Genrely Speaking: The Amateur Detective

Welcome back to Genrely Speaking, where we talk about the genres of fiction and what they mean when they’re mentioned here at Nate Chen Publications. Genres are a slipper thing, as much based on the whims of whoever is doing the classifying as any specific criteria. That also means that creating a new genre is almost as simple as saying, “this is a genre,” and then mentioning it as much as possible. If it catches on, great, if not, that’s no real loss.

Today we’re going to invent a genre.

You won’t really find much if you Google amateur detective stories, other than to find that sometimes the protagonists of detective stories are amateurs and not professionals. And in the very broad, general sense that’s true. But if you read the Gernely Speaking post on detective stories you’ll find that, when we use that term here, we’re talking about stories where the main character is a detective to the bone. A story with a protagonist who’s never solved a crime before is not what those stories want. Besides, amateur detective stories have their own standards that must be met.

What standards, exactly? Well by now you know that’s what we’re here to talk about.

  1. An amateur detective is not normally a detective, but has attributes that will prove useful in solving a mystery. Amateur detective stories are still detective stories in the end, there’s going to be some kind of mystery that needs unravelling and our protagonist is going to be leading the charge. As such, he needs to be equipped to handle the problem but not with years of experience and savvy, but rather a set of skills that will give him a unique and fresh perspective. One classic example is Miss Marple, the matronly old lady who stars in a number of Agatha Christie stories, solves problems using logic and an incredibly shrewd insight into human nature honed after years of being a benevolent busybody. Another example would be Ellis Peter’s Brother Cadfael, who is a monk who serves as apothecary to his cloister and the nearby village. As a soldier and man of learning in the dreary middle ages, Cadfael is well equipped to solve murders and has a sense of right and wrong that burdens him to do so.

  2. The amateur detective usually stumbles into his mystery by accident. Where as the protagonists in police procedurals and detective stories will often be sought out or called into an investigation, amateur detectives tend to just get swept up in the course of events. They’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, or they know someone who was, or they just have a friend who tends to fall into bad company – there’s as many excuses as there are stars in the sky, really. But, while the hero can, and perhaps should, be a man of upstanding moral character he is not, by nature, a person who seeks out and challenges injustice on a regular basis.

  3. The amateur detective survives by cunning and occasionally luck, but not skill. This doesn’t refer to how the protagonist solves his mystery but rather how he deals with the frequently manifold dangers solving a crime will present him with. Since amateur detectives aren’t used to dealing with criminals they probably hasn’t been put in significant physical danger at any point in their lives. There are possible exceptions, of course, but for the most part amateur detectives will have to get out of tight scrapes using something other than skilled gunplay or fisticuffs. In fact this wild improvisation is frequently part of their appeal to the audience.

What are the weaknesses of the amateur detective story? Unlike other detective stories you can’t write a series of amateur detective stories – at some point the protagonist’s amateurish characteristics will stop being appealing and start making them look kind of lame. Thus most of these stories have a one-and-done kind of a feel. There’s nothing wrong with that from the writing perspective but it may make your audience and/or publisher less willing to invest the time into the story – long running mystery series are some of the biggest money makers out there, they’re popular with people and thus with publishers. But people really want them to go on, not come to a stop.

And for the writer the biggest pitfall is letting too much hinge on happenstance. Your protagonist is already (most of the time) involved in the story at least partly by coincidence, and will probably need some measure of luck to survive a scrape at some point. If you let your protagonist skate by on nothing but luck your plot starts to look a little bit thin. On the other hand, take fate completely out of the equation and your protagonist may wind up looking a little too much like Batman to be believable.

What are the strengths of an amateur detective story? The biggest is simply that the protagonist is much more relatable than most in the mystery genre. Let’s face it, the average reader is not Sherlock Holmes, nor does he understand the chemical or biological sciences of an experienced CSI tech. She might get the basics of the psychology behind interviewing witnesses and tricking or forcing information out of them but there’s a good chance readers won’t be entirely comfortable with those things.

Neither will an amateur detective. This isn’t what they do, after all. As an outsider to the game of crime and punishment they are just like us. This is part of the genre’s great appeal. While everyone wants to see justice done when we are offended; few people want to actually get their hands dirty doing it. Finding the truth of a situation is often unpleasant and makes you a lot of enemies. But the amateur detective is driven by something greater than their personal comfort or satisfaction, and that is often the only thing that sets them apart from us. They can be more than a little inspiring to find, and make us want to be a little more like them. That alone makes them worth our time.


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