I’m reading Michael Connelly’s THE POET right now, and I’m jealous.  His hero’s a newspaper journalist who covers homicides.  A good reason to get involved in murders. Then his protagonist’s brother–a homicide detective–is murdered.  Even more motivation to find the killer.  His main characters are detectives and FBI agents.  He has an arsenal of experts to hunt his serial killer.  This all adds up to a riveting read, and I’m thoroughly enjoying the book.  A while ago, I read Lisa Black’s THAT DARKNESS.   Her heroine?  A forensic specialist.  Her hero, (sort of)?  A detective.  They have to get involved in cases.  To add more interest, though, they butt heads against each other.  Do I feel comfortable writing about experts?  Not even a little.

What did I choose for my mystery?  An amateur sleuth.  A tad trickier.  There has to be a reason Jazzi (short for Jasmine) hears what she hears and finds what she finds.  Hercule Poirot was paid to solve cases.  Jane Marple, on the other hand, often found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time–and was just thrown into the mix and solved the mystery because she noticed things other people didn’t.

Amateur detectives can’t knock on doors, flash a badge, and demand answers.  So, for one reason or another, they have to be personally involved in what’s going on around them.  They can be on a cruise, days away from any shoreline, like Jane Marple when murder happened.  They can have a best friend who’s a suspect, whom they want to prove innocent.  But there has to be a serious reason why they get involved.

When I visited the book store, I discovered that these days, when you write about an amateur sleuth, it also helps if you have a niche that adds to the mystery.  Dick Francis wrote about jockeys and horse racing.  Carolyn Hart wrote about a book store owner, Nevada Barr about a park ranger, and Diane Mott Davidson about a caterer–and she included recipes.  There are mysteries about quilting, tea, and fly fishing.   An expertise adds flavor to a dead body or two.

Another difference.  Most amateur detectives don’t have as high of a body count as police procedurals and thrillers, etc., so you have to make each body matter.  Okay, I’m being a little bit of a smart aleck, but a writer does have to get more mileage out of each victim. An amateur story can’t off someone every time the tension starts to sag.

In lots of procedurals and thrillers, the story isn’t about figuring out who the villain is. We meet the villain, often get inside his head, watch him pit himself against the good guy. The book’s conflict comes from hoping the spy/agent/detective/cop catches the villain before he kills his next victim or achieves his dastardly deed.  Multiple POVs crank up the tension.  We can switch from the good guy’s POV to the villain’s.  We know they’re going to cross paths, battle to a final showdown.  British mysteries often follow the detective around and try to figure out who did it before the detective does.  The same is true for amateur sleuths.  Solving the crime is the big pay-off at the end of the book.  The reader watches the protagonist gather clues, as best he can, and add them up.  If we can solve the mystery first, we feel clever.  Single POV makes sure we only know what the protagonist does.

I’m not much of an expert at anything, so writing about an amateur works fine for me:)  I like how personal the victims/witnesses/suspects become.  An amateur mystery usually feels more intimate, at least to me, but it is harder to keep an amateur sleuth involved in a murder case.  He’s not just “doing his job.”  The writer has to come up with reasons he’s doing what doesn’t come naturally for him, maybe even what he’d rather avoid.

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10 thoughts on “Amateurs

  1. I know what you mean. When I re-read a few pages of Jane Austen, I realize how awfully insignificant my work is, nevertheless it does stimulate me to try harder…and become better.

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  2. I’m currently reading The Secret Place by Tana French which is a detective procedural set in Dublin. I love her stuff, but when it comes to my own writing, I prefer to stick with the PI or amateur sleuth stuff. I admire those who can deliver such intricate details of a actual working crime units but know my limitations. French is an amazing writer. Every time I crack open one of her books, I’m in awe not only of her story telling ability and detail, but of her talent with words.

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  3. That’s how I’m feeling with Michael Connelly right now. He’s good at everything. He has the right mindset and attitude for a newsman, and so do the FBI agents and detectives. I couldn’t do enough research to get everything right, but I’m glad he can do it! I’ve never read Tana French. She sounds good.

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  4. Not a big mystery reader but like to watch it. Still making my way through the Jack Taylor series. I like the broken personalities like scruffy Jack and depressed Jesse Stone. The Stone plots are usually easy to figure out but not Jack Taylor’s.

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