Why Do Amateur Sleuths Solve Crimes? / Author Sharon Woods Hopkins

Sharon Woods Hopkins

Sharon Woods Hopkins

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.

Killerwatt & Killerfind by Sharon Woods HopkinsAnother 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 beth@killernashville.com.)


About Clay Stafford

Clay Stafford is an author / filmmaker (www.ClayStafford.com) and founder of Killer Nashville (www.KillerNashville.com). As a writer himself, he has over 1.5 million copies of his own books in print in over 14 languages. Stafford’s latest projects are the feature documentary “One of the Miracles” (www.OneOfTheMiracles.com) and the music CD “XO” (www.JefferyDeaverXOMusic.com). A champion of writers, Publishers Weekly has identified Stafford as playing “an essential role in defining which books become bestsellers” throughout “the nation’s book culture.” (PW 6/10/13)
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5 Responses to Why Do Amateur Sleuths Solve Crimes? / Author Sharon Woods Hopkins

  1. Marni Graff says:

    I agree, Sharon. Nora Tierney is a children’s book writer in the series in write set in England. She was a journalist before that so her snooping ways come to her naturally!

  2. Thanks so much for the lovely mention, Sharon!

    Nice post, here. You make a great point about believable involvement for our amateur sleuths. Why would they disrupt their nice, quiet lives to chase murderers? Can be helpful to have the sleuth’s friend be a suspect or a victim, or have the sleuth be a suspect. I think there’s an old rule for writers that says something along the lines of “readers should only be expected to suspend their disbelief once in a story.” 🙂

  3. Sally Carpenter says:

    Am I the first to leave a comment? Hi, Sharon! I like amateur sleuth mysteries more than police procedurals. One thing I’d like to add to your excellent post is that the non-professional sleuth needs to actually find clues and solve the case, not just ask questions around until the killer ‘fesses up. And that the sleuth’s day job needs to give her flexibility to get away from the office and snoop–vacation and comp time only goes so far. Good luck with your series!

  4. I too prefer the older protagonists, probably because I’m post-baby boomer myself and have recently had my own nonfiction investigation of a cold case murder published (SLEUTH-blog). All of my mystery fiction revolves around amateur sleuths and that’s what I prefer to read. It’s more interesting, in my opinion, to watch the learning curve as the investigator encounters obstacles, makes mis-steps, has self-doubt, yet perseveres; adversity makes success all the sweeter.
    Good luck, Sharon!

  5. I enjoyed your post, Sharon. I read and write cozy mysteries, and being a baby boomer myself, I identify more with sleuths my own age. They didn’t make the TV show “Murder She Wrote” about a young sleuth – they made it about and older woman who knew everybody and everything. I’ve taken that information to heart and make sure my sleuth has insider information that puts her ahead of law enforcement on the hunt for clues/evidence.

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