Ever keen to try something new, the Tuesday Night Bloggers have gone for a different type of theme this month: the letter A. Be it a book title, author, country or a more abstract theme; it all goes, as long as it begins with the letter A. Moira at the blog, Clothes in Books, is collecting the posts this month so remember to check out her blog.
This week I decided to look at the accidental sleuth, as before writing this post I was never really sure in my mind of what the difference between an accidental or amateur sleuth was. Weren’t they kind of the same thing? Answer: Not quite. Whilst all accidental sleuths are amateurs at detection, not all amateur sleuths are accidental.
Though to be fair the definition for an accidental sleuth does have a number of similarities with the amateur sleuth, as in a story an accidental detective is a ‘protagonist who is not a detective by avocation or profession, either amateur, private, or official, but who nonetheless assumes the role of sleuth. Often a character falls into the role because of his or her proximity to the scene of the crime’ (Cox, 1999: 5). It is this final criterion which both sleuths share as they can be both found for example in country house or holiday set mysteries. Yet what makes Helen Cadel in Some Must Watch (1933) and Kate Mayhew in There May Be Danger (1948) different from say Nigel Bathgate in A Man Lay Dead (1934) or Mrs Bradley in Speedy Death (1929)?
Perhaps it is easier to begin with what doesn’t make them any different. Both accidental and amateur sleuths ‘are frequently related or personally involved in the lives of other characters directly affected by the crimes’ (Cox, 1999: 5). Furthermore, both can be propelled into detection by what they see as a mission, such as a mission to remedy a miscarriage of justice as in Agatha Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence (1958), or a fear a crime is being committed and needs to be stopped such as in The Wheel Spins (1936) by Ethel Lina White, or even because they are concerned someone they care about will be wrongfully arrested.
Take Miss Marple for instance. She comes across crimes unintentionally and in The Body in the Library (1942), she is drawn into the case because her friends own the home within which the library and body are situated. Miss Marple is not a private detective like Miss Silver and her serious attitude towards crime probably precludes her counting detective work as a mere hobby. Yet Miss Marple is not an accidental sleuth. Why? That was the question I had when researching this topic. One of the key criterion for categorising a sleuth as amateur rather than accidental is whether or not the individual features in multiple cases. Once bodies get a habit of dropping whenever you come to visit you are no longer an accidental sleuth. The issue of multiple cases also suggests to me that amateur sleuths are able to build up experience in crime solving, whilst accidental sleuths are merely armed with whatever skills they have got at the time and don’t get the opportunity to use the existing experience later on in another case. With experience also comes notoriety or fame and I think another difference between amateur and accidental detective is that with the former group the police tend to work with them more often and may even call on them for help. Whereas with accidental sleuths the police may not even be aware of them until the end of their activities or that there is even a situation in which criminal activity is taking place. Again the work of Ethel Line White springs to mind where accidental sleuths have to rely on themselves much more.
Moreover, as a consequence of this I think accidental sleuths are more prevalent in mystery novels which lean more towards being thrillers or novels from the Had I But Known school and within this last subgenre this often means the accidental sleuths are female. This for me ties into some of the reasons authors might choose to have an accidental sleuth in their mystery. For instance Cox (1999) suggests that ‘readers may find it easy to identify with a protagonist who is an ordinary citizen caught up in a web of intrigue’ (Cox, 1999: 6) and that ‘the lack of fixed expectations regarding the character’s expertise, courage, and personality also allows for greater depth of characterisation, more potential surprises, and sometimes a greater sense of jeopardy threatening the protagonist’ (Cox, 1999: 6). All of these reasons, whether you or agree with them or not, (as to be honest I don’t really identify much with HIBK heroines), do fit in with the HIBK formula which sets up a lot of dangers and jeopardy for their heroines. Therefore I think another difference between accidental and amateur sleuths is the tone and style of the novel they are invariably set up in. If you compared Miss Marple alongside one of Mary Robert Rhinehart’s or Ethel Lina White’s heroines for instance, it is Rhinehart and White’s heroines, who are subjected to much more danger and threatening situations and there is much less assurance as to how they will manage the mysterious circumstances they are involved. Conversely the tone of Miss Marple’s adventures differ greatly – there is drama but not of the same style and because she features in many novels we have expectations as to how she will manage the case she has got involved in.
However I wouldn’t like to suggest that all accidental sleuths are heroines of the HIBK school, though characters such as newspaper reporters, doctor and lawyers are precluded from being accidental sleuths due to the knowledge and experience their work gives them. One example of an accidental sleuth which interested me was Josephine Tey’s eponymous anti-hero, Brat Farrar, who ‘finds himself investigating the circumstances surrounding the death of the youth he is impersonating’ (Cox, 1999: 6).
So whilst I still think the line between amateur and accidental sleuths can be a blurred one at times, having done this post, I can see differences emerging between the two and if anyone else wants to add their (no doubt much more erudite) thoughts on the matter I would greatly appreciate it; be it further similarities or differences between the two types of sleuths or whether it is examples which break the rules.
N. B. All quotes in this post are from J. Randolph Cox’s section ‘Accidental Sleuth’ in The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing (1999).