Bus Driver…Ambulance Man…Ticket Inspector*

occupationIt’s easy enough to imagine scenarios where fictional police detectives and PIs get involved in investigating crimes. So, a series that features a police officer or a PI makes sense and can be quite credible. It’s harder when the protagonist of a crime fiction series is an amateur detective.

Some professions do lend themselves to the role a bit more than others. For instance, there are lots of fictional academics who are amateur detectives. And it’s not hard to imagine scenarios where the sleuth is an academic (ahem – at least I hope it’s not…). The same might be said of fictional members of the clergy or their spouses/partners. Those people hear and see quite a bit, so it makes sense that they’d be involved in fictional investigations. There are also lots of fictional psychologists, medical professionals, attorneys and journalists who are also amateur sleuths. Again, it’s fairly credible that such people would be in a position to encounter and investigate a crime.

But there are some fictional amateur sleuths out there who have more unusual occupations. In those cases, the author has the challenge of creating a believable context for the sleuth. It’s not always easy to do, but some authors have achieved it.

One such sleuth is Rita Mae Brown’s Mary Minor ‘Harry’ Harristeen. When this series begins, Harry is the postmistress for the tiny town of Crozet, Virginia. She also runs a small farm. Later in the series, she steps aside as postmistress, and takes up cultivating a vineyard. This scenario – with Harry as postmistress, and also sleuth – works (at least for me) because it makes sense that, in a small town, people would gather at the post office, pick up their mail, and talk. This puts Harry in a very good position to know a lot about what’s going on. We also learn that her family has been in the area for generations. So, she’s ‘plugged in.’ There are some aspects of the series that aren’t as credible. But a postmistress as sleuth makes sense.

You wouldn’t expect a ticket-taker to be in a position to do sleuthing – at least not credibly – but that’s what happens in Denise Mina’s Garnethill, the first in her Garnethill trilogy. Maureen ‘Marui’ O’Donnell works in a low-paid job as a ticket-taker. She’s emotionally fragile (in fact, she spent some time in a mental health hospital). Still, she’s trying to get her life together. She even has a relationship with Douglas Brodie. He happens to be married, but she’s working on figuring out what she’s going to do. One morning, after a night of drinking, Mauri wakes to find Brodie’s body in her living room. As you can imagine, the police are not satisfied that she isn’t responsible. So, Mauri decides to clear her own name. And that’s the approach Mina takes to making Mauri a believable sleuth, although she’s neither a copper nor a PI.

Eleanor Kuhns’ historical (end of the 18th Century) series features Will Rees. He’s an itinerant weaver, who also has a small piece of property. On the surface of it, weaving isn’t the sort of occupation that would likely put someone in contact with murder. But in A Simple Murder, the first of this series, Kuhns sets up a credible context. In that novel, we learn that Rees is despondent over his first wife’s death. He puts his son, David, in the care of his sister, and goes off, working as a weaver where and when he can. Then, he finds out that David has been sent to a Shaker sect establishment, where he’s being mistreated. Rees rushes to do what he can for his son, only to be on the scene when there’s a murder. And, since the Shakers are a small and tightly-knit community, Rees can’t help but be drawn into the mystery as he tries to re-establish contact with his son. Slowly, as the series goes on, word gets around that Will Rees can find answers. So, he begins to build a reputation.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman is a Melbourne accountant-turned-baker, who lives and works in a large, Roman-style building called Insula. When the series begins (with Earthly Delights), Chapman has no desire to be a sleuth or to solve mysteries. But she gets drawn into investigating a series of heroin overdoses that might not be as accidental as they seem. It all starts when one overdose happens right outside Chapmen’s own bakery. Then, someone starts targeting the people who live in Insula. Chapman wants to find out who that person is, and her new lover, Daniel Cohen (he volunteers for a mobile soup kitchen), wants to find out what’s behind the overdoses. So, they agree to help one another.

There’s also D.S. Nelson’s Blake Heathington. He’s a retired milliner, who’s moved to the village of Tuesbury. You might not think that a milliner would likely come across a lot of bodies. But Heatherinton has a keen eye for his clients, and a good sense of what makes them ‘tick.’ So, in Hats Off to Murder, he becomes more than curious when two of his clients die. There’s no obvious evidence that they were murdered, but some things just don’t add up. Then, a new client, Delilah Delibes, asks for his help tracking down her mother, Flora, who’s gone missing. Heatherington is not a professional sleuth, and doesn’t pretend to have investigative skills. But he is compassionate. And he’s curious. So, he works with Delilah to find out what happened to her mother. And, in the process, he finds out how and why his clients died.

And then there’s Steve Robinson’s Jefferson Tayte, who is a genealogist. His specialty is tracing people’s ancestry, not finding killers. But sometimes, secrets from the past have a way of haunting modern families. So Tayte runs into more than one murder as he searches for his clients’ roots.

For authors who create amateur sleuths, it can be a challenge to create a credible context for those sleuths to ask questions and investigate. When it’s done well, though, it can work. And there really are some interesting occupations out there in crime-fiction land.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Clash’s Career Opportunities.


Filed under D.S. Nelson, Denise Mina, Eleanor Kuhns, Kerry Greenwood, Rita Mae Brown, Steve Robinson

17 responses to “Bus Driver…Ambulance Man…Ticket Inspector*

  1. Great topic Margot and thanks for mention Mr Hetherington. Our postman would definitely make a good sleuth as he’s a very chatty man. He knows everything and I mean everything! Of course there are also those who don’t appear to have any occupation at all other than observing, enter Miss Marple professional knitter 😉

    • It’s my pleasure, D.S., to mention Blake. I really like the fact that you made him a milliner; it adds something different to his character. And proper milliners do get to know their clients, so it makes sense that Blake would be a keen judge of character. And I couldn’t agree more about Miss Maprle… 😉 – Interesting you’d mention that about your postman. Our postie’s a friendly type, too. She knows everyone and she’s the type of person you just…chat to if you know what I mean.

      • If you want to know something, our posties the man to ask! Blake doesn’t do a great deal of hat making in the latest book but there are fewer people wearing hats. It’s a fine balance in creating a believable character.

        • It’s certainly authentic, and that’s what you want in a story. People like it best, I think, when they can believe a character could actually exist.

  2. I think it’s harder to make the amateur sleuth credible in a modern context, so kudos to the authors who manage it. The one that sprang to mind while reading your post is Brother Cadfael, made credible by the historical setting before there was an official police force and even more so by his skills with plants and herbs, meaning he often acts as an early “forensics expert”.

    • I agree with you, FictionFan. It is harder to make an amateur sleuth credible. There are all sorts of issues with talking to witnesses, getting evidence, and the like that you don’t have if you have police protagonists, or PI protagonists. And you have a good point about Brother Cadfael. The social structure, the nature of law, the nature of science and so on of that time mean that he really is a believable sleuth. You know, I still have yet to feature that series on In The Spotlight. Shame on me!

  3. You’ve managed to come up with quite a variety of amateur sleuths there Margot, considering that it is so hard to make ‘ordinary’ people credible as sleuths. Of course the most likely amateur sleuths judging by my reading, in modern fiction seem to be journalists. I suspect this is because elements of their job lends itself to investigating. I’m so pleased my favourite genealogist Jefferson Tayte got a mention

    • He is a great character, isn’t he, Cleo? And I really like the way Robinson gets him involved in mysteries. As you say, it’s not easy to do that credibly, and I give credit to those who can. You make an interesting point about journalists. It’s true that they use investigating skills in their jobs. And it makes sense that they would run across crime, too, in the course of their work. So it does make sense to have a journalist as a sleuth.

  4. Interesting post, Margot. I think when an author can make an ‘ordinary’ person an amateur sleuth and make it believable it makes it more realistic for the reader. I guess somehow we see ourselves as possibility solving a crime if a person doing so-and-so can do it. One series that comes to mind is the Coffeehouse Mystery series by Cleo Coyle featuring coffeehouse manager Clare Cosi as the sleuth. Even though she becomes engaged to an NYPD detective, Clare solved a lot of crimes before she and Mike became a couple.

    • The Coffeehouse Mysteries are good examples of how people in different sorts of occupations can be fictional sleuths, Mason. And you make an interesting connection between readers’ interests and the sort of sleuth the author has created. Perhaps it is a case of the reader identifying with a character, and that makes sense. I can see how that identification might be easier if the sleuth is, as you say, an ‘ordinary person.’

  5. I’m glad you made a reference to Rita Mae Brown and had to laugh at your polite reference to the not so credible elements in her mysteries, i.e., the “talking” cat! Her beginning stories, in that line of mysteries was top-notch — Murder at Monticello (Mrs. Murphy #3) is one of my favorite books, because of the Americana history woven into the tale. I LIKED THAT. And in the beginning tales, Mrs. Murphy, the cat, made more “sense”. But then Rita stretched the surreal aspects to a point that I found annoying. However, I suspect when you write about the same folks over and over again, your ability to keep the credibility going does wear thin. And I LOVED your telling me about Eleanor Kuhns’ historical (end of the 18th Century) series featuring an itinerant weaver! Have you read the Grantchester Mysteries, written by James Runcie? I guess a vicar playing detective is not unusual in the fictional world of mysteries, but I LOVE the Anglican vicar Sidney Chambers, and the fact that it is set in the 1950s, England! Makes me think of my relatives. (The bloke who plays him in the PBS series Grantchester, James Norton, has a grand head of dark auburn hair, but that’s beside the point.) Thanks. I like your stimulating my thinking. 🙂

    • I’m glad you enjoy these posts 🙂 . I haven’t read Runcie’s work, but just from your description, it sounds like an interesting series. And I do like historical mysteries, especially if they are authentic, and really evoke the times. I may have to look them up. As to the Rita Mae Braun series, I thought she did an effective job of weaving history into Murder at Monticello, too. That said, though, I think you have a point about how difficult it is to sustain an interesting series over the long run. It’s hard to come up with fresh, interesting plots and so on, but still keep the series grounded and credible.

  6. There’s Fr Brown, but as you say, it was easier in years gone by to bring people in. I’ve been enjoying Larry D Sweazy’s books featuring an indexer and proof reader as an investigator. Getting her to the crimes is one thing, but her way of researching and looking at the facts is really intriguing and well done, reflecting her talents nicely.

    • I’m so glad you mentioned Sweazy’s work, Moira. I’ve been meaning to try it for a long time, and just…haven’t yet. It’s on the list to really – no really! – read this year.

  7. I have never been attracted to books about amateur sleuths (as least in a series) as much as those featuring the police or private detectives, but I really think it all comes down to the writing to make it work. What I love about your Joel Williams series is that he has a police background, so it makes sense that he has contacts and is useful to the police and has the background.

    And thanks for reminding me of Steve Robinson’s series, which is one of my husband’s favorites. He likes genealogy or archaeology mixed into a mystery.

    • Thanks very much for the kind words, Tracy. I appreciate it. Like you, I think it’s much harder for an amateur sleuth to be credible than it is for a police or PI detective. I know of authors who do it well, and I have the utmost respect for them. Steve Robinson’s one of them. The way his Jefferson Tayte goes about investigating is believable.

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s