By Louise Ure
I don’t call them amateur sleuth novels. That seems to diminish them somehow. As if a story about a person caught up in a web of evil has to be feather light unless that person is a policeman or a private eye.
I like to think of them as ordinary hero novels.
When I launched People Magazine in Australia (called Who Weekly down there, as there was already a magazine called People that prominently featured stories about three-breasted women and unexplained lights in the sky), we focused on two kinds of stories.
- Extraordinary (read celebrity) people doing ordinary things
- Ordinary people doing extraordinary things
That pretty much sums up crime fiction, too. The extraordinary people, in our case, are the detectives and forensic scientists. The lawyers and the cops. And if the series are well done, we get to know the ordinary side of these heroes. What they drink. What music they listen to. Who they care about. What they lost that they most grieve for. In other words, the things that make them human … the things that make them real.
The amateur sleuth is Everyman and in our books he’s taxed beyond his experience and endurance and asked to accomplish extraordinary things. The housewife who solves her brother-in-law’s murder. The journalist who stumbles into violence and saves himself and the kidnapping victim. The innocent bystander who is pulled into the middle of a nightmare.
I enjoy reading both kinds of crime novels, but I can especially understand the appeal of the amateur sleuth.
You see, I think there’s a little detective in all of us.
Have you ever checked the birth and death records at an old church to track down an ancestor? Followed a car away from the scene of an accident and jotted down the license number for the cops? Memorized the face of the guy in front of you at Home Depot who bought the shovel, the rope, and the bag of quick mix concrete?
Have you ever wondered how you’d fare if put in the same “out of the blue” situation many of our fictional ordinary heroes find themselves in?
I found myself playing detective just last week. My husband had asked me to contact the guy who’d given us his golden retriever, Angus, five years ago when he had to move to Hawaii. We wanted to tell him that we’d given his dog a good life, but that he’d finally died at the age of fourteen.
This former owner had a common name, Steve Foster, so a Google search wasn’t of much help and I wasn’t about to pay any of those websites that offer to track someone down for only $49.95. I wanted the information fast, and I wanted it free.
First, I found a site that lists someone’s previous addresses. Hmmm … a half dozen Fosters used to live in Oakland and now live in Hawaii. But none of them Steve.
Wait a minute, he said he was going to move in with his daughter. Nope, no female Fosters on that list used to live in Oakland.
But what if she’d married since she moved out? You can also do the same lookup by maiden name. And here’s a site that lists the age and the names of the relatives of that person you’ve found by their maiden name.
Nope, nobody by that name at that address anymore. What are you gonna’ do? I guess you have to ask the neighbors. So I used Google maps to find the house on either side.
“Oh, Sharon moved out a couple of months ago,” the nice lady said, not even complaining that I was calling at seven in the morning. “Here’s her new number.”
After an hour’s work, I had a phone number for someone who used to be named Sharon Foster, who used to live in Oakland, who was the daughter of Steve Foster, and who’d moved away from Welo Street in Kapolei only three months ago. And when I called and asked for Steve Foster, she put down the phone and yelled, “Dad, it’s for you!”
I’d cracked the case. And it felt as good as reading any fine story about an ordinary hero facing insurmountable odds. I didn’t even have to fight any bad guys along the way.
So tell me, ‘Rati, have you ever played detective? Figured out who busted the window/cashed that blank check/stole the Christmas ornaments off the lawn? Have you tracked down any missing persons or found a birth mother?
Have you ever wanted to?
PS: OK, I’m calling in all favors here. St. Martin’s has asked me to blog on their new website Moments in Crime next week, everyday from Sunday the 16th to Friday the 21st. I don’t want them to think I don’t have any friends. Please, please drop by Moments in Crime next week and leave a message. It’ll be awfully cold over there without my ‘Rati friends.
And just to sweeten the pot, I’ll make you two promises: 1) I’m launching something there that has never been seen before anywhere (not even here at Murderati), and, 2) I’ll give an ARC of The Fault Tree or a copy of Forcing Amaryllis to anybody who leaves comments on the St. Martin’s blog for me for at least four days out of the six. How does that sound? New news and a freebie. Can’t beat it with a stick.