Amateur detectives have been the mainstay of mystery fiction since it began—Edgar Alan Poe’s Auguste Dupin, Wilkie Collin’s Walter Hartright. The Golden Age of mystery fiction was filled with them—Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, G. K. Chesterson’s Father Brown. Today they are the featured sleuths of traditional mysteries, sometimes known as cosies—Aaron Elkin’s Gideon Oliver, Jeanne M. Dams’ Dorothy Martin, Susan Conant’s Holly Winter. Amateur detectives all, they enchant and delight us, solving crimes by picking up clues the professionals miss. Careful observers of human nature, they distrust the surface appearance of ordinary existence. Though lacking in special training, they delve into the lives of the people who knew the victim, solving crimes with their keen powers of observation and deduction.
… Agatha Christie brilliantly demonstrated the traditional mystery is at the heart of our lives. In her Miss Marple Books, Christie made the…point that life in a village is a microcosm of life everywhere. One does not have to live in a huge city and wander the alleyways to be acquainted with anger, jealousy, greed, and despair.
And as Earl F. Bargainnier argues in The Gentle Art of Murder, Bowling Green University Popular Press, Bowling Green, OH, 1980:
Miss Jane Marple is the most famous of female fictional detectives. This little old lad, this tabby, this snoop, is an utter contrast to Poirot. Whereas he is the outsider, she is most definitely the insider: the village spinster who sees all and know all. Her village has been her experience, and it has provided her with knowledge of human nature and human actions. (pp. 66-67)
…Miss Marple is always conscious of evil lurking behind the façade of ordinary existence. She is committed to uncovering it and eliminating it from her world. Whether in St. Mary Mead, Brackhampton, London, or the Caribbean, her careful observation of human nature and her distrust of mere surface appearance, her orderly approach to her cases, her independence and fearlessness, her ability and willingness to use the images which others have of her, her consciousness of her own worth as both an individual and as a detective, and her essential ruthlessness on behalf of the innocent—expressed in her self-confidence and determination—make her a formidable adversary of evil. In Miss Marple, Christie has taken the traditional spinster of literature and added qualities which contrast with or transcend the convention and in so doing has created one of the most famous women of twentieth century fiction. (p. 78)
But whatever their sex, amateur detectives are:
- likable snoops
- careful observers of human nature
- distrustful of the surface appearance of ordinary existence
- without special training
- possessed of keen powers of observation and deduction
- committed to uncovering the truth
- ruthless on behalf of the innocent
What do you think?