QUIBBLES & BITS
This quibble/question came in last week:
"I just finished reading my first mystery with an amateur sleuth and I HATED it. For one thing, the sleuth went around asking questions and everybody just automatically answered her. That would never happen in real life. Am I a snob?"
Quick answer: No, you're not a snob.
Longer answer (without which I wouldn't have a blog): Like everything else, a successful AS (Amateur Sleuth) mystery depends on how well the book is written. Obviously, the one you read had flaws. Many times I've evaluated or free-lance edited a mystery where there's absolutely no reason for a "suspect" to answer the questions of an AS, but many more times an interview blends seamlessly into the story...as long as there's (my favourite word) motivation.
It's not "snobby" to dislike AS books. You just haven't come across the books that kick-start your appreciation.
The first AS who comes to mind is Christie's Miss Marple. But let's be more contemporary. Off the top of my head, Jan Burke's Irene Kelly, Harlan Coben's Bolitar, and Lee Child's Jack Reacher are AS protags.
Then there are the AS protags in historical mysteries, too numerous to mention.
So there are exceptions, even for those who are dead-set (some mystery-speak there, hee!) against amateur sleuth mysteries.
Negative responses to AS books remind me of the response a NY editor gave me about my generational saga, The Rainbow's Foot. She said people don't buy or read sagas. I responded with a long list of successful saga authors and novels (Lonesome Dove headed the list, followed closely by The Thorn Birds, North and South, A Woman of Substance, and a half dozen more). Her reply: "Those are the exceptions."
Well, okay. An author can't possibly win that argument. Except by publishing with a small regional press and selling out in less than 9 months. Hah!
Why was Jessica Fletcher so popular, almost synonymous with AS? I think it's the same reason why quiz shows like Wheel of Fortune and Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? are so popular. Because you can play along with Jessica, play along with the show's contestants, solve the puzzles, answer the questions, feel good. In my case, I watch Jeopardy. And except for geography (or math/science), I rarely miss the questions...er, answers. Does that make me feel good? You betcha'.
Would you consider a lawyer an AS protag? I would. A reporter? A jockey? A car mechanic? A vampire? A veterinarian? How about Famous People (Jane Austin, Beatrix Potter)?
There are many reasons for an AS to get involved in a crime. A dead body found in the trunk of one's car. An enigmatic email. A friend or relative accused of a crime. A dead race horse. I could go on and on. Again, the success of the book depends on how the sleuthing is conducted --- on how the book is written.
Condemning all AS books is like condemning all ebooks or audio books because you read - or heard - a bad one.
And finally, AS protags are, for the most part, "comfortable." One can empathize or even "trade places" with a librarian, a waitress, a stay-at-home mom, a Wicca witch, a diet club leader, etc, and while I'd rather spend 90,000 words with Kathy Mallory than, say, a stay-at-home mom, it doesn't diminish my appreciation for a well-written, character-driven novel.
To me, an amateur is defined (loosely) as not having professional status. But that doesn't mean a "sleuth" isn't a professional in his/her profession...just in sleuthing.
If I -- as a singer or waitress (or singing waitress) -- tripped over a corpse, I'd call the cops. But what if I called the cops and by the time they arrived the body had vanished?
There are a dozen (or more) different ways to take that story. And that's what it is: a story. Fiction.
A heroine would never do the things my heroines do (or act the way my heroines act) in my historical fiction. Calamity Jane was the exception, not the rule. But what kind of a story would I have if I stuck to the truth? My hero would be Wyatt Earp (or Maverick) over and over again and my feisty women would all be "saloon girls."
So I guess you could say I write "amateur heroine historicals."
Please keep those cards and letters...er, questions coming, kids.