Thursday, June 13, 2013
In Defense of Amateur Sleuths
It’s easy to make fun of mysteries about amateur sleuths. How likely is it, after all, that someone who isn’t a police officer or a private detective would get caught up in investigating a murder? Wouldn’t any sensible person let the professionals handle all the difficulties, all the possible dangers? True, if the victim or the person falsely accused is a close relative, an amateur might make a few cautious suggestions to the police. Even then, though, an amateur wouldn’t dare do more. If the victim or suspect is a mere friend, no sane amateur would do anything at all. And it’s definitely ridiculous to think an amateur could get involved in a series of investigations. That’s when we get the jokes about Murder, She Wrote and the crime rate in Cabot Cove.
I’ll admit amateur sleuth mysteries can get silly. In one novel I started to read recently, the protagonist reacted with Nancy Drew-like glee when she heard a slight acquaintance had been murdered, rushed to the crime scene, and did foolish things that impeded and infuriated the police. That novel ended up in the Goodwill pile before I finished the second chapter.
I’ll also admit that yes, in some ways, most amateur sleuth stories are fundamentally implausible. Most of us, thankfully, live out our years without being personally touched by murder. And few people ever encounter a murder involving a limited number of suspects, an ingenious method, and a clever killer whose motives can be unraveled only through the penetrating interpretation of clues.
But that’s true of professionals as well as of amateurs. Real-life crimes are seldom as interesting as fictional ones. Usually, either the criminal makes so many stupid mistakes that there’s never more than one suspect, or the crime is so random or so simple that no suspects are ever identified. A husband gets drunk, gets mad, and shoots his wife with a gun registered in his name; a body is found in an alley, riddled with stab wounds but with no evidence pointing to motive or murderer. Lieutenant Columbo wouldn’t really run into all those fiction-worthy murders, any more than Jessica Fletcher would.
Almost any mystery requires a willing suspension of disbelief. So does almost any other kind of fiction. When we read fantasy, we suspend our disbelief about vampires. When we read science fiction, we suspend our disbelief about time travel. When we read literary fiction, we suspend our disbelief about people’s infinite capacity for sitting around and feeling sorry for themselves.
And when we read mysteries, we suspend our disbelief about the likelihood of near-perfect crimes. Historically, mystery readers have been willing to make this suspension, and they make it for Miss Marple just as willingly as they do for Inspector Poirot. With any kind of fiction, I think, we’ll suspend our disbelief about a situation that’s implausible, or at least atypical, as long as the characters behave the way human beings caught in such a situation really would behave. The devious murder method that depends upon split-second timing is fine. The unmotivated confession isn’t.
In one of the series I write for Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, disillusioned academic Leah Abrams keeps stumbling across bodies and solving murders when she takes on assignments as a temporary secretary. In the second and third stories, I had Leah exclaim that she was shocked to run into yet another homicide, had friendly Detective Brock joke about advising the temporary agency to put a warning sticker on her resume. In the fourth story, I stopped apologizing. The editor didn’t seem to mind, readers didn’t seem to mind, so why waste time calling attention to the implausibility of the series’ premise?
More fundamentally, the amateur sleuth epitomizes a principle central to the mystery genre. Mysteries rest on the belief that truth must be uncovered and justice must be done—and that the responsibility for uncovering truth and doing justice doesn’t lie only with professionals.
In real life, yes, most amateurs wouldn’t get involved in a murder investigation. In real life, most amateurs don’t get involved with most emergencies. They witness a car crash or see someone in danger of drowning, they call 911, and they wait on the sidewalk until the professionals arrive, even when victims are screaming for help. Sometimes, though, in real life, amateurs do risk their lives to pull victims from a burning car before the gas tank explodes. Sometimes, they plunge into icy waters to rescue someone going down for the third time. It doesn’t make sense—it isn’t plausible—but they do it anyway. Those are the people we admire, the people who get praised as heroes on the 6:00 news.
Those are the people we celebrate in amateur sleuth mysteries.
B.K. Stevens has published over forty mystery stories, most of them in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, and an e-novella, One Shot, published by Untreed Reads. Her website is www.bkstevensmysteries.