The Detective Within

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.


33 thoughts on “The Detective Within

  1. B.G. Ritts

    Hugs on the loss of Angus, Louise.

    Yes, I occasionally memorize license plate numbers when I think something looks a bit strange, that the occupants of the car may be up to something. And I’ve used what info zabasearch (coupled with intelius) gives away, I won’t pay for it either. I’ll have to look at the other sites you linked to.

    My real detective work occurred 18 years ago when something was leaving puddles on my carport near the garbage can. To make the long tale short: the garbage man was ‘wizzing’ on the side of my house instead of using the woods behind the house or finding a bathroom. I used a video camera pointing outside at the garbage can to find out what was going on. I blogged about it last year: , if anyone wants the whole story.

  2. billie

    Louise, great post – I think you’re right, many of us have some amateur sleuth. Combine that with the technology today, and Google, and watch out! 🙂

    I’m trying to think of a short sleuthing experience but the interesting ones coming to me are long and involved… does this count? Once when we were young and poor my husband had squirreled away $1000. somewhere in the RENTAL house we were getting ready to vacate. He couldn’t remember where he’d put it. I searched high and low, had him retrace his every breath the last time he remembered adding to his secret stash, and finally hypnotized him. He didn’t remember instantly, but about 20 minutes later he went down in the basement to the unfinished dirt-floored “room” there and reached up between the eaves of two wooden beams. There it was.

    That has bestowed upon me the unofficial title in my family – Finder of Lost Things. Not such a great role to play, with an absent-minded husband and two kids who have his genetic make-up. They rely on me constantly, and trouble is, I always know where the lost things are, so every time I find another one, I dig myself in deeper!

  3. Karen Olson

    When I was a kid and read Harriet the Spy, I started writing down everything I observed about everything. That lasted about a week.

    Then I became a journalist and had to start noticing things for real. Ambulances, fire trucks, cop cars: I do tend to watch where they’re going and why, and I’ll still call my friends at the newspaper if something is amiss. But I don’t think I’ve ever truly solved a crime.

    My husband, on the other hand, discovered dead voters in a town he was covering and took down a mayor whose insurance company was taking premiums on vehicles the town no longer owned.

  4. Allison Brennan

    I never really thought of some of the things I’ve done as detective work. But I guess I’ve done a couple things . . .

    I tracked down my father when I was 18. I had never met him, and I found him through a half-sister I had just learned I had. This was before the Internet and I used the public library to compile lists of everyone with his last name in the country (through phone books) figuring I’d eventually stumble on a relative.

    I used to do campaign work, and one day I was compiling a list of newly registered voters so we could call them and noticed that over 700 had been registered in one apartment building. Since I sort of knew the area, I thought that was odd–I didn’t think there were 100, let alone 700, and so I drove over there, took some pictures, knocked on some doors to ask if the residents knew the five other people registered in their apartment, and found on toddlers and pets had been registered. Long story short, one of the major news stations did an expose (the fraud extended to thousands of made-up people, children and pets registered to vote. The DA investigated and prosecuted some people (it wasn’t the individual votes who registered their pets, it was someone getting paid for registrations.)

  5. Louise Ure

    I love it. This sleuthing has gone from the silly to the criminal, in only three comments.

    B.G., the idea of a video camera is superb. (I would have spent all my time on the roof of the house, looking for a leak or a broken gutter.)

    And Billie, the hypnosis was perfect, Oh Master of Finding Lost Things. There’s a saint for that, too, isn’t there. Maybe Jude?

    Karen, I can see why you became a journalist; you were born to it. As was your husband. Hmmmm … might dead voters show up in the next book?

  6. JT Ellison

    I’ve never been much of a detective, but if something odd happens, I always mark the time in case a cop comes knocking on my door. Huge loud boom? Yes, officer, it happened at 7:12 p.m.

    How silly is that?

  7. pari

    Louise,What a fun post.

    But first, a moment of silence for your Angus (we had one too, long ago). . .

    Now to your questions. I think one of the reasons I went into PR is because of what you’re talking about. When you’re working on reputation management — or, even, in a corporation PR office — you frequently have to find more information than people are telling you. So many of my clients had skeletons that they didn’t want me to know about, but which I NEEDED to know about before dealing with the media.

    There were also irate customers, or even people who thought they were customers and had mixed up our business with someone else’s, that I had to respond to. In order to do that, I had to dig down and find the real story.

    One of the most enjoyable jobs I had was before I landed in PR. I worked in the anti-trust litigation support division of AT&T. I was given stacks of cancelled contracts from the company that was suing the corp. and had to call people out of the blue to ask them why they’d done it. This was an alarm company, so, basically, I was asking, “Why don’t you have home security anymore?” You’d be surprised at how good I was at it.

    Another time in the same job, I had to go through 20,000 pieces of discovered papers to find dirt. Believe me, I found it and loved every minute of the process.

  8. Rae

    Hi Louise,

    Yes, I have played amateur sleuth. There was a situation at work about 15 years ago where an employee disappeared. He and his brother ran a small branch of the company I was working for, so I went out there to see what was up. Turned out the vanished employee had been embezzling. The brother was in the tough spot of feeling loyal to both the company and to his family. He wasn’t going to volunteer information, but he wouldn’t lie, so when I more or less accidentally asked the right series of questions, the truth came out.

    Good news was, the embezzling brother hadn’t hurt himself. Bad news was, I had to fire him. A really yucky situation.

    See you next week at Moments in Crime 😉

  9. Karen Olson

    No, Louise, no dead voters in the next book. But I remembered that my husband also staked out a house that he believed the town’s Democratic chairman lived in … and it was in another town. He sat in his car outside that house for a week, and finally caught the guy bringing groceries in!

    I never had as much fun as a reporter. I went to a lot of planning and zoning meetings. Dull.

  10. Louise Ure

    Allison, your voter fraud story is amazing (how many other people would have just passed those 700 new registrants up the line without even thinking about it)?

    But what I really want to hear more about was finding your father. Did your pre-internet search result in an address? What did he say when you found him?

  11. Louise Ure

    JT, that need to record the time is a howl. You’re kind of like Jack Reacher — you always know what time it is.

    And Pari, you’re clearly a natural detective, especially when it comes to detecting the lie in paperwork. We don’t have enough of that in crime fiction. Is it just because its difficult to make paperwork sleuthing sound interesting?

  12. Louise Ure

    Rae, that embezzler (and his brother) wouldn’t have known what hit ’em. You’ve got the knack girl. Hell, I’ve been known to tell you more than I should have, and you weren’t even grilling me.

    Chris has got a sneaky mind, Karen. Glad he’s using it on the bad guys.

  13. Elaine Flinn

    Hey, LU!What an absolutely fascinating subject you’ve raised! Alas, I’ve never solved a ‘real’ mystery – unless tracking down the provenance of antiques items counts. One in particular was memorable – some years ago I bought a writing table at an estate sale that was purported to have belonged to Samuel F.B.Morse (the inventor of the Morse Code and huge landowner in Pebble Beach) and was tagged as being made in the mid-eighteenth century.Well, hell – since the sale was in Pebble Beach, and the home was one of the grand old ladies – it was possible. But the asking price was too little for such a ‘touted item.’ After examining the table, I was satisfied that it was indeed ‘old’, and very handsome – but not possibly as described. But what the hell, I liked it, so I bought it anyway. I did some extensive sleuthing just in case the story was true (with a couple of Morse’s relatives), and it turned out it had indeed belonged to him. One of the relatives offered to buy it back, but I kept it. And it sits this day in our ‘library’.

    See you at ‘Moments In Crime’!!

  14. Tammy Cravit

    Sadly, I’ve never done much in the way of amateur sleuthing. So, no interesting stories to share there.

    On the other hand, I’m pondering how you would have gone about getting the same information in the days before the Internet. It could have been done, I imagine, but there’s no question that the work of the investigator — be she cop, PI, or the yoga instructor who got caught up in something she doesn’t fully understand — has gotten a whole lot easier since the advent of the Internet.

    Of course, the Internet makes so much information available so easily that being swamped my misinformation and incomplete information is a distinct possibility. So, perhaps the problems investigators face today are just the mirror image of the problems that existing in the pre-Google days.

    I’ve put a reminder about Moments in Crime on my calendar, so I’ll see you over there for sure.

  15. simon

    A few things really, I guess. Last week’s Rati piece covered my exploit with a crime. When I was racing, a driver I knew was killed. Several of us who knew something tried give information and the walls went up around the case. Nothing was ever determined.

  16. Louise Ure

    Tammy, you’re right. The internet age has changed the face of sleuthing entirely. Once upon a time, our ordinary (or extraordinary) heroes could look at body language and at eyes to determine if someone was lying.

    Now we’ve got to weed out the truth from the lies in a whole different fashion.

    And Simon, your real life murder involvement (and that near accident you wrote about) certainly qualify as sleuthing. But I have a feeling that you’re always asking questions. It’s where your plots come from.

  17. ArkansasCyndi

    Wonderful post and fantastic comments!

    JT- I also note the time if I see or hear something strange…like maybe I’ll need some alibi for some crime I didn’t comment! Umm paranoid much, Cyndi? LOL

    Allison – very interesting story about voter registration.

    I have the internet to be a very helpful source when digging into someone’s past. I have no confessions I wish to give in public.

  18. pari

    From having spoken to several detectives, I think most of the work is actually pretty boring . . . it just takes patience and sharp eye.

    I had one PI tell me that if fiction really captured the work in his job, the reader would fall asleep.

  19. Louise Ure

    That’s probably true for most professions, Pari. Police, jury consultants, lawyers, forensic scientists.

    I know for damn sure it was true for work in advertising.

  20. Mary-Frances

    Hi Louise,I just wanted to say it was great to meet you and Simon in person on Sunday at the M is for Mystery Bookstore. Always nice to meet an author after enjoying their book.

    As to your post, I love doing research on the internet and tracking things down. I can definitely become obssessed and rarely give up until I attain my goal.

    B.G.’s comment made me laugh. When I was a kid I used to memorize license plate numbers all the time. It seems like I was always in the car running errands with my mom which for a kid is kind of boring. So, I’d memorize a license plate number and come up with scenarios that included bank robbers, shoplifters and all around bad guys using the vehicle in question as the getaway car. I was convinced that I would single handedly solve the crime and save the day by giving the police the license plate number I had carefully memorized. Geez, it’s been a long time since I thought about that. Maybe I’ve wanted to be a suspense writer longer than I realized!

  21. Sharon Wheeler

    Karen, I do the same with police cars, fire engines and ambulances. And I tell my students they have to chase them as well (one did the other day and got a good story!) And I’m definitely not laughing at JT, because I log times as well. It helped a little bit when there was an attempted break-in at my neighbour’s a few months back. I’d spotted the chavs outside at 2.30am (well, I was reading a good book!) and could tell the police almost to the minute what had happened. Dunno if they ever caught the little blighters, mind!

  22. simon

    Lu-Lu, I plan to write a novel about the race track death. I won’t write about my beliefs of what happens as I don’t think that’s fair, but certainly use the circumstances to tell a tale.

    Nice meeting you Mary-Frances… 🙂

  23. Louise Ure

    See, Mary-Frances? There’s a reason you’re an MWA member. You started writing crime novels as a child. (And how nice to be able to put a face to your name, now.)

    Shaz, if you and JT and Cyndi are all “time noters” for the police, I think we’ve just discovered another way to find out on those aptitude tests whether you’ll grow up to read/write crime fiction.

    Simon, that would be a great book, but I can understand changing some of the details … out of convenience, sensibility, nostalgia, need for pacing, and a thousand other qualms.

  24. Woodstock

    Interesting questions, Louise!

    A few months ago, my library book discussion group dug into Shakepeare’s Hamlet. I found reading it a very long row to hoe, so I got the DVD from the library with Derek Jacobi and my old college textbook, and followed along as the drama unfolded on the tube. Then, I got to wondering about my freshman college English teacher – where was he now? What would it be like to tell him about the effect those two semesters had on me? I wasn’t even sure I remembered his name, but I found out enough, just through Google that I was able to contact another of his former pupils, now a college teacher in Nova Scotia. My former teacher died a few years ago. Probably shortly after he got his advanced degree from my alma mater, he moved to Canada. My guess is to escape the draft – that was a real concern for students approaching graduation back in the mid 1960’s. It was fun to read what I found on Google, and nice to know that he went on to have a very rewarding career and continued as an excellent teacher. I did end up writing to the other teacher who knew him, and got a very nice reply.

  25. Louise Ure

    Woodstock, you said: “What would it be like to tell him about the effect those two semesters had on me?” I hope that was a good effect and not a bad one!

    But it’s another reminder, especially at this time of year, to tell someone you love them. Tell them how important they are to you. Tell them you think of them often, even if you’re not in touch.

    I know that doesn’t have much to do with today’s topic of amateur sleuths … but I was feeling a wave of Christmas coming on.

  26. Woodstock

    Hi Louise – the more I thought about those two semesters and the way in which I learned to read critically, I can see that time as the beginning of what would become a life long devotion to reading. I had a terrific crush on the guy, and hung around after class often enough that I’m sure he figured that out. It would have been fun to let him know how I remembered those months. Perhaps not as much fun to get his retrospective on freshman girls with romantic stars in their eyes! 🙂


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