Let's Talk with Debra H. Goldstein

The Joy of the Amateur Sleuth

May 16, 2024

Debra Goldstein presents: A guest article by Valerie Burns

One of the key components of cozy mysteries is the use of the “amateur sleuth.” Amateur sleuths are individuals, usually female, who are not paid to solve crimes. They’re not trained members of law enforcement, nor are they highly skilled. Amateur sleuths are average people just like you and me. Critics of the genre often disparage the use of amateurs to solve crime stating that it’s “unrealistic.” However, categorizing cozies as unrealistic because of the use of the amateur sleuth is, in my opinion, missing the point and the beauty of the amateur in these tales.

One of my favorite cozy mystery sleuths is Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. Miss Marple is an elderly spinster who lives in the village of St. Mary Mead in England. Miss Marple is a nosy, busybody who sees everything that goes on in her village. Her ability to solve mysteries centers around the fact that she has lived her entire life in a small village where she has observed human nature up close and personal. When introduced to someone new, Miss Marple observes and then associates that person with someone in her village with a similar nature. This isn’t unusual. We’ve all met someone who reminded us of someone else, either by the way they look or the way they behave. There’s nothing “unrealistic” in that.

From an author’s perspective, an amateur sleuth provides a vast opportunity for intrigue and mischief. Amateur sleuths are not professionals and rarely get from beginning to end without mistakes. It would be unrealistic if an amateur behaved perfectly with no missteps. Unlike a policeman, an amateur sleuth isn’t bound by rules of law. They boldly go down paths where a trained professional would never tread. Their ignorance usually places the amateur in some very sticky situations. However, it’s those situations that can be the most entertaining part of the story.

Amateur sleuths in cozy mysteries represent average people who are capable of extraordinary feats. Even without extensive training or specialized skills, the average person can use their wits to solve complicated puzzles. Just as your favorite amateur sleuth can wiggle out of difficult situations, so can we all. If Miss Marple can follow the clues and figure out whodunit, then each one of us can too.

Do you fancy yourself as an amateur sleuth? I’d love to hear from you.

Author Bio. Valerie (V. M.) Burns is an Agatha, Anthony, Edgar, and Next Generation Award Finalist. She is the author of the Mystery Bookshop, Dog Club, RJ Franklin, and Baker Street Mystery series. Writing as Kallie E. Benjamin, Valerie also writes the Bailey the Bloodhound Mystery series. Valerie is a member of Crime Writers of Color, Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, Dog Writers of America, and Thriller Writers International. Valerie has a bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University, a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Notre Dame, and a Master of Fine Arts from Seton Hill University. She is also a mentor in the Writing Popular Fiction MFA Program at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, PA. Born and raised in northwest Indiana, Valerie now lives in Northern Georgia.

To connect with V.M. Burns: BookBub   Facebook   Instagram   Threads   Website


Posted in Let's Talk, with Debra H. Goldstein • Tags: , , , , |  18 Comments


18 thoughts on “The Joy of the Amateur Sleuth

  1. What an interesting perspective on the advantages of an amateur sleuth. I didn’t take into account how it’s perfectly expected that they would make mistakes. Thanks!

  2. Welcome, Valerie! I was struck by your comment referring to critics of the cozy genre calling it “unrealistic.” When you think about it, isn’t most fiction “unrealistic”? Don’t most people who read fiction, no matter the genre, do so to escape into another world for a few hours?

    But to answer your question, decades before I ever thought of writing a mystery, I had the uncanny knack of being able to identify whodunit within the first few chapters of most books or the first ten to fifteen minutes of most movies. The books and movies that I’ve loved most are the ones where the writers have been able to fool me. Dame Agatha has fooled me on more than one occasion.

    1. I’m with you, Lois. I truly enjoy when I am fooled or at least I reach the ending not having pinpointed the murderer since the first chapters.

  3. I think most writers are amateur sleuths in one way or another. Even in a fictional mystery we’re setting up problems and working to solve them.

  4. Ha! I am the worst amateur sleuth…I think mostly because I have a short attention span. Hard to concentrate on clues when you’re constantly distracted by any old thing. How I manage to plot a cozy is still a mystery to me (you saw what I did there!)

  5. I feel readers accept a certain fantasy element when reading a cozy. The heroine never gets badly hurt. The bad guy gets caught. And justice is always served. As for the amateur sleuth, she is clever and able to ferret out the killer because of her determination and observational skills.

    1. True, but I like the fact that she isn’t perfect. Of course, it is best when her actions make sense… so many don’t.

  6. Ultimately, there’s a lot that’s unrealistic about cozy mysteries. But that’s what makes them fun. The murder rate in St. Mary’s Mead is way higher than some of our biggest cities. It’s keeping things realistic enough, but then indulging in the joy of pretending that you’re just as clever as the amateur you’re reading about.

    1. True, but while we are enjoyingthe book, we don’t think about the unrealistic element (like Cabot Cove syndrome).

  7. I think we have an instinct to avoid danger but also to protect and that will get us into danger.

  8. Thank you for your insights and for being Debra’s guest this month, Valerie. Enjoyed your post!

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