Let’s hear it for the amateur sleuth solving the case!
In all seriousness, amateur sleuths belong to a breed of character that both entertains and baffles. Who are these people surrounded by death and mayhem? They wake up each morning, walk out their door, and stumble across a crime scene? I can understand a book series about a professional detective (police or private), because it’s their job to encounter the seedy underbellies of the world. Amateur sleuths are simply living their lives—amid a slew of depraved and desperate criminals, apparently.
A Wide-spread Problem
This trend is not confined to murder mysteries. Many children’s mystery series revolve around amateur sleuths solving crimes: the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Encyclopedia Brown, and (my personal favorite) Trixie Beldin, to name a few. Even The Boxcar Children, which was most definitely not a mystery to start, became The Boxcar Children Mysteries when it was serialized (a transition that, I’ll be honest, has always bewildered me).
What, then, is the appeal of an amateur sleuth, that adults and children alike can enjoy such exploits?
Amateur vs. Eccentric
The Amateur Sleuth exhibits superior logic, quick thinking under duress, and a painstaking attention to the details that most people would overlook or dismiss. These admirable traits create a bond between reader and sleuth: we instinctively want to be an intelligent, detail-oriented person, and the amateur sleuth provides an avatar for those desires.
The Eccentric Sleuth, in contrast, is no avatar at all. They provide a spectacle, an idol, but never a comrade-in-arms. The reader more readily relates to the “normal” sidekick, the Dr. Watson, Captain Hastings, or Archie Goodwin of the story. (Although one might argue these particular examples fall short of normal, when juxtaposed against their respective cohorts, they become such. “Normal” is always relative.)
The Amateur Sleuth, then, shifts that “normal” character into the focal role of crime-solving, a condition that may appeal to the reader because it transitions their avatar from observer to active agent in solving the mystery.
Just like using an agent-assigning verb renders more dynamic prose than using an experiencer-assigning verb.
(Yeah, I’m drawing a parallel between content and structure. Formalism for the win.)
Also working in the Amateur Sleuth’s favor is our culture’s love of an “uninitiated layman” solving a problem that is beyond the grasp of educated professionals. I don’t know if we like seeing haughty betters knocked down a peg, or if we prefer the chance of inherent genius unrecognized, or if it’s a combination of both. Regardless, this pattern shows up not only in mysteries, but across genres. Usually, the amateur does end up being an unconventional sort of genius.
And the audience preens, as if this character development reflects well on them, too.
And maybe it does. We are what we read, to some extent.
Yes: amateurs, mostly.