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.