Note to my reader: I wrote this blog when Camel Press first released A Secondhand Murder. I still think it expresses what is possible in a cozy mystery.
Several years ago at a conference a mystery writer who writes a series featuring a detective said she didn’t understand why anyone would use an amateur sleuth as a protagonist. Hmmm, I thought. Agatha Christie did it with Miss Marple, and the books still make for a great read. However, I know what the speaker meant. How can someone who has no access to the crime scene, evidence such as DNA and fingerprints and no authority to interview witnesses or suspects solve a murder? I think it depends upon the writer using several devices including those used by Agatha Christie.
Many homicide detectives will agree that crimes are often solved by a combination of brain work and foot work. I guess Sherlock Holmes deductive reasoning and Hercule Poirot’s little grey cells still figure in crime detection. In Miss Marple’s case, age worked for her, giving her the experience necessary to understand the human psyche. We know these approaches work. What else can the writer do with an amateur sleuth?
None of my amateur sleuths are as old as Miss Marple. Wisdom that comes of age is something they may grow into, yet they do have other resources. Eve Appel, my protagonist in A Secondhand Murder, uses her contacts among police authorities to help her in solving a murder. One of her best friends is a newly appointed homicide detective, and the man in Eve’s life is a private detective. Susan Wittig Albert employs the same approach in her Texas Hill Country herbalist mysteries where she pairs her protagonist with the town’s leading police officer, a woman nicknamed “Smart Cookie”, as well as marries the herbalist to a former Texas Ranger. Mary Daheims’s newspaper editor is engaged to and finally marries the town’s sheriff. Eve gets additional legal help from another, less likely source, a mobster by the name of Nappi Napolitani. Who better knows the criminal mind than a mob kingpin?
Because identifying the killer is less often based upon forensic evidence in a cozy mystery, but more upon reasoning and evidence gleaned through talking to suspects and witnesses, cozies rely upon the character of the protagonist to solve the crime. A tenacious personality is always a plus for an amateur snoop. All of mine have this in spades and can be said to be snoopy women who don’t know when to keep their noses out of a good crime. For example, knowing that she cannot get the police to execute a search warrant, Eve calls on Nappi’s knowledge of breaking and entering to help her get into a house to take a look around. For Eve, crossing over the line into something a bit illegal is no concern. Albert’s and Daheims’s heroines share this don’t-back-down quality also.
The juxtaposition of a sassy woman inserting herself into the investigation and her police detective lover telling her to butt out creates great tension in the course of the crime investigation and can make for some humorous moments. It also lays the foundation for a relationship that the reader knows will continue to provide an exciting read.
All of these approaches create an amateur sleuth who can follow the clues, her own instincts and solve the crime…with a little help from her friends who are cops.