Sunday, September 03, 2006

Crime-solving isn't for amateurs

Patty here...

Periodically I’ll hear a panel at a mystery convention or read a review disparaging amateur sleuths who solve homicides. Unrealistic, they say. I say, So what?

The truth is unless the protagonist works as an expert in law enforcement, he/she is an amateur sleuth, and that includes lawyers, newspaper reporters, private investigators, and bounty hunters. None of those professions have “solve homicides” in their job descriptions. Some may interface more often with the criminal element of society, but their mission is not to catch bad guys. In truth, even some homicide detectives don’t investigate a murder a week, especially those working in small towns or in low crime areas of big cities like Los Angeles.

More than once I’ve heard people talk about the dreaded Jessica Fletcher syndrome. Actually, I enjoyed the “Murder She Wrote” TV series, mostly because I found Angela Lansbury fascinating to watch. Did I care that she found a body a week and solved the crime before the bumbling police detective? No. I found her antics amusing and entertaining.

Mostly I don’t pick up a book featuring a series character with the plot in mind. It doesn’t really matter what Stephanie Plum or Harry Bosch are doing, I just want to hang out with them for the next three hundred plus pages. I picked up Janet Evanovich’s latest book without even reading the flap copy. It wouldn’t have mattered what it said. I was going to read the book anyway. In fact, I don’t remember the plots of most of my favorite authors who write series characters, amateur or expert, but I generally remember that Harry loves jazz and that Stephanie’s hamster is named Rex.

I always open a novel with a willingness to suspend disbelief. If an author doesn’t play fair with me or forces the heroine to act out of character to service the plot, I’ll bolt. Otherwise, I’m willing to go along for the ride.

I’m biased because I write about an amateur sleuth, a Los Angeles business consultant named Tucker Sinclair. I try to make Tucker’s entry into the investigation logical and her decision to stick with the case believable and consistent with her character. I don’t find it at all unusual that she encounters a body a book. As she said herself in COVER YOUR ASSETS, “Hey, this is L.A. People die here. I can’t help it if I know some of them personally.”

So what do you think?


  1. Hi Patty!

    I truly concur with everything you say about amatuer sleuths! Only last night I was describing to a group of writer/readers that I hang out with, Susan Kandel's Cece Caruso mysteries - and how (also) I remembered little of the plots, but recounted the chaotic situations that the protagonist got herself into because of her incredible curiosity (or is that an innate inability to let things well alone?) With Jacqueline's 'Maisie Dobbs' series: the abosolute strength is the character writing. The plots and murders are almost incidental to the fascination of Maisie's struggles in life, the universe, and everything - in a vintage setting, which is difficult to write.
    BTW Patty, I've recently added your books to my next buying binge list at the bookstore. Gotta finish the current crop first. :-D
    So where did you want me to send airforce anecdotes? :-D

  2. Once I started writing a series, I have to say that my admiriation went way up for authors who have managed to keep their series fresh for 10, 12, 17 books and on and on. I would say that I tend to enjoy a series in which a character actually ages, so that we aren't seeing the same station in life in perpetuity. But I can certainly understand the temptation to keep a character young. If you think the Jessica Fletcher syndrome is tough, try getting readers to buy into the concept that Jessica Fletcher is also a tri-athelete who can outrun the cops, a martial arts expert who can flip bad guys over her head, and a sexkitten who likes it twice a day. There's only so much belief even the most die hard fans will suspend.

  3. I used to go over to my Grandparent's house every Sunday, we'd have dinner and then my Grandmother and I would watch Murder She Wrote, and then I'd catch the bus home. Seeing the show now brings back fond memories. (And I did see her onstage in Sweeney Todd!)

    I always thought the Jessica Fletcher syndrome wasn't solving all the crimes, but that a small town, having one to two murders a week, would become depopulated fairly rapidly. (And probably have trouble getting new people to come in.)

    I willingly suspend disbelief for a book series, as long as over the course of ten books or so, the town only ends up as bad off as it would in one Stephen King novel. ;)

  4. I don't have a problem with amateur sleuths per se; I do think that those with professions too far removed from reality make the suspension of disbelief difficult. A PI who solves murders? I can buy that. Miss. Marple? I never could relate to her.

    Although I'll make an exception for Father Brown, but then Chesterton was a genius.

    Also, I think mystery writers do need to concern themselves with plot and character. I love the Falco series set in ancient Rome, and I admit I'd read it just to keep up with the characters' lives. But the great plots increase the appeal for me.

    And, if a reader new to a series character comes across a book with a weak plot, they will probably never give that series another try. "Character identification" works both ways.

  5. Wandering, I do so agree with you that the plot is important. The true winners are those books that have both plot and character.

    James, I admire people who can keep the books fresh over time--like you! On the one hand writing multiple books in a series is good because you know your characters better. But on the other hand...

    Marianne, the telling of air force anecdotes seems well-suited for the bar at Bouchercon or similar. Hope to see you there. And thanks so much for putting my books on your list. You're the best!