Last month I participated on a panel called “Killing Me Softly” at a writers’ conference. It wasn’t about the 1973 Roberta Flack song, as I first thought. Rather, it was a lively discussion about what that title would mean relative to a mystery novel. Everyone on the panel concluded that that “Killing Me Softly” described cozy mysteries, since the “softly” meant that no hard-core descriptions of the acts of murder, mayhem or sex would appear on the page. We also vigorously agreed that cozies are indeed, mysteries. We all know another key element in a cozy is the amateur sleuth protagonist. Think Miss Marple as opposed to Inspector Poirot.
Why would a______ (fill in the blank with banker, horse trainer, cook, crossword puzzle champion, scrapbook shop owner, cheese shop owner, dressmaker, you name it) be solving a crime in the first place? And, honestly, would they be solving murders? That is a major “willing suspension of disbelief” element critical to all good amateur sleuth mysteries. Outstanding examples of this are the Camel Club mysteries by David Baldacci. Four unlikely partners are positive there is a growing conspiracy in Washington, when, in fact, nothing is going on. Until, something terrible really does happen.
The reader needs a believable reason for the sleuth’s involvement.
One reason could be that the police don’t believe a there is a murder. The sleuth knows otherwise, but the police won’t believe him/her. This was the case in my first Rhetta McCarter mystery, Killerwatt, where Rhetta discovered a terrorist plot, and no one believed her. Another reason could be that the sleuth himself/herself or a best friend is a suspect in the murder. That was how Rhetta got involved in Killerfind.
Yet another reason could be that a chain of events begins happening that only the amateur sleuth knows about, and is therefore the only one who can stop it.
The point is that the involvement of the amateur has to be believable. The normal horse trainer, banker, etc., isn’t a professional and probably gets in the way of the police who are trying to solve the murder. Giving the amateur a reason to be there is vital to holding the story together.
When a waitress’ ex-husband dies of food poisoning while eating in the restaurant where she works, she becomes the suspect. She knows she is innocent, but the police arrest her. The only person who believes her is her best friend. And so on. The best friend becomes the sleuth. Or, if the waitress is out on bail, she may become the sleuth.
Perhaps the amateur has information that no one else believes. He/she is compelled to move forward and act on it if no one else (read: authorities) will.
I’ve read hundreds of amateur sleuth mysteries. Some are terrific, some not too good. I love the good ones so much that I chose to create an amateur sleuth series. My protagonist is mortgage banker. She is always a reluctant participant. She always gets in the way. And so far, she has always solved the cases.
Another element that the amateur sleuth mystery needs is that the protagonist must have a day job. Since they are not professional detectives or cops, sleuths need a visible means of support. Unless, of course, they are retired and solving murders in retirement homes. Myrtle Clover, heroine of Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover Mysteries is an octogenarian. And quite the humorous character, to boot.
Which brings to mind another element: How old should the sleuth be? That has been a debatable issue for a very long time. I’ve had agents tell me that my female protag shouldn’t even be in her forties. That’s too old, many of them said. Hold on. Who are the readers? Only people under forty? Which segment of the population is growing the fastest? Seniors. (http://tinyurl.com/bf9mo64). Which segment of the population has the most disposable income? Baby Boomers. (http://suddenly.senior.com/seniorfacts.html) Most, if not all folks 50+ are very tech savvy and love e-readers, iPhones, iPads, and so on.
So now we have a profile of the cozy mystery and the amateur sleuth of today. He/she can be middle aged, or older, or even retired. But he/she has to have a darn good reason to solve a murder. Or it isn’t quite believable.
Sharon Hopkins is a member of the Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, the Southeast Missouri Writers’ Guild, and the Missouri Writers’ Guild. Her short story, DEATH BEE HUMBLE, appeared in the SEMO Writer’s Guild Anthology for 2012, and her newest short story, DEATH TO PONDER will be in a mystery anthology this spring. Her first Rhetta McCarter book, KILLERWATT was a finalist in the 2012 Indie Excellence Awards. Her second book, KILLERFIND was released in July 2012. Her third book, KILLERTRUST will be available in 2013. Like her protagonist, Sharon is manager of the mortgage division of a bank.
(The Killer Nashville Guest Blog series is coordinated by KN Executive Director Beth Terrell (http://www.elizabethterrell.com/). To be a part of this series, contact Beth at firstname.lastname@example.org.)