Amateur Detectives

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 magnifying-glass1mystery 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.

As Carolyn Hart argues in her May 23, 2012 blog post argues:

carolyn-g-hart-copy-32… 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:

the-gentle-art-of-murder-copy3Miss 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:

  • independent
  • adventurous
  • fearless
  • sensible
  • 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?

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. To me, Miss Marple is in many ways Agatha Christie’s image of herself. Though sometimes her character is definitely an alter-ego who has all the confidence that Christie only develops through her writings and in her later life.

    Great entry!

    • Christi,

      Thanks. You could be right. But Agatha Christie claims to have modeled Miss Marple on her grandmother and her grandmother’s friends. In An Autobiography, Dodd, Mead & Company, New York, 1977, pp. 447-448, she says:

      Miss Jane Marple insinuated herself so quietly into my life that I hardly noticed her arrival…. [She was] the sort of old lady who would have been rather like some of my grandmother’s Ealing cronies—old ladies whom I have met in so many villages where I have gone to stay as a girl. Miss Marple was not in any way a picture of my grandmother; she was far more fussy and spinsterish than my grandmother ever was. But one thing she did have in common with her—though a cheerful person, she always expected the worst of everyone and everything, and was, with almost frightening accuracy, usually proved right.

      “I shouldn’t be surprised if so-and-so isn’t going on,” my grandmother used to say, nodding her head darkly, and although she had no grounds for her assertions, so-and-so was exactly what was going on. “A downy fellow, that—I don’t trust him,” Grannie would remark, and later a polite young bank clerk was found to have embezzled some money, when she was not at all surprised, but merely nodded her head.

      ”Yes,” she said, “I’ve known one or two like him.”

      Nobody would ever have wheedled my grandmother out of her savings or put up a proposition to her which she would swallow gullibly. She would have fixed him with a shrewd eye and have remarked later: “I know his kind. I knew what he was after. I think I’ll just ask a few friends to tea and mention that a young man like that is going around.”

      Grannies prophecies were much dreaded.

      …I endowed my Miss Marple with something of Grannie’s powers of prophecy. There was no unkindness in Miss Marple, she just did not trust people. Though she expected the worst, she often accepted people kindly in spite of what they were.

      • Yes, I remember reading that. But she was also one who did not like being the center of attention. She truly kept her personal life to herself.

        Maybe it’s a bit of both. I just know that reading all I could about her, she had the strength and the understanding on how to solve her character’s dilemmas well.

      • That she did, indeed! 🙂

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