This is the one rule to rule them all:
If readers don’t love the sleuth, your cozy mystery is dead in the water
No kidding, Sherlock?
Okay, then what makes an amateur sleuth not just likeable but loveable? Answer: It’s not her designer shoes. Here are the sleuth’s basic required ingredients.
1. The amateur sleuth can’t be a trained policeman, detective, CSI technician, or young attorney. These careers train people on how to catch a diverse lot of liars and criminals. Let’s face it; cozy amateur sleuths can’t be bothered by worrisome details like oaths of office or by-the-book investigations. Amateur sleuths can have a friend, sidekick, or lover in one of the trained occupations and most do. What makes them loveable is how they deal with the encountered roadblocks, because they aren’t trained.
Conclusion: Cozy sleuths aren’t trained to hunt down or prosecute murderers, but they can have friends who do.
2. The best amateur sleuths have normal jobs, but give the reader a unique insight into the work they do. Their job or ex-career in case a sleuth is retired and now a consultant, helps ground the cozy in a real world with real problems. Their job should offer up a lot of potential victims and also reveal the loveable parts of the character. Some examples of jobs that come in contact with the public: A real estate agent, hair stylist, owner of a bakery or coffee shop, and a community nurse with a long patient contact list. What makes them loveable? The way they treat their clients or patients, and by the little things they do. Free cups of coffee, free home health care visits, or free tips on curb appeal. Good sleuths have big hearts!
Conclusion: Sleuths should have an interesting job which keeps the sleuth mobile, so she’s free to track down crime as the spirit or the clues move her.
3. The best amateur sleuths have an abiding inner sense of fairness, truth, and justice. Once their button is pushed they’re motivated to solve the case. Outwardly, the sleuth should be independent and driven. Inwardly, she has doubts. Above all she should be an observant listener with a warm personality that people feel comfortable talking to. Who would want to spill secrets to a rude shrew? The best sleuths have savvy, and they have a good reason to stick their necks out. That doesn’t mean they wouldn’t meet a shady person alone in a dark alley, but the sleuth must learn and grow. In other words, she shouldn’t keep making the same dumb mistakes. What makes them loveable is their stubborn pursuit of the truth.
Conclusion: Sleuths should be smart, independent, and likeable. Her personality conveys trust and makes it easy for people to confide secrets to her.
The best amateur sleuths have flaws that balance their strengths. Does anyone remember Jessica Fletcher’s flaws? I’m not sure she had any, but internal conflicts create more interesting characters, so I think flaws are important. If a sleuth is pursuing a black belt in karate, and faints at the sight of blood, this flaw could stop her from advancing to the next level or tournament. Balance is the key. What if the sleuth is addicted to on-line shopping and is hiding her debts, and everyone she questions about a murder, sneers at the victim’s heavy debts? The reader has an opportunity to watch the sleuth react, see her internal debates about denial and addiction, and ultimately watch the sleuth change her self-destruction behaviors. What makes her loveable? She’s a regular person like the rest of us.
Conclusion: Amateur sleuths must be interesting. A good sleuth should have a character flaw to balance her strengths. A flaw must show up as often as strength does in order to churn the inner conflicts.
The best amateur sleuths help the reader understand her gift of sniffing out clues. This might be a controversial requirement. What makes this person put clues together that other miss? She may use a particular tool to sift through the information or she may follow a strict methodology, but the reader needs to see the sleuth compress the information into hard clues. Finding clues can’t be guesswork. Yes, there are gut instinct guesses, but they can’t always appear magically to solve the murder. Readers like finding the clues with the sleuth. What makes them loveable? You kidding? This step is important, because the reader has to believe the sleuth is smart and savvy and this is one way those characteristics are revealed. Conclusion: Establish the sleuth’s clue-busting genius early on and help the reader understand how the magic works.
My apologies to the male sleuths, but I’m keeping it simple.
What basics have I left off? Please add them to the comments below and share with your friends.
Who’s your favorite amateur sleuth? Surprise me!