Amateur sleuths--people who have no formal training, yet somehow solve mysteries--are a standard of the mystery genre. From very intelligent people who consult for free, like Sherlock Holmes and Peter Wimsey, to people whose only qualification is a good eye for human nature like Miss Marple, there are amateur sleuths all over mystery fiction.
For a long time I just assumed this was A Thing That Happens In Books But Doesn't Happen In Real Life, like I don't know, zombies? Instalove? We all know These Things happen in books, so I never thought much about it. But then I started reading classic mystery novels, and for some reason they made me think maybe amateur sleuthing was a real thing. For example, in The Man In Lower Ten by Mary Roberts Rinehart, there's a character whose hobby is solving crimes according to the philosophy of Arthur Conan-Doyle. And this is treated as an acceptable, relatively normal diversion (incidentally, hobbyist sleuths are also common in Alfred Hitchcock movies). This is basically when I seriously started to wonder if amateur sleuths actually existed.
There are organizations of people who are not detectives and solve crime (the Vidocq Society, for example), and amateur detectives often solves mysteries when it comes to missing persons cases or other crimes the police don't have the resources or background to investigate. There's even a "how to be an amateur detective" page on the interwebs.
Amateur sleuthing is actually probably a lot more common than you'd think, but by far the most common hobbyist detectives are... wait for it... mystery writers! Yes, Castle and Murder, She Wrote might not be as far off the mark as you'd think. Mary Roberts Rinehart herself was asked to consult on several unsolved cases by both police and victims. I'm not aware of any convictions or appeals happening as a result of her investigations, but she did "solve" many of these crimes by writing books about them. Lois Duncan of I Know What You Did Last Summer fame investigated the murder of her own daughter, and John Grisham was sued over his amateur detective activities, which involved obtaining confidential documents without permission (so badass). Other common modes of employ for amateur detectives, both on- and off-the-page, are lawyer, insurance investigator, and someone who works in a research field (i.e., librarian, archivist, historian, etc.).
So while the recurrent amateur sleuth may largely exist in the mind of mystery writers, sometimes they do make it off the page and into real life, especially when it comes to their creators!
Do you know of any real-life instances of amateur sleuthing?
- The Vidocq Society
- "Activities for Amateur Detectives" by John Marcheur on eHow
- Improbable Fiction: The Life of Mary Roberts Rinehart by Jan Cohn
- "Amateur Sleuthing Lands Grisham in Real-Life Court" by Tom Jackman, The Washing Post
- "'Who Killed my Daughter?' Eight-Year-Old Unsolved Slaying Still Plagues Writer Lois Duncan" by Susan Schindehette, People Magazine
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