Taking the Amateur Out of Sleuth

Somewhere in the middle of Dick Francis’s second career, his heroes started taking on jobs other than horsy jobs.  They were suddenly professionals but not professional cops.  Among other occupations, his sleuths made their living as bankers, wine dealers, painters, photographers, and pilots.  I remember thinking it was a nice change.  The hero’s work was well-researched and always useful to the plot.  Since most of Francis’s mysteries were standalones rather than series books, he could change the sleuth’s occupational obsession with every new book, and I think he probably had fun doing the research.  I hope so.

Amateur sleuths had always had obsessions.  Miss Marple and Miss Silver could knit for England, and Lord Peter Wimsey collected incunabula.  Still, there was, in the British mystery particularly, the feeling that the amateur sleuth ought to be a gentleperson of leisure who would never (gasp) take money for services rendered.  The American insistence on greedy, boozy private eyes and lowlife scenarios seemed a bit silly in a genre that was fantasy at the core.  Still, the private investigator was probably the first non-cop detective whose job could drive the plot.

Now we have a huge list of occupations for the amateur who just happens to stumble on a corpse.  Some of the jobs make immediate sense.  Journalists, for instance, certainly investigate mysteries.  So (ahem) do librarians.  Prosecutors and defense lawyers do, and so do bone doctors and medical examiners.  Priests, rabbis, and preachers investigate the mysteries of the human conscience.  But wedding planners? Chefs? Fishermen? Dog trainers? Gardeners? House cleaners (my favorite)?

The problem with the above occupations does not arise with a standalone mystery.  Sooner or later, a dry cleaner or a chef may stumble across a corpse, and, if ordinarily observant, may detect.  The problem lies with series books.  The ecdysiast with a talent for detection can only come across a few naked corpses (or naked murderers) before verisimilitude raises its ugly head.  Even when we’re willing, as readers, to accept yet another dead body, the amateur detective’s expertise ought to help solve the puzzle–or at least complicate the plot.  It has to have a function other than simple backstory.

Of course, with the current job market, one solution does suggest itself.  The amateur could be constantly retraining owing to serial unemployment.

One other point.  Many of the colorful new occupations listed for amateur sleuths joined the list because the authors wanted female protagonists.  Dick Francis’s heroes were always men.  That is not now the case in mysteryland.  One reason I’m fond of the housecleaner-sleuth is that that is an arena in which I have involuntary expertise owing to my gender.  I’m delighted that these new sleuths are, by God, paid to clean houses, even if they’re not paid to solve mysteries.

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2 Responses

  1. Lovely post, Sheila! Dick Francis is one of my favorite writers, precisely because he does such immaculate research into different careers. I’ve learned so much from him. Not just about horse racing and other jobs, but about writing and about peering into the human heart.

    I’m running into the problem you mentioned with series mysteries. The solution I’ve come up with for my art gallery murders is to have a team of sleuths, in this case the gallery owner and her two framers. One framer is a hiker and involved in environmental causes, the other trains and shows bird dogs, and the owner is a Rotarian. Their outside interests give me lots of scope for mayhem! While at least the first 3 books will center on the gallery, others may follow adventures outside of work. We’ll see how that works out.

    • Thanks, Nikki. It sounds as if you have a great solution. I tell myself I’m dealing with an entire county and can expand and contract the number of viewpoint characters. The “problem” is probably more in the authors’ heads than in the mysteries themselves if they’re well-written. At least that’s my take. Sheila

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