The Problem of the Amateur Detective
By Karen McCullough
I’m writing a series of contemporary mystery novels (Market Center Mysteries) that includes an amateur sleuth as the primary detective. As anyone who has ever tried it knows, there are a couple of serious challenges facing the project.
The first is the sad truth that generally speaking, official law enforcement officers are far better equipped to do the job of solving mysteries, especially homicides, than any amateur. They have better training, more experience, superior equipment, and access to far more services and information. Mysteries set in the past can avoid this problem since professional law enforcement and crime detection is a relatively recent development, but if you’re writing contemporary, you have to account for it.
My way to work around the issue is to put my amateur sleuth in a situation where she has access to more information about the situation than the police do and a better chance to sift out what’s relevant.
Heather McNeil is assistant to the director of market center where my series is set. Although it’s not exactly her job description, she’s the person who listens to grievances, solves problems, settles disputes, and generally keeps her metaphorical finger on the pulse of activity during shows and exhibitions. She knows the people involved and is in their midst all day, every day.
When something drastic happens, like murder, Heather already has some background on the crime, and some understanding of the personalities and motivations involved. And while she doesn’t have the technical resources the police do, she spends a lot of time talking to the people involved. I’ve made her the type of person who is easy to talk to, one who listens and is known to be good at solving problems.
As a result, she collects more information than the police can. She gets deeper into various problems, is able to sort through that data to find the relevant pieces, and sees connections that others miss.
One other way I use to overcome the problem of the amateur detectives is by confining the time frame. Most trade shows and exhibitions last from three days to a week at most and exhibitors and attendees come from all over the world. If a mystery isn’t solved within the time frame of the show itself, the witnesses and suspects scatter and the likelihood of a resolution goes way down.
All that suggests that a smart, quick-witted person in the midst of the show all day, every day, talking constantly with the principals, might just have an edge over the officials in figuring out who done it and why.
Then of course, there’s the other problem with setting a series of amateur mysteries in one place, sometimes known as the Cabot Cove problem after the TV series Murder She Wrote. Why would anyone want to live in a place that has as many murders as Cabot Cove, Maine?
In my series, the question becomes: Who is going to want to attend any event at a place where murders have already occurred? And aren’t the police going to start getting concerned about this nasty localized crime wave?
Sadly, I don’t really have a good answer for that one yet.
Karen McCullough is a web designer by profession, and the author of a dozen published novels and novellas in the mystery, romantic suspense, and fantasy genres as well. She has won numerous awards, including an Eppie Award for fantasy, and has also been a four-time Eppie finalist, and a finalist in the Daphne, Prism, Dream Realm, Rising Star, Lories, Scarlett Letter, and Vixen Awards contests. Her short fiction has appeared in several anthologies and numerous small press publications in the fantasy, science fiction, and romance genres. She has three children, four grandchildren and lives in Greensboro, NC, with her husband of many years.
Blurb for Wired for Murder:
Heather McNeil, assistant to the director of the Washington DC Market Show Center, handles many of the day-to-day issues that arise during the shows, exhibits, and conferences being held there. The first day of the Business Technology Exposition provides her with plenty of opportunities to demonstrate her skill at settling disputes, refereeing arguments, and even breaking up fights.
When the president of industry-leader MegaComp has a very public argument with a man who accuses the company of stealing an important technical concept, she watches it but doesn’t have to intervene. Later, though, the accuser returns a phone call from Heather, and she becomes an unwilling audience to his murder.
Heather is more than happy to leave the investigation to the police, but she’s the person everyone talks to and she soon learns more than she wanted to know about the victim and all the people who didn’t like him very much, including several who might have motives for murder.
Amazon print: https://www.amazon.com/Wired-Murder-Market-Center-Mysteries/dp/153502027X/