Amateur Sleuths Analysis

Elements of Amateur Sleuth Mysteries

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Fascination with puzzles is an important element in human nature. Many newspaper readers believe they could solve crimes more quickly and efficiently than the police, and apparently many of those readers are busy writing mystery novels featuring amateur sleuths much like themselves. Thus, the audience pool for amateur sleuth mystery seems unlimited, and the author pool is also huge, with even the children of former U.S. presidents writing novels set primarily in Washington, D.C. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt solves crimes in books written by her son Elliott Roosevelt; Harry S. Truman’s daughter, Margaret Truman, has written several mysteries; and Gerald Ford’s daughter Susan Ford has drawn on her experience as a child of the president to create an amateur sleuth.

Despite surface differences, such as settings and the sleuths’ backgrounds and personalities, these mysteries tend to follow a similar overall pattern. In the course of their daily activities, the amateur sleuths—who may have no previous experience solving crimes—encounter mysteries whose circumstances render them uniquely qualified to unravel. Either completely alone, or assisted by close friends or family members, the amateur sleuths uncover series of clues, and survive physical perils (often because of timely rescues). Finally, they provide answers to law-enforcement authorities, who are often uncooperative or even hostile up until the resolution of the crimes. Because the writers provide readers all the information their amateur sleuths possess—including red herrings—the primary appeal of these mysteries is the challenge for readers to unmask the culprits before the sleuths do. However, a secondary appeal is that readers enter the sleuths’ worlds. They become acquainted with basically likeable characters and gain new understandings of various groups and occupations. Amateur sleuth novels often end with the sleuths promising never to get involved in another mystery; however, readers generally hope that a series will follow.

The Sleuths’ Backgrounds

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

As diverse as the people who read about them, amateur sleuths may be any age. Some—for example, Agatha Christie’s Miss Jane Marple and Patricia Wentworth’s Maud Silver—draw their inferences from lifetimes of experience. For others—including Carolyn Keane’s teenage Nancy Drew, who influenced generations of mystery writers; Martha Grimes’s Emma Graham; and Jeffery Deaver’s “Rune”—independence and enthusiasm compensate for lack of experience and naïveté. Several, such as Mary Daheim’s Judith McMonigle-Flynn and Anne George’s sister team of Mary Alice and Patricia Ann, consider themselves middle-aged, as do Corinne Holt Sawyer’s Angela Benbow and Caledonia Wingate, residents of an upscale retirement home.

Sleuths also vary in marital status. Being unmarried is not an absolute requirement, but sleuths must possess a high degree of independence. Thus, married sleuths, such as Elizabeth Peters’s Amelia Peabody and Valerie Wolzien’s Susan Henshaw, must have cooperative, patient husbands. Romantic relationships are another recurring element. As early as M. McDonnell Bodkin’s Dora Myrl of The Lady Detective (1900), the courtship and marriage of the primary sleuth becomes a subplot; for example, in Carolyn Hart’s series, the romance of Annie Laurance and Max Darling figures significantly. Likewise, Amanda Cross describes Kate Fansler’s marriage to Reed Amhearst, and Charlotte MacLeod’s Sarah Kelling not only marries...

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The Sleuths’ Occupations

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The underlying premise of amateur sleuth novels is that solving mysteries requires keen powers of observation, imagination, and deduction but not necessarily formal training. In fact, amateur sleuths may hold mundane jobs, exotic jobs, or no jobs at all. The important element is that their lives involve frequent, often close, interaction with relatively limited groups of people.

In contrast to police procedurals and private investigator mysteries, in which detectives may pursue clues over long periods of time and across relatively large geographical areas, or forensic mysteries, whose solutions depend primarily on laboratory analyses, amateur sleuth mysteries are character-driven and are resolved within limited time frames and geographical areas because their victims, suspects, and sleuths are part of cohesive social groups, which are usually determined by the sleuths’ occupations or circles of friends. The sleuths themselves often lead relatively ordinary lives, but their occupations seem destined to lead them to encounters with people with serious problems and to mysteries that need to be solved.

Whatever an individual reader’s area of interest, curiosity, or professional expertise may be, there probably is at least one amateur sleuth who shares it and uses its specialized skills and training to solve crimes. For example, Kate Goldring’s Willi Gallagher uses the tarot to unmask murders, while Dorothy Salisbury Davis’s Julie Hayes...

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Academic Sleuths

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Not surprisingly, perhaps, many amateur sleuths are associated with academics. Placing mysteries in the academic world allows writers to create amusing and eccentric characters, who often include the sleuths themselves. Charlotte MacLeod’s Peter Shandy teaches at a small agricultural college, where his wife, Helen, is a librarian. Together, they solve crimes directly or indirectly involving their college’s academic and support personnel, a relatively cohesive social group they know well. In contrast, Amanda Cross’s Kate Fansler teaches at a large city university; nevertheless, the scope of her mysteries usually is limited to individuals who interact with Fansler and her academic colleagues. Thus, despite the urban university setting, the crimes are played out within a restricted social group.

Similarly, Lee Harris’s Kix Bennett teaches at a community college in New York City and lives in Westchester—a situation that combines two types of limited social groups. Other university professor-sleuths include Susan Kenney’s Roz Howard at Vassar College; Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourne at a Canadian university; Ralph McInerny’s Roger Knight at Notre Dame University; J. S. Bothwick’s Sarah Deane, an English professor in Maine; Patricia Thomas Graham’s Veronica Chase, an African American economics professor at Harvard; Erin Hart’s Cormac Maguire, an Irish archaeologist; Judith Van Gieson’s Clair Reynier, an archivist; Sarah Andrews’s Em Hunter, a geologist; Ridley Pearson’s Daphne Matthews, a psychologist; Susan Slater’s Ben Pecos, a Native American psychologist; and Virginia Swift’s Sally Alder, a professor in Wyoming.

Melissa Cleary’s Jackie Walsh teaches university film classes; Earlene Fowler’s Benni Harper is a folk art expert; Nageeba Davis’s Maggie Kean is an art teacher and sculptor; and Elizabeth Peters’s Jacqueline Kirby is a university librarian. Jane Isenberg’s Bel Barrett teaches English at a community college; Gillian Roberts’s Amanda Pepper teaches at a private high school; Denise Swanson’s Skye Denison is a school psychologist; Hazel Holt’s Mrs. Malory is a substitute teacher; and Marlis Day’s Margo Brown is an Indiana schoolteacher interested in mysteries. Among the retired teachers who become amateur sleuths are Amber Dean’s Abbie Harris, Stuart Palmer’s Hildegarde Winters, Anne George’s Patricia Anne, and Louisa Revell’s Julia Tyler. Patricia Houck Sprinkle’s Sheila Travis and Elizabeth Peters’s Vicky Bliss have become academic administrators.

Writers and Reporters as Sleuths

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

A clearly related group of sleuths are the writers and reporters. Ellen Pael’s Juliet Bodine is a former English professor who writes romance novels, as does Susan Rogers Cooper’s E. J. Pugh. Sarah Shaber’s Professor Simon Shaw has moved to North Carolina’s Outer Banks to write novels. Jill Churchill’s Jane Jeffrey wants to become a writer, but Mignon G. Eberhart’s Susan Dare and Dwight Babcock’s Hannah Van Doren already are mystery writers. Robin Paige’s Kate Sheriden writes novels. Lilian Jackson Braun’s James Qwilleran, once a crime reporter for a metropolitan newspaper, becomes a columnist for a small-town weekly. Ellen Byorrum’s Lacy Smithsonian writes a fashion column; Ann Ripley’s Louise Eldridge stars in a television show about gardening; Sherryl Woods’s Amanda Roberts is an investigative reporter in Atlanta; and Arlene Schumacher’s Tory Travers is a senator’s daughter and investigative reporter. Carolyn Hart’s Henrietta O’Dwyer Collins is a retired reporter; Jan Burke’s Irene Kelly is a California reporter, Tom Corcoran’s Alex Rutledge is a freelance photographer, Kerry Tucker’s Libby Kincaid is a New York City photojournalist, and Susan Ford’s Eve Cooper is a freelance photographer whose father happens to be the president of the United States.

Sleuths Among the Clergy

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The training in theology and counseling that members of the clergy receive helps them to see the weaknesses and strengths of their parishioners. They thus presumably also possess special talent in analyzing the character of others. Moreover, their synagogues and churches constitute the kinds of limited social groups required in cozy mysteries. Harry Kemelman’s sleuth Rabbi David Small draws upon his specialized knowledge of the Torah to help his synagogue’s members solve problems. Frequently, those same problems draw him into murder investigations.

Similarly, seminary training—especially in logic—serves as preparation for sleuthing priests, such as G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, Andrew Greeley’s Father Blackie Ryan, Margaret Coel’s Father John O’Malley, and Ralph McInerny’s Father Dowling. In addition to his clerical duties, William X. Kienzle’s Father Bob Koesler writes for Detroit’s Roman Catholic newspaper, and his journalistic instincts lead to additional investigations and help him unmask murderers.

Most of the clergy sleuths are Catholic priests, but Sister Carol Anne chronicles mysteries solved by a sleuth named Sister Mary Helen, who sets a model that is also followed by Veronica Black’s Sister Joan, who solves mysteries in Cornwall. The best-known sleuthing monk, however, is Ellis Peters’s Brother Cadfael, whose intellectual independence—combined with astute judgment of human nature and scientific...

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Sleuthing Among the Shopkeepers

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Small specialty shops with local clientele also provide the kinds of restricted social groups conducive to the solving of mysteries, especially when the shop owners are well acquainted with their customers and the local community. Not surprisingly, therefore, many amateur sleuths operate such shops, solving crimes that affect their employees, clients, neighbors, and families. These shops sell merchandise of various kinds. In Monica Ferris’s novels, for example, divorcé Betsy Devonshire inherits a small-town needlecraft shop, solves her aunt’s murder, and becomes involved in other local conflicts. JoAnna Carl relates the adventures of another divorcé, Lee McKinney, who is caught up in local mysteries after her aunt invites her...

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Innkeepers, Caterers, and House Cleaners

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Few social groups are more restricted than the residents of boardinghouses and inns, in which hospitality has a commercial element and paying guests feel free to make unusual demands and engage in eccentric behavior. Not surprisingly, the operators of those establishments often draw on their experience and become amateur sleuths. For example, realizing it is the only way to save the family mansion, Charlotte MacLeod’s Sarah Kelling converts it into a genteel boardinghouse and in the process learns quite a bit about human behavior. Similarly, after the stock market crash of 1929 forces Jill Churchill’s brother-and-sister team, Lily and Robert Brewster. to earn a living, they use their only training—in the social graces—and their mansion also becomes a boardinghouse. Tamar Myers’s Magdalena Yoder takes a slightly different approach. After her parents are killed in a freak automobile accident, she opens the family farmhouse to paying guests. Quickly recognizing that the inn’s true appeal is its Amish associations, she allows her guests to pay her for the privilege of cleaning their own rooms.

Perhaps no one knows people as well as the domestic servants who work in their homes. It is not surprising, therefore, that amateur sleuths become involved in mysteries when they work in other people’s houses, either as cleaners or as caterers. Kathy Hogan Trocheck’s Callahan Garrity is a cleaning woman. Ann Purser’s Lois Meade is building a cleaning business in the English village of Tresham, where she uses her crews to investigate crimes ranging from pornography to blackmail and murder. Similarly, Charlaine Harris’s Lily Bard cleans houses to supplement her income as a karate instructor. Like Lois, Lily solves mysteries through careful observation and astute questioning.

A number of sleuths are caterers, restaurateurs, or chefs. For example, Isis Crawford’s Libby Simmons, Diane Moss Davidson’s Goldy Bear, and Jerrilyn Farmer’s Madeline Bean all operate catering services. Janet Laurence’s Darina Lisle is a cookbook writer as well. Among the gourmet chefs who sometimes work as caterers are Katherine Hall Page’s Faith Sibley Fairchild, Joanne Pence’s Chef Angie Amalfi, and Eugenia Potter from the series begun by Virginia Rich and continued by Nancy Pickard.

The Sleuth’s Relatives

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Although amateur sleuths may live almost anywhere—in rural areas, small towns, or big cities—and follow almost any occupation, the culprits and the victims of the crimes they investigate must be part of cohesive social groups. The sleuths are more likely to be successful if they also are part of the same groups. Nevertheless, sleuths often need assistance from other trustworthy characters.

Unlike professional private investigators, amateur sleuths frequently draw support from their own families and from the friends who surround them. Generally these other characters provide information, assist in searches for clues, help trail suspects, serve as sounding boards for the sleuths’ theories about their cases, and...

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Siblings as Sleuthing Teams

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Less numerous than husband-wife teams are brother-sister teams, which combine the humorous element of sibling bickering with the ability of siblings to anticipate each other’s thoughts and reactions. In most instances, one sibling is better at deductive reasoning than the other, while the other does more of the legwork. In Sharyn McCrumb’s novels about Elizabeth and Bill MacPherson, both siblings are central characters, but Elizabeth is the more analytical sleuth, while Bill does most of the interviewing.

In contrast, Lily and Robert Brewster of Jill Churchill’s Grace and Favor series carefully observe the conventions of their upscale society. Lily gleans information from the gossip of women in her quilting...

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Animal Companions

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

In a growing number of mystery series, the valued assistants are not human beings but animals that live with them. Sleuths may rely on their animals to uncover valuable clues, help in trailing culprits, and ultimately rescue them at climactic moments. The animals can also be sympathetic listeners, serving as sounding boards while the sleuths work out theories about their cases. Apart from some children’s books, animals usually remain in secondary roles, primarily assisting the humans. Most such animal companions were originally dogs, but with the growing popularity of cats as indoor pets, the number of feline companions has increased. In these mysteries, the role of the animal companion has greatly expanded.


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Faithful Felines

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

From the days of Rin Tin Tin and Lassie, mystery fiction conventions have established dogs’ roles as trackers, protectors, and judges of human character. The emergence of cats in similar roles is a relatively recent development. Even in series such as Lydia Adamson’s Alice Nestleton mysteries, the crimes are solved by Alice, who cat-sits various finicky and valuable felines; the cats usually are treated as trophies or window dressing, and the assistance they provide to the sleuth is minimal. That limitation changed with the popularity of Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who series. In that series, former newspaperman James Qwilleran’s interviewing skills help him to solve mysteries; however, he insists that credit actually should...

(The entire section is 460 words.)

The Popularity of Amateur Sleuth Series

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The fan base of amateur sleuth and cozy mysteries appears unaffected by the rise of video games or the increasing readership of romance as well as other types of mystery fiction. Bookstore employees regularly post recommendations of new authors or series. When fans perusing bookstore or library shelves meet other fans doing the same, even total strangers are apt to compare mysteries they have read and recommend authors. The explanation for the genre’s enduring popularity is complex. On the whole, amateur sleuth fans are as intrigued by puzzling plots as they are by the sleuths about whom they read, and solving mysteries along with the sleuths is an intellectual game.

Although the overwhelming variety of amateur...

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(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Albert, Walter. Detective and Mystery Fiction: An International Bibliography of Secondary Sources. San Bernardino, Calif.: Brownstone Books, 1997. Comprehensive list of secondary sources, including references to non-English publications.

Bleiler, Richard J. Reference Guide to Mystery and Detective Fiction. Englewood, Colo.: Libraries Unlimited, 1999. Annotated bibliography of general and specialized historical, critical, and bibliographical volumes—for academic and public libraries.

Breen, Jon L. What About Murder? 1981-1991: A Guide to Books About Mystery and Detective Fiction. Metuchen, N.J.:...

(The entire section is 327 words.)