I don’t usually say a lot about my writing plans. After all, we all know what Robert Burns had to say about plans. But I’ve just begun the first draft (so it won’t be out very soon!) of a new Joel Williams novel. We’ll see how it develops as time goes by. The thing about Williams is, he’s not a police officer (although he was one) or a private investigator. So there are real limits to what he can realistically find out and do as a sleuth. It makes telling his stories a challenge, because both he and I like those stories to be credible.
We’re not the only ones to face this challenge, either. Contemporary crime fiction readers want their stories to have authenticity. Of course, there’s a little suspension of disbelief; it’s fiction, after all. But readers want credible characters who do credible things. It’s arguably less of a problem in Golden Age crime fiction, although the best of those stories do have a certain amount of credibility. For instance, Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey is neither a police officer nor a private detective. But, his good friend (and, later, brother-in-law) is a police detective, so Wimsey has a connection to different cases. And even when Parker doesn’t play as central a role, Wimsey gets involved for clear reasons. For instance, in Strong Poison, he attends a murder trial, becomes smitten with the accused, and determines to clear her name so she’ll be free to marry him.
Anthony Berkeley’s Roger Sheringham is a writer who occasionally does newspaper articles. So, it makes sense that he would either be asked to follow up on a case or be curious enough to follow it on his own. Admittedly, he’s not exactly the most likeable of fictional sleuths, but his involvement in a case is usually more or less credible. He’s not alone. I’m sure you could name dozens of fictional sleuths who are journalists, and whose involvement in a case makes sense given that profession.
Many creators of today’s fictional amateur sleuths also find believable ways to get their sleuths involved in cases. One way is through the sleuth’s expertise. For example, Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway is a forensic archaeologist with North Norfolk University. She doesn’t have police credentials or a PI license. But she is an expert in the identification of bones and other remains. So it makes sense and is credible that the police might seek out her help to solve cases in which bones are found.
That’s also the case with Simon Beckett’s Dr. David Hunter, who’s a forensic scientist. He has a deep knowledge of science, and he’s very good at what he does. So it’s not surprising that the police seek him out when they are working on complicated cases that require his expertise. He doesn’t go looking for cases; in fact, he’d rather work on his research and not get deeply involved. But that’s not how it works out most of the time…
It’s also believable that an amateur sleuth takes a personal interest in a case if it hits close to home. For example, Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve is a (now retired) political scientist and academician. She’s a naturally curious person, but she doesn’t get involved in sleuthing just out of curiosity. The Wandering Soul Murders begins when Joanne’s daughter Mieka finds the body of a young woman in a trash bin where she works. It makes sense that Mieka would call the police (which she does) and her mother (which she also does). There’s more to Joanne’s involvement in this particular novel, but that’s how it starts – in a credible way.
Donna Malane’s Diane Rowe is a missing person expert. The police sometimes reach out to her if her special skills are needed. For example, in Surrender, she works with the police to identify the remains of a man whose body is discovered in Rimituka State Forest. But she also takes a personal interest in another case – the murder of her sister Niki. At the beginning of the novel, she finds out that the man responsible for Niki’s death has himself been killed. It turns out that he was hired by someone else to commit the crime, and now Diane wants to know who employed him. So she starts asking questions, and soon finds that someone will go to just about any length to keep the truth hidden.
Sometimes, amateur sleuths get involved when they’re framed for a crime. That’s what happens to Colin Conway’s Beau Smith. He’s a former motorcycle gang member who’s been placed in the FBI’s Federal Witness Protection Program in exchange for testifying against his fellow gang members. And in Cozy Up to Murder, he’s given a new identity and sent to a tourist town, Costa Buena, California. There, he runs Rockerfellas, a vintage music store. He wants to settle in and stay safe, but he ends up as the number one suspect when the owner of a competing music store is murdered. It isn’t so much that he’s eager solve crimes, but Beau wants to clear his own name. And he’s got lots of company, too. I’m sure you can think of several amateur sleuths who look into a crime if they’re suspected.
There are other ways, too, in which authors can credibly involve amateur sleuths in cases. It takes thought and planning, and it can be tricky. And what of Joel Williams? How will he get involved in his next investigation? Watch this space!
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Piano Man.
12 thoughts on “Man, What Are You Doing Here?*”
Well, good luck with the new writing project Margot! As for suspension of disbelief, I think that’s so often a part of GA Crime and it doesn’t usually bother me. But certainly modern authors definitely are under pressure to be more authentic – which must be hard!
Thanks for the good wishes, KBR! And you make a good point about suspension of disbelief. I do think modern readers want credibility in their characters and plots. That means authors need to be accurate and realistic when they write. It takes a deft hand to do that and still keep the story going and the reader interested!
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Oh, that’s exciting news, Margot! Hope the writing goes smoothly, but keep a good stock of wine and cake for those moments when the next word is elusive… 😉 It is harder to accept amateur sleuths in modern crime, I think, but if there’s a logical reason it can certainly work. In Jeffery Deaver’s recent Colter Shaw trilogy, Colter is a bounty hunter – not so much for criminals with a bounty on their heads, but mostly looking for missing people whose relatives have offered a reward. Of course, it always becomes more complicated than that!
Thanks, FictionFan! And you’re right; wine and cake are excellent spurs to creativity… 😉 I’ve definitely considered the ‘writing supplies’ I’ll need! You make a really well-taken point about the reason an amateur sleuth gets involved in a case. The Jeffery Deaver example shows that it can work really well, too. I think it needs to be done carefully and for believable reasons; then, it can go well. Folks, do read FictionFan’s review of The Goodbye Man and of The Final Twist.
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Thanks as always for the links, Margot! 😀
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My best wishes Margot for your new novel. Leo Bruce wrote a very funny passage about how amateur people get involved in solving a case. It was very tongue-in-cheek and made me want to read Bruce (which I eventually did).
Thank you, Neeru. We’ll see how it goes. In the meantime, thanks for the reminder of Leo Bruce. I’ve thought more than once about putting one of his books in the spotlight; I’ll have to do that!
Good luck with the writing.
On amateur sleuths I thought of the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop Mysteries set in Massachusetts in which bookshop co-owner is drawn into investigating murders by her intense curiosity though in the first book, Elementary She Read, she is a suspect. Gemma precisely explains to an investigating detective the flawed reasoning of the detective.
Thanks for the good wishes and for mentioning Vicki Delany’s Sherlock Holmes Bookshop Mysteries, Bill. Sometimes, intense curiosity can be enough to spur an amateur sleuth to investigate a crime. And, of course, being suspected would have the same effect!
Margot, good luck with the WIP. I hope it all goes to plan. I’m abig fan of the Conway Beau Smith character. Great fun.
Thanks, Col – I appreciate the good wishes. And I like Beau Smith, too. Conway did a great job with him, and I appreciate your introducing me to him.