One of the reasons I love baseball (and boy-howdy, do I miss lying back in the recliner after a long day of word-wrangling and sinking into those rhythms and sounds), is that for the most part, it’s played by normal-sized people. While I love a good high school basketball game, both the college game and the professional seem to be staffed mainly with pituitary freaks of strength and size. I remember sitting in a courtside seat in the old Rose Garden in Portland, Oregon, and watching Bill Walton run (sort of) past, like a giant huffing creaking heron in size twenty-one sneakers. Couldn’t relate.
Which may be why I’m so dedicated to reading and writing about what we call in the industry the amateur sleuth. No one who’s been reading this blog doesn’t know of my love for John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series, dated and hoary as they are at this point in time. I’ve always been attracted to the amateur crime-solver.
The notion of a talented unofficial player sticking his or her nose into people’s problems, whether because of money, a world view, or a set of moral values, intrigues me more than a professional investigator, public or private. Because, for a cop, no matter how driven by a code, the investigation is a job, a duty. And even the PI who takes on a case, at least originally, is doing so as a business venture first.
Readers respond well to amateur sleuths, too, as far back as Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, Sherlock, et al. Even Jack Reacher, despite his MP background, is essentially an amateur. So what’s the attraction?
My take is that, as in baseball, the reader/watcher can identify more easily with an amateur, a normal person with no special skills, someone who involves themselves in someone’s problems out of an emotional response rather than from duty. The amateur sleuth normally has a more personal stake in the crime and the solution than the professional. I also believe an amateur sleuth allows the reader to enter the story more easily, empathize with the protagonist and even the other characters affected by the crime.
The amateur’s motive makes it easier for a reader to empathize. A more personal story, an emotional motivation can make a reader more inclined to say: “I could see myself reacting like that.” If not actually taking action in the same way the sleuth does.
As a writer, I get certain advantages, too. For me, it’s a great deal of fun trying to figure out how to intertwine character with a plot that fits the emotional truth of the protagonist—a good character-based fictional reason for the sleuth to be involved. For a cop or a professional PI, again, while the plot may illuminate a personal code, he or she still has a job to do. And the investigation, especially in the case of a police procedural, usually follows a fairly predictable sequence of events.
And, not least, an amateur is less necessarily tied to a location. An amateur sleuth gives me more geographical scope, too. It’s harder to move a cop out of his or her jurisdiction, or a PI out of his or her town. One of the reasons I think a series can go sour on a writer is an inability to change up the surroundings. A setting can become too familiar, even stale.
Which is not to say I don’t love all kinds of crime fiction, dark and light. But the thing that turns my crank most, as a writer and a reader, is how an average person feels and acts when touched by a crime and how such a person decides to get involved. What impels the amateur to want to set the world right, when it really isn’t his or her job?
I always envied Travis and lusted for my own Miss Agnes.
I’m currently reading about a real-life amateur sleuth. One of the best non-fiction books I’ve read. Yellow Bird.