Monday, July 23, 2007

Armchair detectives

Patty here...

First of all I want to congratulate our very own Cornelia Read whose novel A Field of Darkness, starring amateur sleuth Madeline Dare, was just nominated for a "Best First" Barry Award by the readers of "Mystery News" and "Deadly Pleasures" magazines. The awards will be presented at Bouchercon in Anchorage the last week of September. Congratulations to all of the nominees but especially to the lovely and talented Ms. C!

I’ve been thinking a lot about amateur sleuths lately because I’m organizing a panel on that topic for the Southern California chapter of Mystery Writers of America in September. I’m also presenting a workshop on the same subject at a writer’s conference later in the year.

At a recent book event someone asked me if after writing four crime novels I thought I could crack a case on my own. Without hesitating, I said yes. (What was she smoking you ask) The Internet has changed everything but I had no idea how deeply one could delve into another’s personal life until I took a course taught by a former cop turned private investigator. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

The first mystery novel I ever read featured ten year-old amateur detective, Trixie Belden. After that I was hooked.

I love to read about ordinary people doing extraordinary things. It’s not at all hard for me to believe that Joe Sixpack would become obsessed with solving a crime that no one else can crack. Look at Patricia Cornwall's Jack the Ripper investigation.

With rare exception, the only professionals whose job it is to investigate homicides are members of law enforcement. All of us NakedAuthors write about amateur sleuths except for James O. Paulie’s character is a lawyer. At least Steve Solomon has a reason to be around bad guys. He represents them. But the rest of our protags have to join the caper without challenging the reader’s “willing suspension of disbelief.” It's not as easy as it sounds.

Maybe I chose to write about an amusing amateur sleuth who owns a terrier from watching the “The Thin Man” movie on TV. You can't beat William Powell and Myrna Loy solving crimes with the help of their wire-haired terrier, Asta.

I was also a sucker for Miss Marple, Mrs. Polifax, and TV's Jessica Fletcher, but I understand not everybody shares my tastes in mystery fiction. For the sake of research for my upcoming presentations, I’d like to take an informal survey. Do you read books featuring amateur sleuths? If so, why? If not, why not? What do you love about them? What do you hate about them? Who are your favorites? Here’s your chance to dish. Have at it.

Happy Monday!


  1. Back in the 70's and 80's, I liked the "Fletch" books by Gregory McDonald. If a newspaper reporter counts as an amateur, the wise-ass Fletch would count. I'd be interested in going back to these books to see if they hold up for me.

    More recently, Harlan Coben's Myron Bolitar, a sports agent, caught my fancy.

    And congrats to Cornelia. North to Alaska!

  2. I liked Fletch, too. I'd forgotten about him until your mention. I almost hesitate to go back to some of the books I loved for fear they won't hold up.

    I consider anybody other than a homicide detective an amateur. A crime reporter may investigate a murder but his or her primary job is to write about it not necessarily solve it.

  3. They are re-releasing Trixie Belden.

    I was also a fan of Donna Parker and Cherry somebody (a nurse, maybe?).

    Even before those two, there were the Happy Hollisters and the Bobbsey Twins.

  4. Trixie Belden redux? "O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!" she chortled in her joy. My mother gave away my collection. I was able to find a couple of used copies online but haven't reread them. I don't want to spoil the magic.

  5. I have a special place in my heart for journalist and ex-journalist sleuths. Like those from Denise Mina. Karen Olson. Laura Lippman.

    Oh, and ex-debutante/journalists as well. Congratulations again, Miss C!

  6. First, big congrats, Miss C! Yay!

    As for amateur sleuths, my all time favorite is Lord Peter Wimsey, followed closely by Miss Marple.

    I'll read anything that's well-written, and I don't just suspend my disbelief, I fling it as far away from me as I possibly can. Because really, a pompous peer of the realm keeping Scotland Yard from tripping over their own feet? And a little old maiden lady solving crime? Stretches the ol' verisimilitude a bit thin...but that's the joy of reading, isn't it?


  7. Yayyy for Miss C.!! Congratulations, m'lady. :-D

    Well, I cut my teeth on Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators, Nancy Drew, Cherry Ames, a bit of Trixie Belden and the Hardy Boys when I was young. Then I switched to Agatha Christie when I was twelve. I tried to go back and read the Nancy Drew Books a couple of years back and couldn't even get through one of them - the writing and plot were far too transparent. Sigh. :-)

    Mind you, I reread my Lord Peter Wimsey's reasonably regularly; as well as my copies of Garrison Allen's "Big Mike Murder Mysteries". A more current series is the 'Aunt Dimity Mysteries' by Nancy Atherton, and even more recently, the 'Abby Cooper Psychic Eye' series by Victoria Laurie.

    I read these because I fell into them accidentally and fell in love with the characters. I've read the blurbs of many mysteries and cozy mysteries, and if they get to coy or cloying, I usually drop the book like a hot potato. One can stomach only so much deliberate coyness before throwing up. I know that appears to slur the very good writing of many a cozy murder mystery novelist, but I'm still looking at them for prospective reading material.

    I bought two books of newly discovered author a few weeks back. They had everything I wanted, adventure, mystery, historical stuff, etc. I finished both books, and really, really wished that the author had gone back and done a couple more rewrites, and that the editor truly needed a kick up the butt to do a proper job of it. The typos were myriad, the characterizations underdeveloped and choppy, and the plot line singularly linear. Too much environment description, and way too many coincidences. Sigh. Not one that I will be reviewing for my blog. I don't like giving bad reviews.


  8. I enjoy intrepid journalists, too, Louise, including all the authors you mentioned. Also love the reporter-guy in Michael Connelly's THE POET.

    Rae, I know what you mean about flinging disbelief. The idea of elderly Mrs. Polifax getting the CIA out of one scrape after another is a big eye roll, but it's great fun.

  9. Marianne, I feel your pain. Not too long ago I read a highly touted first novel only to find similar problems with many typos and some factual errors. A good copy editor should have caught all of them. Those kinds of things always take me out of the story and create a negative view of the book.

  10. Following up Marianne's mention of Hitchcock...his use of the mistaken identity plot leads nicely to amateur sleuthing, if only to get the amateur out of harm's way.

    A good example is "North by Northwest," (written by Ernest Lehman, who never gets enough credit), where Cary Grant is snatched by the bad guys and framed for murder...then must unravel the mystery.

  11. Alexander McCall Smith has given himself the best of both worlds in the talented and lovely Precious Ramatswe, who is able to maintain the characteristics of an amateur while operating the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency.

    Same thing with Maisie Dobbs, in some respects. She is a professional, and yet she has the untarnished humanity of an amateur.

    Both brilliant.

  12. I would echo Miss Marple and Lord Peter Wimsey, and stump for the legendary Jessica Fletcher.

    Then there is the more whimsical James Qwilleran and KoKo, along with Mrs. Murphy, always ably assisted by Harry Hairsteen.

    And, of course, Harry Potter is the amateur of amateurs, merely a sleuth in a fantasy setting.

  13. Thank you, Patty, and thanks all you guys for the good wishes!

    I'm with Rae on the favorite amateur sleuth being Lord Peter, with Harriet Vane neck and neck. I like Encyclopedia Brown best of all, though.

  14. I blush to admit I've never read Lord Wimsey. More books for my TBR pile. And Encyclopedia Brown? Hmmm. Off to Google.

  15. Something for Brown fans from The Onion:

  16. Priceless, Miss C. I noted with interest the following, wondering if our own Jimmy O was on the case:

    "Officers from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's Internal Affairs Division are investigating the lead by making a long list of all the facts they know about tigers. They are also investigating wildcats, the jungle, zoo history, and rumors of unrest within the Idaville Police Department."

  17. Sorry, Patty, just got home here on the east coast.

    It took me a second to realize the source for Corneila's news item.

    I like a number of amateur sleuths. Like Alison Gaylin's Sam Leiffer. Ordinary people in an odd circumstance. The only ones which turn me off are when P.I.s are asked by the cops to solve something.

    Ultimately it's the writing that grabs you. It doesn't matter if the Governor of Iowa is on the case as long as it's well written.

    Congrats to Cornelia.


  18. Yes! Encyclopedia Brown! Thanks for reminding me, Cornelia!

    I'm also forgetting one about a boy at a boarding school, who knew averything. I think it was a fifties or sixties series. Some day I'll remember his name.

    Frank and Joe Hardy were my first sleuths, closely followd by Nancy Drew.