You’ve got me, Linda, posting today. The Boss asked us to pick a couple of preferred mystery categories to review, so the first one I opted for: amateur sleuth.
Rey, JJ and I got the notion to become professional P.I.s—okay, my best friend, Rey did—after we’d done some amateur sleuthing at a haunted (yes, by a real ghost named Fred) Connecticut mansion. We figured out who was responsible for many—many!—murders. It proved dangerous, frightening, and exciting.
Perhaps you’re interested in writing an amateur sleuth mystery. If so, allow me to share some key points.
Firstly, you may think an amateur sleuth mystery is the same as a cozy—and you’re right, sort of. A cozy is almost always an amateur sleuth mystery, but an amateur sleuth mystery isn’t always a cozy. Amateur sleuth stories can be comical/funny or lean toward the dark. Cozies generally don’t, but both are commonly lighter; i.e. not overly gory when describing violence and murders and the like.
Amateur sleuth mysteries have the main character(s) digging for clues and answers; they’re curious, determined, and tenacious. And we love following them as they endeavor to solve the crime; in fact, we love solving the crime with them as we attempt to ascertain who dun it.
The main character should be likable—smart and personable, too. Yes, he/she may be an amateur sleuth, but he/she is far from amateurish. A certain level of skill exists. He/she doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist or a trophy-winning pro, just good at what he/she does. Sure, he/she can make a mistake or two—we all do in real life—but don’t have the character bumbling and stumbling unless, perhaps, you’re incorporating a comic scene. Stupidity doesn’t wear well on an amateur sleuth.
Incorporate a detailed background—town, city, monastery, island, mainland. Make it come alive by offering well-crafted details about location (fictional or not). Think of smells and sounds. Let readers fully visualize the place(s). And what sort of work environment does this mystery take place in? A telecom company? Radio station? Publishing firm? The [mystery] world is your oyster.
Ensure there’s a valid reason for your amateur sleuth(s) to become involved in the mystery; it could be personal and/or professional. For example, maybe Mr. Smith wants to discover who killed the janitor, a kind friendly fellow, in his building. Or maybe Ms. Browne wants to find out who bumped off her beloved aunt’s beau. Make it valid; make it believable.
Action is a must. You don’t need tons of it—dialogue and details/descriptions, when well presented, can carry the story—but regular or well-placed action will help move the plot along and keep readers interested. Think: conflicts, tension, adventures, exploits, deeds. Don’t forget danger; have your main character face a few perils!
Have enough clues. Throw in red herrings. Add twists and turns. Keep your readers guessing. Make certain there are enough suspects—that they all have possible motives, could have been in the vicinity at the time the crime was committed, or had the means (were able) to commit the crime. You want to keep your readers guessing as to . . . yes . . . who dun it.
First person or third? It’s your choice. Write in the voice that you feel most comfortable with.
What about romance? I believe some people enjoy a bit of l’amour in their books. I do. But if it doesn’t fit your main character—at least not in this current story—that’s okay. Maybe he/she finds a sweetheart in the next one.
You may wish to consider having a partner or buddy assisting the main character. They can bounce ideas off each other, discover clues, and help in dire moments. A colleague can also prove comic relief; maybe the two interact like Laurel and Hardy? There’s a distinct relationship and one you can develop/change throughout the series (if it’s your intention to write a few mysteries featuring the same folks).
When the culprit has been unveiled/captured, end the story in a timely manner. Tie up loose ends . . . and exit effortlessly and easily . . . like I’m about to do.
That, my friends, is the amateur sleuth mystery in a proverbial nutshell.