Friday, January 1, 2010

Amateur Hour

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?


  1. I think your average reader likes amateur sleuths because of the identification factor. It's all very 'see, I could solve a crime if I put my mind to it'. It shows everyone is capable of logical thought and penetrating observations! ( or some are anyway...)

    My favorite? Does Poirot count? I know he used to be part of the Belgian police force, but he isn't a member of any in England ( just ask the always suffering Inspector Japp). I love Poirot. But when his ego gets just a tad annoying I will always go with pleasure to Miss Marple. I think she's hilarious and such a marvelous example of not judging people by their appearance.

    The improbability factor of death and mayhem following some normal Joe (or Josephine) around is a bit high. But as I've said before, most people read this type of mystery for escape. I don't think anyone is losing any sleep over it.


  2. Elspeth - I think you're right; most of us want to think that we could solve a mystery. We really do want to identify with those who do in fiction. There's an argument that in part, we read mysteries to get "out of ourselves" and imagine what it would be like to be a sleuth. So it doesn't necessarily cause a big problem if the situation (i.e. deaths following a sleuth around) is a little improbable.

    It's funny you would mention Poirot. I didn't include him because he's a paid detective. He's a professional in that sense. That's his job. But I do like him very much : ). Of course, I'm fond of Miss Marple, too...

  3. I love amateur sleuths, because as you said, I can identify with them. I love to lower my book as I sit in my armchair, gaze at the house across the street and imagine, "What would I do if something happened over there?" But I also love the interesting procedural information that I glean from the pros. Thanks for this, Margot!

  4. Bobbi - You've put your finger on why both kinds of mystery novels have fans. We like to identify with the sleuth and it can be lots easier to to do that if the sleuth is an amateur. On the other hand, the pros offer a lot, too. Often, there's more accurate procedure and a sense of realism when the sleuth is "on the force." Fortunately, there are plenty of novels in both categories : ).

  5. I do like some of the amateur sleuths but I'm far more likely to give up on those kinds of books than 'professionals'. Let's face it they do lack something in credibility factor as the 'Cabot Cove factor' sets in so they have to have something extra special to overcome that. The amateur sleuth series that I follow tend to have a tongue in cheek kind of humour and not take themselves too seriously, I also like a really well-rounded bunch of characters that I want to come back to. My favourites are Kerry Greenwood's Corinna Chapman books, Jennifer Rowe's Verity Birdwood series (they're both Australian) and I do like Julie Hyzy's white house series which has a setting that provides much scope for interesting details (and it's also a bit more believable that bizarre things would keep happening in Washington than in some small town somewhere)

  6. I do like gifted amateurs. :) It's a little improbable that someone would try to investigate a murder, but it's fun. I think if the writer makes it a bit more probable the first time (maybe the sleuth is a suspect, or someone close to them is suspected and needs their name cleared. Or maybe the victim was a friend of the sleuth...) then the other times the reader is more likely to accept their involvement in future cases. (They were good at solving the case the *last* time, so now this is a sort of hobby for them.)

  7. As Elspeth says, the identification factor is probably quite important, and as you say yourself in the post: "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." It is also the personality that makes him or her engaging, a person we really want to meet again. I liked Annika Bengtzon a lot in the first books but have grown a bit tired of her (bitter and whining) personality in the latest novels.

    Other favourites are Cordelia Gray and Kinsey Millhone, and I also quite liked the London-girl Anna Lee. I have just about got enough of Scandinavian journalists, however, as the idea has been used far too much in the last ten years or so.

  8. Bernadette - I had to laugh when I read what you wrote about Washington. You're certainly right that all kinds of strange things happen there, so it certainly is believable as a context for murder. Hyzy is a good example, too, of your other point - that mysteries with amateur sleuths are best when they don't take themselves too seriously. I've only read Hyzy's State of the Onion, but if it's representative of the rest of Hyzy's books, then the series doesn't try to get too earnest, and that's part of its appeal.

    Elizabeth - You're right; if the amateur gets involved, at least at first, for a believable reason, s/he's more credible as a sleuth in later novels. I think you did that quite well with your Myrtle Clover. I think Laurien Berenson did it well with her Melanie Travis, and at first, Melissa Cleary with her Jackie Walsh. There are other examples, too. That's why it's so important that the author set the context carefully and keep credibility in mind.

    Dorte - Personality really is important. If the sleuth is engaging and interesting, we're willing to sacrifice just a little believability to read about her or him again. If the sleuth is annoying, off-putting or for some other reason, doesn't appeal to us, we won't read more. For instance, you and I have both mentioned Joan Smith's Loretta Lawson before; she started out as a likeable character, but was so focused on her militant feminism that she arguably lost her appeal. Personality really does matter as much as anything when it comes to whether we want to read more about a sleuth or not.

  9. I go with the amateur sleuth too. As a reader it makes it more inviting that an average person could solve a crime. You can put yourself in the sleuth's shoes and say I'd do this or that. When it's a professional sleuth, you can enjoy the book but not relate to the character as well. An amateur sleuth doesn't have the tunnel vision (seeing evidence only) of a professional sleuth. The amateur would know and hear more gossip and background than a professional.

  10. Mason - That's a very well-taken point! Most people don't gossip around police or even paid, professional detectives. Even if they're not hiding anything nefarious, they're usually uncomfortable chatting with officials. Amateurs, though, hear things. They often know the rumors, and they usually know the people involved in a case. Your comment makes me think of several amaateur sleuths who find out important clues that way: Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, Elizabeth Spann Craig's Myrtle Clover, Martha Grimes' Melrose Plant and Laurien Berenson's Melanie Travis are just a few examples that come to my mind.

  11. Perhaps, reading this post and discussion, one should distinguish between private eye (paid) and amateur sleuth? The classic PI novel is still going as strongly as it ever did, with authors such as Robert Crais (Elvis Cole), Sue Grafton (Kinsey Millhone) and many others showing how the detective operates effectively either with, or in spite of, or independently of the police (a recent discovery of mine is Gunnar Staalesen's Varg Veum).

    In terms of amateur detectives, I'm fond of Peter Temple's Jack Irish, but again, there are very many authors/detectives running the whole gamut from believablity/realism to fantasy/fun.

    I do like reading "journalism crime" I have to say - probably because I am a journalist (well, an editor) and it is fun to see how the profession is portrayed. One example I've enjoyed is Elaine Veits's Francesca Vierling series, but I am very keen on Liza Marklund as you outline so well in your post. I also like reading legal crime and often in legal crime books a lawyer ends up solving the crime (Richard North Patterson's earlier books, Philip Margolian et al.) This can in fact solve the problem of how the detective makes ends meet - if the crime is solved as part of the lawyer's or journalist's usual job.

  12. Maxine - You are absolutely right. One of the best ways to make an amateur sleuth (i.e. not a paid detective, police officer, or PI) believable is to have that person's job be the kind of job that involves her or him with crime. Your examples of lawyers and journalists are excellent, and I can see why your own career has made you especially interested in "journalism crime."

    I'm glad, also, that you bring up that distinction between amateur sleuth and PI. They are different, or should I say, I see them as different. For me, the amateur sleuth has a full-time position outside the crime/mystery solving field. To me, anyway, one hires a PI to find a person, solve a mystery, or find a murderer, so I suppose that's why I consider PIs professionals rather than amateurs. But I grant you it's not always a clear distinction at all, is it? It's one of those very interesting, "debatable" topics.

    That said, there is, indeed, a continuum of fictional sleuths who range from completely implausible to completely believable. I agree with you that Peter Temple's Jack Irish and Philip Margolian's attorney sleuths are very believable, and that adds to the stories' appeal.

  13. I've loved amateur detectives ever since I read my first Miss Marple. I do get the impression, though, that publishers in the UK at least are mainly interested in police-focused stories, and presumably they are responding to demand. Or maybe it's just what they think is in demand....

  14. Martin - I've always loved amateur detective novels, too. They're appealing on so many levels, and there certainly are lots of examples of fine series that have done quite well and are well-written. You do bring up an interesting point, though, about what publishers are looking for. I'd like to know, too, whether other publishers have a preference for police procedurals, too. Hmm......

    I think you've done an excellent job of combining the advantages of the amateur sleuth novel with the advanatges of a police procedural in your Lake District series. Having a sleuth who's an amateur work with a member of the police force is quite creative. Folks, Martin's The Serpent Pool will be available at the end of this month. I know I'm eager for my copy. Here is a terrific review of it from Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.