sleuth.
But is this really good enough?

I, personally, don’t need much of a reason for a character in a novel to investigate a crime as long as I enjoy the characters and the story is somewhat rooted in reality. I'm quite happy to suspend my disbelief and go along for the ride.

This issue isn’t new, of course, and has been talked about on panels and on email lists for a long time. A quick search of the internet revealed the following posts on the subject.

A post from March 2013, “Why Do Amateur Sleuths Solve Crimes”, is a description of a panel at Killer Nashville where they discussed the subject. Barbara Ross wrote “The Very Good Reason” on Wicked Cozy in October 2015. And, for a slightly tongue-in-cheek list, see Laura DiSilverio’s post on the Stiletto Gang from October 2010, “Top 10 List of Why Amateur Sleuths...

So, Type M readers, where do you stand on the great amateur sleuth debate? Does it matter to you if a character in a book has a good reason? Is having a character just be nosy enough for you or do you throw the book across the room? Do you despair of the whole sub-genre?


Mary Jane Hopper said...

I love the whole genre of cozy mysteries so the reasons you list are right on for me. I also don't care if the amateur is related or not to anyone involved, I like the whole concept. Just keep on doing what you are all doing.

NG West said...

Great post, Sybil! And very helpful as I plow through Aggie Mundeen's next fiasco.
Now I'm going to check out your links.

Sybil Johnson said...

I have to admit that finding a reason for my character, Rory, to investigate is one of the hardest things for me to do. I think I have it, then one of my beta readers or my editor will say it's not quite believable yet.

Eileen Goudge said...

I like having a reason for my amateur sleuth to snoop, but as we all know, the tantamount rule to any mystery, or novel for that matter, is compelling characters. If I fall in love with a character, I'm along for the ride no matter what.

Charlotte Hinger said...

Sybil, I think in books and absolutely in real life amateurs sometimes get involved because a police force is inept, or corrupt, or simply disinterested and inclined to believe the easiest solution.

Nancy Silverman said...

I think it helps if the protagonist has a vested interest in the crime, but it's usually
easy enough to manufacture if the character is believable and likable

Vicki Delany said...

For me, as a writer as well as a reader, motivation is key. If the sleuth is just nosy, then the book is not for me.