Mystery readers have long been aware that some of the best
literary detectives are rank amateurs. Unlike private eyes, FBI agents, and
police officers, amateur sleuths must fit in crime solving along with their day
job. These part-time detectives not only break the rules, they’re often unaware
of what the rules are. Still, this doesn’t stop them from unearthing evidence,
tracking down leads, and nabbing the killer.
thing, most do not carry weapons. An amateur sleuth also can’t obtain a search
warrant or wire tap, which may lead them to breaking and entering – a crime. One
of the biggest risks of not being a professional is the possibility of arrest,
since law enforcement views an amateur with suspicion or irritation. If an
amateur does find evidence or clues, the resources of a forensics or crime lab
are not available. This is why so many cozy mysteries feature police officers
or FBI agents as continuing characters; these characters are often a family
member or a romantic interest of the protagonist.
intelligence, ingenuity, and intuition. And a private citizen interested in
solving crimes is not without resources. Scores of databases are available
online, such as tax assessor records, genealogical history, property records,
military service, etc. And if the sleuth knows the person’s social security
number, the prefix will tell them the state where the number was issued. County
records and newspaper archives also help flatten the playing field for the
non-professional detective. But the most valuable asset for an amateur is
gossip. Most people are wary or fearful of the police. If the person asking
questions is a friend who owns the local bakery, the answers may be more
and the amateur sleuth is usually a long-time resident. This allows them easy
access to all the juicy family secrets, and they know where all the bodies –
literally and figuratively – are buried. Such knowledge gives them an advantage
over an outside investigator. Detectives
in cozies often own businesses such as tea shops, B&Bs, bookstores, and
vineyards. This constant influx of customers and visitors provides an ever-changing
pool of suspects and victims. The reader is also showered with lots of
fascinating details about the protagonist’s business.
Popular small business
cozies include Laura Child’s Tea Shop Mysteries, JoAnna Carl’s Chocoholic
mysteries, and Susan Wittig Albert’s China Bayle’s Herb Shop series.
enforcement. More than one police department has called in a psychic to help
them unravel an especially difficult case. These are sleuths who possess a
unique skill set rarely found in a forensics lab or police station. Not
surprisingly, mystery series have sprung up which feature paranormal
investigators. These detectives include not only psychics, ghost hunters, and
witches, but also actual supernatural creatures such as vampires and
werewolves. Perhaps the most famous in this subgenre is Charlaine Harris’s
Sookie Stackhouse books.
past – when investigative methods were minor or nonexistent – might be easier
to write. Not so. Cozy historical authors setting their stories in London must
be aware of how British ‘Bobbies’ came into service, and that 1749 saw the founding of the Bow
Street Runners, the city’s first professional police force. In the American
colonies, law enforcement was the prerogative of constables, government
appointed sheriffs, and voluntary citizen “watches” who patrolled the town’s
streets at night. This leaves plenty of opportunity for amateur sleuths,
especially since the country’s first 24-hour police force did not appear until
1833 in Philadelphia. Books set during the early years of law enforcement
include the Bracebridge Mystery series by Margaret Miles, Maan Meyer’s Tonneman
books, and Patricia Wynn’s Blue Satan series set in Georgian London.
While there weren’t established police forces prior to the
19th century, there were lawyers. And it’s not only John Grisham and
Scott Turow who know that attorneys have access to both information and a wide
range of criminals. The practice of law has been a legalized profession since
the time of Roman Emperor Claudius in the first century. What a perfect
occupation for an amateur sleuth, as long as he doesn’t run afoul of the
ultimate arbiter of justice: the reigning monarch. And when the sleuth is the
monarch herself, as in the Queen Elizabeth I series by Karen Harper, then you
have the most powerful detective of them all.
with a budding police force. Ministers and officials could make things quite
dangerous for a sleuth, especially if that sleuth is an ordinary citizen
without wealth and powerful connections to back him up. And depending on the
time period, a wrongly accused victim did not have forensic science techniques
to help exonerate him. Fingerprinting wasn’t admissible in court until after
the turn of the 20th century, along with
photographs of the crime scene and victims. In both historical and contemporary
novels, amateur detectives have a hard time convincing police officials of
their theories. Even worse, the killer invariably targets the sleuth as their
next victim in order to avoid discovery.
murder investigation or else it wouldn’t make sense, given the inherent danger.
In our own debut mystery, Eliza Doolittle must prove that Henry Higgins is innocent
of murdering his chief rival; it is her friendship and loyalty to him that
spurs Eliza on. In Cleo Coyle’s first Coffeehouse mystery, the police believe
an attack on Clare’s employee was accidental; Clare believes otherwise and adds
‘amateur sleuth’ to her resume. And in Barbara Ross’s Maine Clambake series,
amateur sleuth Julia must rescue her family business while solving a murder on
its remote island premises.
to chase after criminals. Luckily, they seem to be quite good at it.
Leave a comment to get your name in the drawing for a hard copy of Wouldn’t It Be Deadly.
D.E. Ireland is a team of award-winning
authors, Meg Mims and Sharon Pisacreta. Long time friends, they decided to
collaborate on this unique series based on George Bernard Shaw’s wonderfully
witty play, Pygmalion, and flesh out their own
version of events post-Pygmalion.