Amateur versus professional sleuth. It seems the pro has all the advantages -- the tools, the skills, the money for solving the crime. So, why fight it? If you are writing a mystery, is it worth making your hero or heroine tool-less and unskilled? How will he or she overcome all the obstacles to get the bad guy? In my opinion, it's not really all that impossible. After all, there are many amateur or semi-amateur mystery greats floating around out there in fictionland. Some of them are more entertaining because of this status. Of course, most of your hard-boiled crime novels are accompanied by the pros -- detectives, cops, etc. If I wanted to write that kind of book, I would stick with the pro. In any case, here is a list of items to keep in mind, if you plan on using the tool-less and unskilled to solve the crime.
1). Disbelief: why is this guy/gal solving the murder or crime? Shouldn't law enforcement be doing it? Create a situation where he/she has to get involved. Maybe the police have given up on the case. Or perhaps this is a close relative -- spouse, child, etc. -- who is missing. Personal involvement is key. If your amateur sleuth has something invested, something so great he/she can't turn away from it, then it's justified.
2). Weapons: no guns. At least you wouldn't expect the average person to be a sharp shooter, killing off the enemy. So, he/she better rely on wits, and at the moment it's needed, a clever substitute, such as knitting needles or a frying pan or whatever is handy to disarm or disable the opponent.
3). Day Job: Like I said, it's the pro who gets paid. The amateur has to do something for a living ... car salesman, real estate agent, the lady who works in lingerie, whatever pays the bills, but leaves enough time off to snoop around and catch the bad guys.
4). Sub Genre: This really isn't such a bad thing. At least from my point of view, it isn't. That's because I enjoy cozies and any mystery with a heavy dose of humor. Let's face it. Seventy-year-old Aunt Maude, swatting at the thief with her umbrella, is comical. Joe detective popping off the killer with his automatic is not. But using an amateur as your lead does limit you. If it limits you where you want to be, then it's okay. Right?
5). Fiction Fakes: I really don't buy into this. If I did, then I wouldn't enjoy Lord of the Rings with Biblo, Frodo, and the Wizard. Or Superman and Batman. Okay, so those aren't quite aligned with mystery novels, but they all come under the category of fiction. That's right. FICTION. Make believe that's sometimes smattered with factual stuff, stuff that may happen. But when you shake it, turn it upside down and right side up while deciding how unreal the amateur sleuth really is, it still ends up FICTION. And those characters have feelings, they bleed just like the pros do, and they can think, too.
6). Helpful Friends: I thought it would be important to add something about back-up, support, i.e. who's the amateur going to turn to for help? After all, there will be those moments of crisis or need of expert opinion when it's convenient for your sleuth to have friends in the right places. For instance, Stephanie Plum has Morelli (a bonifide law enforcer) and that works just right. In fact, the help doesn't necessarily need to be human. Perhaps help comes from the spirit world or maybe your sleuth has special powers, being psychic for instance. Whatever the case, it makes sense to give your character some kind of back-up.
Okay, there you have it. Hope you enjoyed. If you want to read more, check out Writing Mysteries edited by Sue Grafton. It's full of wonderful information for those who enjoy the mystery genre. If you have any additional comments, drop a line. We'd love to hear.