Although legal thrillers and police procedurals are exciting sub genres in mystery fiction, sometimes readers want a protagonist that isn’t a detective or a member of law enforcement. Amateur sleuth mysteries feature an ordinary protagonist with a relatively normal life who tries to solve a crime that’s typically far out of their realm of knowledge. There’s something endearing about a main character, who has no expertise or experience, investigating and solving crimes before those trained to do so get the chance.
Amateur sleuth novels follow the same basic layout, although the characters, setting, time frame, and other aspects can vary dramatically from book to book. Typically, the protagonist of the story happens to figure out the first clue to a crime and, through the power of deduction, help from other characters, or sheer luck, they end up following the trail of evidence before the authorities put the pieces together. Amateur sleuths tend to be scorned or ignored by members of law enforcement until they end up solving the case at the end of the novel.
Amateur sleuths don’t have expertise in solving mysteries, but they do have certain advantages they can use to help them solve the crime. For example, the sleuth may not be a police officer, but perhaps their spouse is. The sleuth may have any type of profession. It might not be related to law enforcement, but it may benefit them in some way plot-wise. For instance, maybe they have a job where they can easily overhear the town gossip, such as a shopkeeper or a reporter.
One perk of being unaffiliated with the police force is that the protagonist isn’t required to obey the law when following their case, unlike cops or private investigators. The sleuth may break and enter, disguise themselves, or use other less conventional methods to obtain evidence. Overall, the sky’s the limit when authors develop their main character.
Anther consistent theme in most amateur sleuth mystery novels is that the crime has a personal effect on the protagonist. For example, a loved one could be murdered or go missing, and the amateur sleuth then becomes determined to find the criminal out of anger and hurt. Giving the protagonist a personal connection to the crime is essential in this sub genre because without a strong conviction, the character becomes less believable. No ordinary person would hunt down a killer with no experience if they had no motivation to do so!
If you’re ready to dive into this fun sub genre, here are just three of our favorite amateur sleuth mystery authors and links to their most popular works.
Allen Eskens is the author of the USA Today bestseller, The Life We Bury, which is the debut of the Detective Max Rupert series. In this book, college student Joe Talbert is required to interview a stranger and write about their life for an English assignment. Joe goes to a nearby nursing home to find someone to interview, and meets dying Vietnam veteran and convicted murderer Carl Iverson. Joe struggles to believe that a heroic veteran was convicted of this grisly crime, so he begins to investigate Carl’s conviction. Can he uncover the mysteries before it’s too late?
L.L. Bartlett’s debut novel to the Jeff Resnick Mystery Series, Murder on the Mind, ties in aspects of paranormal and crime fiction to create a truly unique novel. Protagonist Jeff Resnick has been brutally mugged and is now recovering from a skull fracture and brain damage. As he recovers, he starts seeing visions of a man who was viciously attacked and murdered, and Jeff soon realizes he has psychic abilities; but nobody believes him. Can he somehow stop these crimes, or is he only putting himself in grave danger?
Although Grisham is best known for his incredible legal thrillers, his novel Camino Island is a delightful venture into the amateur sleuth mystery genre. This #1 New York Times bestseller begins when thieves steal priceless books and artifacts from a vault beneath Princeton University’s library. After the crime is committed, young novelist Mercer Mann is approached by a secretive company that wants her to go undercover to investigate bookstore owner and rare books dealer, Bruce Cable, to see if he and his colleagues are behind the theft. Mercer is offered a hefty sum of money, so she agrees and infiltrates Cable’s group. However, she soon learns far too much and finds herself in deep trouble.
If you’re hungry for more mysteries, check out Amazon’s selection of free amateur sleuth novels. The list changes and updates frequently, so you’ll never run out of new reading material.