In real life, it’s most often police who investigate crimes. As Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot has said more than once, the police have the resources and the skills to gather evidence. That’s even truer now, given today’s technology. There are, of course, detective agencies and private detectives, and they have special resources, too. It’s realistic to believe that these professionals would be the ones to find killers and other criminals. After all, besides their resources and skills, they’ve had training to help them stay safe. And yet, in the world of crime fiction, the amateur sleuth seems to be arguably as popular as the professional sleuth – perhaps more so. In general, crime fiction fans want to believe that the plots and characters they read about could exist, and they want some plausibility in the story. Why, then, do amateur sleuths have such followings, when it would seem that they’re the least likely sleuths in real life?
Sometimes, the amateur sleuth is believable because of what he or she does for a living. The sleuth’s profession brings him or her into contact with cases of murder and other crimes. For instance, Liza Marklund’s Annika Bengtzon is a journalist; she’s the crime editor for the Stockholm paper, Kvällspressen. Because of what she does, Annika is often called out to crime scenes, as she is in The Bomber. In that novel, Annika is sent to Victoria Stadium, where a bomb has blown up Christina Furhage, who heads the committee that has organized the Stockholm Olympic Games. Since the bombing took place at the Olympic venue, many people think it’s a terrorist attack. However, as Annika looks in the Furhage’s death and that of Stefan Bjurling, who was killed in the same blast, she begins to believe that the two were not killed by terrorists. As she finds out about each victim’s personal life, Annika realizes that these deaths were deliberate murders.
Annika Bengtzon is believable as a sleuth in part because of her profession. So is MacKenzie “Mac” Smith. He’s a Washington, D.C. attorney who finds the killer of Andrea Feldman in Margaret Truman’s Murder at the Kennedy Center. Smith is the family attorney for Senator Ken Ewald and his family. One night, Andrea Feldman, an Ewald staffer, is shot after a glittering fundraising event designed to support Ewald’s campaign for the presidency of the United States. Ewald’s son, Paul, is implicated in the shooting, since he was having an affair with Feldman. The gun used in the crime belongs to Senator Ewald, so it’s also possible that he was mixed up in the crime, too. Ewald asks Smith to defend his son and clear the family name if he can. As Smith digs into Andrea Feldman’s past, he finds out that the Ewalds weren’t the only ones who had motives for killing her, and he’s now under pressure to find out who killed Andrea as quickly as he can, to save Ewald’s campaign.
Profession is also the reason the reader can believe that Robin Cook’s Jack Stapleton and Laurie Montgomery would get involved in solving murders. They’re both medical examiners who work for the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office. So they see victims of all kinds of death quite frequently. It’s quite believable that unusual deaths or a series of unexplained deaths would attract their attention. That’s what happens in Contagion, when they work to find out how a group of people have unexpectedly died from a virulent strain of influenza that hadn’t been seen for many decades. All of the deaths occur at the same Manhattan hospital. Since the hospital is affiliated with a large medical insurance carrier, it’s not long before Stapleton and Montgomery conclude that the deaths are related and that they have to do with the economics of health care and health insurance. There’s a similar believability in Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun novels. Dr. Siri is Laos’ chief medical examiner, so it’s quite believable that he comes into contact with unusual deaths. In The Coroner’s Lunch, for instance, Dr. Siri investigates the sudden death of the wife of Comrade Kham, who claims his wife died from accidental food poisoning. Dr. Siri suspects otherwise, and sets out to discover what really happened. He’s also called on to find out how the three Vietnamese citizens found in a Laos lake died, and how their bodies ended up in Laos. Among many other challenges, his job in both cases is complicated by the delicate political situations involved.
Sometimes, it’s not so much the amateur sleuth’s profession as it is his or her personality that makes the amateur a believable sleuth. That’s what arguably gives Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple her air of authenticity. She’s a spinster who lives in a small village and who’s interested in gardening, birds – and her neighbors. So we believe it when she gets interested in and involved with crimes that happen in the area. She’s on hand, for instance, in The Mirror Crack’d (AKA The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side), when famous actress Marina Rudd throws an open house party at Gossington Hall, which she’s recently bought. All of the locals, including Miss Marple, attend the party. As Marina Rudd is greeting her guests, she’s approached by Heather Badcock, who’s quite a fan. Heather is thrilled when Marina hands her a drink, but her joy is cut off when she suddenly dies of poisoning. Miss Marple’s very naturally curious, and we believe her sleuthing as she pieces together how and why Heather died.
The reader can also find an amateur sleuth believable if the context or circumstances are credible. For example, in Joanne Fluke’s first Hannah Swensen novel, The Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder, Hannah gets involved in the murder because the victim, a delivery man from the local dairy, is found behind Hannah’s shop, The Cookie Jar. He’s found surrounded by her cookies, too, so we believe it when Hannah wants to find out who killed him and why.
We also believe that Laurien Berenson’s Melanie Travis would want to find out who killed her Uncle Max in A Pedigree to Die For. In that novel, Max Turnbull, a breeder of Standard Poodles, dies one night of what looks like a heart attack. His wife, Peg, finds him in the kennel the next morning, and at first, his death seems natural. But when one of the Turnbulls’ prize Standard Poodles goes missing, Peg Turnbull thinks that there may be more to Max’s death than it seems. Besides, she wants her Poodle to be returned. So she persuades her niece, Melanie Travis, to help her figure out what happens. At first, Melanie’s reluctant to get involved; her reaction (also quite credible) is that her life is full (which it is). Besides, the police are already aware of the death; if there’s anything to find, they’ll find it. Eventually, though, she starts asking questions and soon finds that her aunt was right.
Melanie Travis’ reaction to becoming a sleuth is a clear example of another reason we love amateur sleuths, even when their involvement stretches the limits of credibility. They are us. They have families, bills, chores and money problems. They have jobs like ours and they react to life in much the way we probably would.
Amateur sleuths don’t always have the training, the skills and the contacts and access to resources that the police have. They bring unique perspectives and abilities to detection, though. Whether it’s Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple’s knowledge of human nature, Lilian Jackson Braun’s Jim Qwilleran’s reporter’s instinct, or something else, amateurs have their own flair. For that alone, they add much to the genre. It’s easy to underestimate them, too. For instance, Dorothy Gilman’s Emily Pollifax is frequently thought to be nonthreatening. So is Miss Marple. And Elizabeth Spann Craig’s police chief Red Clover thinks his mother, Myrtle, should be satisfied with her newspaper column, her garden, and church work. But people who underestimate amateur sleuths find to their detriment that the amateur sleuth can be very effective.
That lesson is made abundantly clear in Michael Gilbert’s short story, The Amateur. Chief Inspector Hazlerigg is drawn into the kidnapping of David Collet, the son of a wealthy shipping magnate. David’s father goes to the police with the kidnappers’ demands, and the police try to find out where the kidnapper has taken David. Hazlerigg soon finds out, though, that Mr. Collet is no mean sleuth, himself. Collet has found out where the kidnappers are and he’s discovered that David is still alive. In the end, it’s Collet’s skills that solve this mystery and, to use a cliché, save the day. In fact, Collet proves himself so capable that Hazlerigg later tells an acquaintance that he wouldn’t want Collet as an enemy.
What’s your view? Do you like amateur sleuths, or do you find their stories too improbable/ If you enjoy them, which are your favorite amateurs?