What am I doing in this mystery?

by Tess Gerritsen

It's a question that every amateur sleuth must ask herself.  Perhaps she's the one who discovered the body.  Perhaps it's a friend or a colleague who's been murdered. But once the body's been found and the police show up, why would this mere civilian hang around and insinuate herself into the official murder investigation?  Yet this is precisely what happens in just about every mystery featuring an amateur sleuth.  The sleuth's motivation to get involved, to dig for clues, and perhaps even risk her own life to solve the mystery is the thorniest issue a novelist must deal with.  

And it can't come down to mere curiosity.

I consider myself a curious person.  If I hear about a baffling crime, I'll comb newspapers, talk about it with my neighbors, and tune in to all the local gossip I'm privy to.  But you won't find me conducting my own interviews or sneaking onto crime scenes or following a possible suspect in my car.  You certainly won't find me showing up late at night for some rendezvous with a killer.  That's what I expect the police to do, because they get paid for it, and they're the ones with the bulletproof vests.  

"But," you say, "what if the police are incompetent or crooked?  Then you must step in to ensure that justice is done!"

I'm all for justice, but I'm also a coward. I'd rather skip the shootout, thank you.  So would most people, which is where the problem lies in the amateur sleuth mystery.  We all believe in justice, but it's hard to identify with a  protagonist who risks her life to solve a crime when it's not part of her job description — certainly not if it's merely for the sake of curiosity.  We'd think her foolish, and her motives unbelievable.  And if your heroine isn't believable, you've lost your audience.

So what constitutes a believable motive for the amateur sleuth?  

I think the motives that are most compelling are those that are deeply personal, with stakes that are sky-high.  It's even better if the protagonist has her back against the wall and has no choice but to forge ahead or die.  Back before I started writing about cops, I found that my biggest challenge was coming up with a good reason to involve my amateur sleuths in the mystery.  My heroines were, for the most part, ordinary women thrown into extraordinary circumstances.  Their jobs included microbiologist (CALL AFTER MIDNIGHT), copy editor (PRESUMED GUILTY), nurse (KEEPER OF THE BRIDE), female burglar (THIEF OF HEARTS), and astronaut (GRAVITY). Plus, of course, a few doctors.  None of them were paid investigators.  Rather, they were women who were forced to dig for answers — or they would suffer.  Maybe even die.

What are some of the personal stakes that would force your protagonist become a sleuth?

A THREAT TO HER LIFE. I used this motive in GRAVITY, where the crew aboard the International Space Station has been infected with a bizarre new microbe and they've been left quarantined in orbit while they succumb one by one.  My astronaut-heroine, Emma Watson, must investigate the source of this microbe in order to save her own life.  And her husband must simultaneously investigate on earth, in order to save the woman he loves.  If they fail, Emma dies.  No one would question their motives for plunging into this mystery.  The stakes are life and death.

A THREAT TO SOMEONE SHE LOVES. This is another motive that's absolutely believable, and one that I've used again and again over the years.  In BLOODSTREAM, for instance, my character Claire is a family practitioner who's moved to a small town in Maine, right as an epidemic of teen violence breaks out. Her adolescent patients are acting weird and even killing their own families.  Yes, that alone is a reason for a doctor to investigate, but I wanted the stakes to be even more personal for her.  So I gave her a teenage son who is also beginning to behave strangely.  He too is caught up in the epidemic, and unless she finds out the cause, she will lose him — and maybe her own life as well.

A THREAT TO HER CAREER.  Defending your reputation or your livelihood is another powerful motive.  I used this in HARVEST, where surgical resident Abby DiMatteo is forced to investigate irregularities in organ donations — or see her dream of being a doctor forever destroyed. 

VENGEANCE.  While I've never used this as a motive, I think it's certainly believable.  If someone I love were ever harmed, I would pull out all the stops to make sure the perp was caught.  This is one instance where wanting to see justice served becomes intensely personal — and something I'd be willing to risk my life for.

I'm sure there are others — I'd love to hear from other authors what they've used to justify investigations by their amateur sleuths.

Any of these motivations would work for one book.  And they'd give your character a strong, dramatic arc for the story.  But if you take your amateur sleuth into a second book, or a third, you've got a few  credibility problems.  A reader can accept that your sleuth might wander into a murder investigation one time — but twice?  Or ten times?  Pretty soon you've got "Jessica Fletcher syndrome," where everyone around your sleuth seems to end up murdered.  Authors do this all the time, of course; witness the many amateur sleuth series, some of them quite popular.  They may have a healthy audience, but only because everyone agrees to suspend their disbelief and just go with the fantasy that any one person could be so unlucky as to keep stumbling into crime scenes.

The easiest way around it, if you want to write a continuing series, is to create a sleuth for whom criminal investigation is a job.  When your hero is a cop, a medical examiner, or a private investigator, your job as an author suddenly becomes easier.  Ever since I created the character of homicide detective Jane Rizzoli, I haven't had to twist myself into plot contortions, trying to come up with a  reason why my heroine would investigate.  Now it happens to be her job –and one she will have to do book after book after book.

Good bye, Jessica Fletcher. 

17 thoughts on “What am I doing in this mystery?

  1. J.D. Rhoades

    “Witness the many amateur sleuth series, some of them quite popular. They may have a healthy audience, but only because everyone agrees to suspend their disbelief and just go with the fantasy that any one person could be so unlucky as to keep stumbling into crime scenes.”

    Totally with you on this one Tess. I’d just add that I think the reason they’re willing to suspend their disbelief to that degree is that the appeal of amateur sleuth mysteries is more about character than about plot. That’s not to say that the plots are always necessarily bad (other than the credibility problem of “Jessica Fletcher syndrome”). But I think the people who are reading ASMs keep coming back because the writer has created a character or group of characters that the reader’s fallen in love with. And when you’re in love, you sometimes forgive things you might not otherwise :-).

  2. Karen from Mentor

    Tess,I loved “But,” you say, “what if the police are incompetent or crooked? Then you must step in to ensure that justice is done!”

    Altruism to the rescue. This made me picture a bunch of ladies in aprons baking for the Wrestling team bake sale, throwing off their hairnets, picking up their spatulas and storming the courthouse….hey, that could work…at least once.Nice post.Thanks!Karen Schindler

  3. Jude Hardin

    My first attempt at a novel was an amateur sleuth mystery (about a flight nurse who found a human finger in a can of dog food), and this was precisely the problem agents and editors had with it–my nurse character didn’t have strong enough motivations to get involved with the crime.

    That’s one reason I decided to make my next MC a private investigator.

  4. Karen Olson

    I wrote four mysteries with a police reporter protag. She had a real reason to get involved. But I’m just finishing up book No. 2 in a new series with a tattoo artist as the protag. It’s really hard to make sure she’s got a reason to dig into the mystery. I’ve made her reasons personal in both books, but I see how it could get more and more difficult if there are more books down the road.

  5. J.T. Ellison

    Excellent post and advice for new writers to absorb! I usually have a hard time getting my head around the amateur sleuths, simply because I write cops who would arrest them for interfering with an investigation.

  6. Louise Ure

    You’ve nailed the amateur sleuth problem, Tess. And found perfect solutions in your own work to counteract it.

    My solution (so far) has been to write only stand alones. I can pull out all the stops in putting the protagonist in jeopardy, but only have to find one credible reason per character to get them involved.

  7. pari

    Well, I write one amateur sleuth series and have now begun another.

    All of the reasons you mention, Tess, do work. It’s also a matter of what kind of crime; mysteries don’t always have to be about murder.

    And I think that Dusty is right when he says that people who enjoy ASM series are going for the character. It’s true. They identify and come to care deeply for the characters and want to continue to know about their lives.

  8. Steve Steinbock

    Great post, Tess. Setting aside police procedurals and espionage thrillers for the moment, what makes crime/suspense fiction work, what keeps the readers reading, is having an ORDINARY person thrown in an EXTRAORDINARY situation.

    And your point about needing a believable motive for an amateur sleuth is a good one.

    Related to your “A THREAT TO HER LIFE” motive is the TO PROVE HER OWN INNOCENCE motive (when your hero finds herself the prime and logical suspect of a crime).

    I think there are a whole slew of moral motives. But these are tough to nail down. Like a hero who NEEDS to help someone out of honor, or to correct a tragic judgment error in the heroes past.

    Ultimately, even in the case of police procedurals and PI stories, the author has to create a plausible motive for implausible situations, and present it in a way that engages the reader’s imagination. In the real world, PIs never solve murders, and most police work is boring scudwork with very little mystery in the crimes.

  9. Missy

    I actually hate that more and more modern amateur sleuth are all about the threats to their lives or livelihoods. Makes them all seem kind of the same and very forced. A sleuth who is merely curious and nosy and gets him or herself in too deep doesn’t require any greater suspension of disbelief than any other genre convention.

  10. Christine Cook

    Another reason for the amateur sleuth to get embroiled in the murder investigation is if he or she is fingered as the likely murderer. Clearing one’s name is a high stakes option, as I see Steve mentioned above.

    I think we need to extend this high stakes issue to other sleuths, though, not just ASMs. Ask any actual private investigator, and they’ll tell you they never really get involved in murder investigations. That’s the job of the police. So PIs also need the same stakes as ASMs if they’re to have a believable reason for staying on the investigation after it’s turned over to the police.

  11. toni mcgee causey

    Great post, Tess. Another reason for an amateur sleuth to be in a position where she/he is involved in solving a crime is to be a relative of someone in the crime-solving community, or a prominent (famous or infamous) person in a small town, or well-known for aiding the underdog. I think it really depends on the skill of the execution.

    That said, I think all ASMs end up coming to a natural end and shouldn’t be pushed beyond that.

  12. Jude Hardin

    “Ask any actual private investigator, and they’ll tell you they never really get involved in murder investigations.”

    True, but in the context of a mystery series it’s much more believable–to me–for a character who is involved in cases like insurance fraud, infidelity, skip tracing, etc., subsequently to become involved in cases where more serious crimes are committed.

  13. Allison Brennan

    I’m willing to suspend disbelief 🙂 Then again, I loved Mrs. Marple, too, that old busy-body.

    I think vengeance was a motivation (not THE motivation, but one of them) in THE APPRENTICE for Jane. Even though the surgeon was in prison, what happened to Jane in the first book drove her through the second book. But it’s been awhile since I read it . . .

    I’m cool with amateur sleuths as long as the character isn’t too-stupid-to-live. They need to be smart, and even if they get into dangerous situations, it’s not because they did the idiot thing, “Hmm, a serial killer escaped from prison two miles up the road, the lights are out, and I heard a sound in the basement . . . I’d better investigate!”

  14. Fran

    Andi Marquette has created a series that bounces between two protagonists, one an academic who researches hate groups and one a cop. It works well, and helps avoid Jessica Fletcher Syndrome.

    But yeah, for the amateur sleuth, it’s gotta be personal.


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