In Absentia

One of the obstacles that many authors attempting to write a mystery face is their lack of knowledge of law enforcement procedures. That stops them from making the most logical choice for a protagonist: a detective. Instead, they write about a “civilian,” in police parlance, who is driven to uncover clues, usually apart from or in opposition to the detectives assigned to the case. Maintaining that drive despite encountering factors that would make most people decide they are in over their head is one of the necessary tricks that must be accomplished.

What happens when the civilian decides not to investigate, in any formal sense? The cops do their job, but the civilian employs other resources to provide valuable knowledge. To me, this approach is two steps removed: not a cop and not a civilian investigating clues or suspects. An armchair quarterback, in less kind terms.

Leaving aside the question of whether such a novel can be considered a mystery, I’ll point out the main difficulty of this remote approach. What does the protagonist bring to the drama? Solving the crime is a plot pursuit. If the main character is doing that in a by-the-way fashion, what other business is occupying most of their time? Let’s turn the prism slightly and ask: is what they’re doing as interesting as solving the crime?

One reason that mysteries are so popular is because death is a powerful lure in fiction. The reasons for killing are fun for readers to uncover. If your protagonist has a hands-off approach, they must have a plot line with its own overarching end point that pulls readers along. Falling in love is one obvious example. Love is second only to death in terms of attracting a reading audience.

Depending on the strength of this plot line, you now face another issue. Why should the reader care about the murder case, since the lead actor in that plot line is a secondary character. Do I feel the same satisfaction when Detective Wilson turns up a clue? A secondary character doesn’t show up as often as the protagonist, and so my allegiance is that much more removed. I may even have a jaundiced view of the detective, since many readers don’t like cops much in real life.

The worse option is that the protagonist’s plot line is not as interesting. Since many writers regard themselves as utterly fascinating creatures, they make the mistake of thinking readers will feel the same. Too much high tea in suburbia, and you may induce the sleep of the dead. 

Exercise: At the outset of the project, ask yourself if you really want to write a mystery. If you do, get out of your armchair and do the work needed to acquire knowledge of the subject. There are many police officers, etc., who have written extremely useful books about their profession. Ignorance is only an excuse for laziness.

“The past is an old armchair in the attic, the present an ominous ticking sound, and the future is anybody's guess.”
—James Thurber

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

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