Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Amateur Sleuths – A Nod and a Wink from the Garden of Miss Marple

What does a yoga instructor, a witch, a burglar, a birdwatcher, a math teacher, a 12th century friar, a bookseller, a museum curator, and a very clever cat have in common? If your first guess wasn't that they solve murders then I'd like to officially welcome you to the wonderful world of the amateur sleuth. You need to know I could have used wacky, wild, weird, occasionally waggish, and warped (I was in an alliterative mood) and been equally accurate.

Let's begin with the obvious. Amateur Sleuth Mysteries are from the get-go mysteries. They lead off with a crime, present victims, catalogue suspects and clues, have a few twists and red herrings, and eventually arrive at a solution. Bad guys get their comeuppance.
For this article, because of its limited space we're only going to consider a few of the unique aspects of the amateur sleuth mystery.
First, how to get, say, a stamp collector gets involved in a murder investigation.
As a rule, professionals—FBI, cops, private eyes, and medical examiners, just to name a few—frown on amateurs mucking around at homicides.
Quit sticking your nose in where it doesn't belong.
This ain't no game, Missy. This is murder.
If I see you or any of your knitting/mailman/cheesemaking buddies at another crime scene, I'm going to haul the lot of you to the gray bar hotel.
Declarations like these are common in the Amateur Sleuth. After all, your average cheesemaker doesn't ordinarily involve him or herself in a death, stinky cheese maybe but not so much death. So, how do you insinuate a cat fancier or antique dealer into deadly mayhem?
Glad you asked.
As a writer of two separate amateur series, I've employed (or at least considered) the following devises for embroiling Bonnie Pinkwater (my mathematician sleuth) into the thick of things: 
1.      She's a suspect.
2.      She barely escapes being a victim. And now she's pissed.
3.      The victim's death has been ruled a suicide and she doesn't believe it for a minute.
4.      She believes the person apprehended for the crime is innocent but the police do not.
5.      A relative of the victim asks her to poke around.
6.      The crime is personal for her. Actually, the crime should always be personal.
Certainly not an exhaustive list but the excuse to get our frankfurter salesman involved in the mix is important. It will always be necessary to find a plausible one.
Once inclusion—if not an enthusiastic invitation—in the investigation is established the case proceeds according to the amateur sleuth's strengths. After all, these are experts in their particular field, even if that field is dog grooming. And one of the reasons to read an Amateur Sleuth mystery is to immerse oneself in an unfamiliar setting which is also for a segment of the populous familiar.
Unless one's day-to-day career involves police procedure, say that of the private eye or a forensic anthropologist, for the majority of us the world is somewhat mundane. Imagine your career is high-rise construction. Wouldn't a mystery series where an architect is forced to regularly solve murders be cool to read?  
This is where the amateur sleuth sub-genre shines. I call it Value Added. First of all we walk in the shoes of someone who has either a vocation or avocation in some area in which we have an interest.

A Bartender—we learn a bit about mixology. How the heck does one make the perfect chocolate martini, harvey wallbanger, or rude bastard?
A Wrangler at a Dude Ranch—we learn about the shoeing of horses, perhaps the pre-dawn birthing of a foal.
 A Rare Book Dealer—we learn about the ins and outs of the book auction, maybe the history of an actual rare manuscript of Dante or Oscar Wilde.
An Historical Mathematicianwe delve into the eccentric world of medieval or ancient mathematicians, maybe look over their shoulder as they make an important discovery.
A BurglarWhat locks are the hardest to pick? How does one go about fencing precious stones? What equipment is necessary to be a second-story man (or woman)?
But that's just the tantalizing first taste of the Value Added Amateur Sleuth. Now that we've worn their clothes, lived in their world, and experienced their unique anxieties how can we use their talents to solve murders? Here are two examples:
-          Our architect's skills at designing buildings relates to how a serial killer is planning his murders.
-          A game designer realizes the killer is using the rules of a newly designed video game to carry out his nefarious intrigues.
 There is so much more to the arena of the Amateur Sleuth (did I hear you say historical or geographical mysteries?) but space demands I rein in my enthusiasm. So, mystery lovers, check out the fastest growing segment of the Suspense world.

About the Author:  Besides being a master of space and time, Robert Spiller is the author of the Bonnie Pinkwater mystery series: The Witch of Agnesi, A Calculated Demise, Irrational Numbers, Radical Equations.  The fifth in the series, Napier's Bones, is due for release late 2015. His math teacher/sleuth uses mathematics and her knowledge of historic mathematicians to solve murders in the small Colorado town of East Plains. For thirty-five years Robert taught Mathematics at every level from Elementary through university, the last ten at Lewis Palmer Middle School. Now retired, Robert lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado with his wife Barbara.


  1. I always enjoy the "value added" part of amateur sleuth mysteries. Bonnie Pinkwater even made me enjoy a little math. In other series, I've learned a bit about making mead, running a bar, and growing herbs. Good post, Bob.

    1. I know, right? I learned about rare books, British history, and Chinese medicine - all while enjoying a nice murder or two.

  2. You mystery writers amaze me. Fascinating article, Robert.

    1. Thank you so much, Darby. I hope to make your acquaintance someday soon, perhaps at the next conference.


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