Amateur Sleuths: Useful Crimefighters or Meddling Busybodies?

Amateur sleuths–are they a help or a hindrance?

In a recent review of my latest cozy, a blogger (who otherwise loved the book) was irked by my sleuth’s involvement in the case. He “sticks his nose where it doesn’t belong regardless of personal risk and requests of law enforcement.” True, but my sleuth identified the murderer long before the police had a clue

One of the requirements for writing in the cozy genre is that the protagonist must be an amateur sleuth, not a private eye, police officer, FBI/CIA agent, spy or even retired from the force. Those looking for such characters should turn to a thriller, police procedural, hard-boiled or noir.

What’s the attraction of the amateur sleuth? The AS is generally a woman (but more men protagonists are popping up in cozies), usually single (but not always) who often owns some kind of mom-and-pop shop in a small town. The AS is not trained in police work but somehow gets sucked into a murder case, usually because the AS knows the victims or the person suspected of the crime or the AS just happens to be hanging around the crime scene.

The charm of the AS is that the reader can identify with the heroine, who is an average person just like herself, more so than she can relate to a law enforcement professional. Often the AS is engaged in a hobby or occupation that interests the reader.

The reader can solve the crime along with the AS. The reader sees the same clues as the AS and the game is on to see if the AS or reader can sort out the red herrings first. Since the AS has no access to crime labs or highly technical police equipment, the reader and AS are working on a level playing field.

In a cozy, the AS is surrounded by parents, kids, crazy relatives, friends and eccentric townspeople. The reader loves to see how the AS handles her various relationships and can probably relate to some of the wacky characters.

In a cozy, the reader doesn’t need to decipher unfamiliar police terminology or try to assimilate into the close-knit culture of the thin blue line. The cozy reader doesn’t have to see the awful sights an officer sees at a crime scene.

So what is the value of the amateur sleuth? Can’t the police solve the case themselves?

Cozies are fantasies. Much of what happens in a cozy would never occur in real life. A cozy is entertainment, not a forensics textbook. The aim is to engage the reader in solving a puzzle and share in the family life of the protagonist, not to present an accurate depiction of police work.

The AS has access to and can communicate with people that the police can’t reach. The AS may find a clue a tired, overworked officer missed. The AS might look at a crime with fresh eyes and a new perspective. And in some cozies, the local law enforcement officers are not the sharpest tools in the woodshed.

My amateur sleuth, Sandy Fairfax, 38-year-old former teen idol, gets involved in cases because he’s the one who finds the body and some compelling reason forces him to start detecting.

In “The Baffled Beatlemaniac Caper,” the police suspect him.

In “The Sinister Sitcom Caper,” the death occurs on a movie lot and the studio executives are more anxious in covering up the crime than in solving it.

In “The Cunning Cruise Ship Caper,” the shipboard security is relying on land-based police to handle the case.

In my current WIP, Sandy finds the body in the offices of a close family member and the detective assigned to the case is pulled away to handle a high-profile murder.

Sandy has the type of personality that cases him to “stick his nose” into other people’s business. In his youth he was energetic and active, outgoing and not timid. He was reckless and often engaged in risky behavior. On his TV show he did most of his own stunt work, so he’s a daredevil and not fearful. he speaks his mind and is not shy at striking up conversations with strangers.

He’s not working steadily, so he’s bored and looking for something to stimulate his mind. He’s had run-ins with the police in the past, so he’s pleased to beat the cops at their own game.

And deep down Sandy has a strong moral core that seeks justice and wants to help the underdog. He feels guilty at squandering much of his life in drinking and inactivity, so solving a crime provides him with purpose and a sense of accomplishment.

What traits do you like to see in an amateur sleuth? What value do you see in an amateur sleuth solving a crime?



Amateur Sleuths: Useful Crimefighters or Meddling Busybodies? — 1 Comment

  1. The value I see is how much fun it is to read and write about these characters. I think the amateur sleuths are a big part of why cozies feel almost “interactive.” IMHO, it’s easier for a reader to feel like she knows this type of protagonist.