Tuesday Night Blogger: A is for April… and Anything Goes: Accidental and Amateur Sleuths – What’s the Difference?

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 aImage result for amateur sleuth cartoon 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).


  1. I suppose by your definition, a person can only be an accidental sleuth once! If one gets the taste for it as a result, one becomes an amateur sleuth. On the other hand, we all talk a lot about that character who becomes a magnet for murder – who in their right minds would invite Mrs. Bradley or Mr. Satterthwaite to a country weekend. And yet, people do, and the invariable result in death on the library floor!

    I think I prefer the amateur sleuth because, despite her status, she supposedly carries with her a set of skills that separate her from the rest of the company and allow for the reader to match wits. I find that the accidental sleuth (of which there are many in modern crime fiction, usually so that the author doesn’t have to do a lot of research – *cough* Woman in Cabin 10 *cough*) continually stumbles upon information rather than making any relevant deductions and doesn’t know what to make of any of it until they are trapped in the flooding basement.

    Putting it another way, the professional sleuth accesses the information from the victim’s dog’s microchip and determines the pet was shut away during the crime. The accidental sleuth confronts the victim’s dog and charms it out of biting her. The amateur sleuth smiles mysteriously at the information that the dog didn’t bark in the nighttime. Give me the amateur any day!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree, amateur sleuths are much more enjoyable to read about, accidental sleuths, especially female ones, always have that danger of just looking like complete prats who plunder into danger for no good reason. Also really wish I had thought of that dog microchip example – annoyingly good!


  2. I agree with Brad that using a character who accidentally becomes interested in solving a crime is also a more plausible way to write a traditional detective novel these days. It allows for more realism (which I hear is what all readers keep clamoring for) while simultaneously avoiding all the technical problems of police methodology, forensic technology and legalities in general. This doesn’t mean the writer is lazy or didn’t want to do research. In fact, in some cases it’s much harder to write a crime novel without resorting to police work because it requires something that so few fiction writers have these days — a rich imagination and the ability to inhabit their characters’ lives.

    I just read an excellent new novel that employs both talents in creating a plausible accidental sleuth while not once introducing a policeman nor any standard police work. The protagonist works as a registrar of births and deaths. This allows her access to a database of information that she uses in an extracurricular manner at the risk of losing her job. After digging up people’s addresses and other demographic data she sets off to locate and interview them. Using skills she has gained in her job — cajoling, flattering, and assuaging the general public who come to have their documents processed — she adopts various alter egos and manipulates people through clever conversation to reveal things they wouldn’t normally offer up to a stranger. I thought it was one of the most clever uses of an unusual job that realistically leant itself to a detective novel plot. Much better than a caterer, or a dog walker, or a wedding planner who becomes an “accidental sleuth”. The “stumbling upon a dead body” nonsense grows really thin these days. I can’t stomach reading modern mystery novels where the amateur detective knows more than the policeman simply because the corpse happened to be involved in some facet of the amateur’s professional life.

    The book I described above, BTW, is The Child Garden by Catriona McPherson and I highly recommend it if you’ve never read her work. It was the first Book I’ve read of hers and I’m off to read more McPherson, mostly because I have to for a mystery convention I will be attending at the end of this month. I’m certainly glad to have discovered a new writer who knows her way around plotting and constructing a genuine detective novel. Her offhand literary allusions to mystery writers and mystery characters of the past were fun too — a sure sign that she loves the genre.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I like how you left the title and author of the book you loved until the end of your comment. You know how to reel my curiosity in!
      I can see how accidental sleuths are more plausible but my experience of reading them in fiction has not always been the greatest and I usually just annoyed at the stupidity of them at times, especially young women who walk into danger like it’s going out of fashion. Equally like you I am not drawn to accidental sleuths whose encounters with crime come through their work at a bakery or a knitting circle. However I will hold on to your author recommendation.


  3. Most interesting, Kate, it had never occurred to me to distinguish between these two categories, or to wonder about the differences, and now I am fully informed.
    I will second John’s view of The Child Garden – I knew immediately which book he was talking about because I read it recently! It is a marvellous book, very clever and atmospheric, and the heroine is most appealing.

    Liked by 2 people

      • Atmospheric indeed! It has a nice Gothic element that appealed to me and was an utter surprise. All sorts of Scottish lore, talk of haunted bridges and standing stones, a legend of the Devil living inside a huge rocking boulder. Good and creepy!


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