Sunday, February 19, 2012

Giving the Amateur Sleuth a Believable Toolkit

In writing promotional material for When the Carny Comes to Town, I looked ahead to whatever the fourth book in the Jolie Gentil mystery series will be.  It's relatively easy to think of ways to get my real estate appraiser and her friends into trouble.  She lives in a beach town in Jersey, for heaven's sakes.  You can live there all your life without getting into or causing trouble. But if you are looking for any, it might be easier to find than in a town of 500 in Iowa.  (Probably)

The challenge is coming up with ways to get an amateur sleuth out of trouble that don't include the kinds of tools that law enforcement, private detectives, or bad guys use.  (Guy being a gender-neutral term, of course.)  Jolie does not have the boxing skills of PI Spenser in Boston or the access to information in government databases that Jessica Fletcher can sometimes wheedle out of the sheriff in Cabot Cove.  She's far from wealthy, so she can't hire someone who has the skills or access she sometimes wants.

What to do? 

1)  Give your amateur sleuth not just a reason to be curious about the wrong-doing of the moment but some general skills that help her ferret out information.  Jolie used to be a real estate agent always on the lookout for deals.  She was good at math in high school (or better than some of her friends, anyway) so there is a sense that she knows how to solve at least theoretical problems.

2) Create an environment in which your sleuth has resources.  Jolie is not MacGyver, she does not know how to rig explosives from matchsticks.  She does have a lot of friends, access to the Internet, and a fairly small town in which to operate.  That works for her.  If she were in Washington, DC, the traffic alone would mean it would take ridiculously long to follow up a hunch -- at least one that entails driving a car.  

3) Watch out for time-worn tools.  Coincidence cannot be a regular item in the amateur sleuth's kit.  If you have your sleuth run into the town gossip every time she needs information, that wears thin pretty fast. Jolie's friend Ramona works in the office supply store and talks to a lot of people.  I figure that might be good for one newsy tidbit per book (maybe), but more would be a stretch.

4) Maintain enough characters that there are regular sources of information or access to skills the sleuth does not have.  Having a chemist move in next door just for the book in which the sleuth needs to know more about poisons is too big a coincidence.  Being friendly with the local pharmacist (even getting prescriptions filled) in a couple books means that (in a future book) the amateur detective can have access to someone who might be able to answer a question about a drug or poison's properties.

5)  Watch out for the "sleuth as pest to the police" routine.  I do a bit of that myself, and am looking for ways to move away from it.  There generally has to be interaction with local police -- if there was no crime what's a sleuth to do?  Unless it's inherent to the plot, take care that the local gens d'armes don't become almost another bad guy.

Those are a few of my thoughts.  I would love to hear some of yours.

1 comment:

  1. Hello -- Elaine is placing someone else's comment. I had some settings that did not let people comment easily (now fixed) yesterday, so here is the very thoughtful comments my friend Leigh Michaels sent via email.
    "Great points about writing an amateur sleuth.

    "A shortcoming I [Leigh] see in a lot of cozy mysteries is that there's really no reason for the amateur sleuth to be involved in the case at all, or even particularly interested.

    Many an author gets through the first cozy -- where the sleuth starts investigating because he/she IS the suspect -- just fine. But in subsequent books, there isn't really a reason why the sleuth is so deeply invested in finding out who did it -- and then the sleuth just looks like a busybody who's got nothing better to do!"