When you think about any mystery series that you love, it’s all about the characters. Sure, you pick up that first book because the story sounds intriguing, but you keep coming back for your new best friends. Think about the classics – Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Brother Cadfael. In a lot of ways, the mystery is just the vehicle that lets you watch your favorite characters in action. Sort of like the bun is really just the transportation device for the hot dog. You hope it’s a really good bun, accompanied by cheese, relish and ketchup, but you’re really there for the hot dog, aren’t you?
Okay, that’s a terrible analogy. But the best hot dogs…I mean, characters …drive the story and keep you coming back for more. They are real and sometimes extraordinary people with their own concerns, problems, relationships, and jobs. As a reader, I’m there to find out how the story unfolds, but I’m riveted by the personalities of the players. Waiting for Sherlock Holmes to insult Inspector Lestrade or hurt Watson’s feelings is big part of the experience. Watching Brother Cadfael work in his herb garden or discover the existence of his son is as fascinating as learning about the crime. Knowing Miss Marple knits and watching her hide a razor sharp mind behind a façade of “fluffiness” is what makes the mystery come alive…and keeps me thinking about the book long after I’ve closed the cover.
I love all kinds of characters, but I have a soft spot for amateur sleuths. Murder is not part of their “real” lives, and they aren’t paid to go to a crime scene or figure out whodunit or put their lives on the line. In these stories, the murder is an extraordinary and unpleasant event – and not just for the dead guy. In my novels, Jocelyn Shore is a high school history and French teacher who has better things to do than to go around looking for killers, but who finds she just doesn’t have much choice. In DEATH ON TOUR, her Egyptian vacation is interrupted by the murder of one of her fellow tourists, and she has to figure things out in self defense. In DEATH MAKES THE CUT, the murder is more personal. When a close friend is killed and is suspected of drug dealing, Jocelyn has to get involved to clear his name. But she also has classes to teach, kids to protect, school politics to navigate, and a faltering romance to resolve.
The trouble with amateur sleuths in a series is that, after a few books, you have to start wondering why bodies like piling up like firewood in autumn wherever this supposedly average, normal person goes. It’s one reason I put Jocelyn in somewhat different locations in each book. (In the first, she’s in Egypt, in the second, she’s back home in Austin, and in the third, she’s visiting a ranch in central Texas.) However, when I really love a character, I’m willing to forgive the Jessica Fletcher syndrome. (For those of you who don’t remember the television series “Murder She Wrote,” Jessica Fletcher was a writer who lived in a small town – a very small town – and yet who managed to stumble over a body every week. In fact, Cabot Cove probably had the highest per capita murder rate in the nation.) To me, that’s a very small price to pay for the pleasure of spending more time with my favorite amateur sleuths.
Besides the classic characters I’ve already mentioned, some of my newly discovered amateur besties are G.M. Malliet’s Max Tudor (WICKED AUTUMN), Hilary Davidson’s Lily Moore (THE NEXT ONE TO FALL), and my fellow Algonquin Redux pal Rochelle Staab’s Liz Cooper and Nick Garfield (WHO DO, VOODOO?). I know there are more wonderful new amateurs out there – who are your new favorites?