I like to call amateur sleuth books the "nosy person's subgenre." These are books for the inveterately curious among us, those who love gossiping, digging below the surface, and finding out information that really is none of our business. It's the genre for those of us who won't take no for an answer, who become only more tenacious in our investigations when we think people are withholding information from us. We lovers of amateur sleuths have strong egos--we think of ourselves as being more intelligent than the criminal, and having more savoir faire than the police. Those ham-fisted public servants have nothing on us, as they are clearly going about their investigations incorrectly. WE will show them a thing or two.
This admittedly broad profile of the reader of amateur sleuth books does create its challenges for those who choose to write the books. More than in any of the other subgenres, readers are looking for a protagonist who can be their alter ego. We want the protag to be likable but not a pushover; adventurous but not stupid; wise-cracking but not sarcastic; intelligent but down to earth. Because we so willingly make ourselves the main character, we can become sensitive to matters that create cognitive dissonance. How DARE she take her two-timing boyfriend back? WE would never do that! How COULD she go into that deserted crack house by herself? WE never would do such a thing, as we are much too intelligent for that.
Such expectations are, of course, unspoken--until the reviews come out. Thus, with a mind toward not only getting the interest of an agent and/or publisher, as well as getting decent reviews, I offer this week's tips for writing the amateur sleuth book.
1. TRY FIRST PERSON. I know a lot has been written about publishers' supposed preferences for third-person vs. first-person narratives. Frankly, I think it's a lot of bunk. Opinions are as varied as the acquiring editors. However, I do think that the amateur sleuth book often benefits from a first-person narrative. Perhaps we've come to expect it, thanks to Kinsey and Stephanie. But I think the reason is deeper than that. The "I" of the narrator brings the reader closer to the main character, better helping the reader live vicariously through the narrator. This is not to say that a third-person story can't work; rather, it's to say that first person does work very nicely in this subgenre.
2. NAIVE, YES; STUPID, NO. I feel confident in saying that readers (whether professional reviewers or non-professionals who post on Amazon) have almost zero patience with actions they consider "stupid." Certainly, on an amateur's first outing as a "detective," we can expect him or her to make some mistakes based more on naivete, or lack of experience, than on a lack of intelligence. But it's essential that you not allow your protag to do something that the average reader would consider dumb. A villain can make a dumb mistake that leads to his or her exposure; and supporting characters can do the same. But remember that your reader sees him/herself in the protag and will lose patience (sometimes quite angrily) when you let your sleuth do something inane.
3. THROW IN SOME ROMANCE. The amateur sleuth subgenre is particularly well suited to burgeoning romance. It's almost an expectation, so I'd say throw it in and make it fun. Romances based on conflict are usually enjoyable (you know, of the "God, I can't stand that arrogant, stuck-up, extremely handsome and sexy man" school of flirtation), and these are generally preferable to the sickly sweet "Love is a many-splendoured thing" romances. Falling for the local cop, sheriff, DA, or other law enforcement official is quite all right, and it allows you friends in high places for the future books in your series. I wouldn't mind seeing some unexpected types of romances (perhaps sassy heroine falls in love with a janitor?), but I'd rather have cop love than none at all.
4. CONSIDER A SIDEKICK. For a while, our amateur sleuths tended to be loners. We're now more in an era of friendship, I think. Just consider what's on TV and in the movies--everything revolves around a group of friends, who love, laugh, fight, etc. You need at least a few good supporting cast members, who can serve as your foils, give you new or additional perspective, knock you down a few pegs, and do all those other things that people do. Having a sidekick helps you cover more ground, too, allowing you to be in two places at once. In the old days, the sidekick existed to make the sleuth seem more brilliant in comparison (think Hastings, Watson), but today's sidekicks can have strong personalities of their own.
5. MAKE IT BELIEVABLE. It's essential that your amateur get involved in the case for a reason other than idle curiosity. The amateur sleuth has to be tenacious, especially in the face of danger or threats, which is why s/he needs a good reason to get involved and stay involved. It helps if the sleuth is investigating something personal--like the death of a beloved aunt, or the kidnaping of a neighbor child. This involvement allows for more authentic emotion in the book; and catharsis is a strong need of mystery readers, regardless of the subgenre. What I find is that early books in a series usually do have this personal element, which then dries up or devolves into a doorbell ringing and a stranger saying, "Oh, Prunella, you don't know me, but my fifth cousin 45 times removed tells me that you help people solve mysteries, and I really need your help."
6. INCLUDE SOME ACTION. It's tempting, I think, to make the amateur sleuth engage in the basic legwork in which all detectives take part, and then have her have an epiphany that leads her to the criminal. This gets back to the believability aspect I've been stressing. Sleuthing can be a dangerous business, which is why the cops (and the professional detectives) carry guns. If you're asking questions of the wrong people and you are perceived as an interfering busybody--and you WILL be perceived that way--people are going to threaten you, maybe even try to hurt you. These are good opportunities to bring some pulse-pounding action into your book. And rare is the book that doesn't benefit from such a scene. Why? Because readers like them, and so do editors.