Police Detectives, Private Investigators, and Amateur Sleuths

The most common mystery subgenres revolve around the figure of the investigator: police detectives, private investigators, and amateur detectives. Each type of novel has its own unique appeal, and the character of the investigator often determines this appeal for readers (Saricks 2001). If you want to know more about police detective, private eye, and amateur sleuth novels, there are a number of information-rich critical resources on these subgenres. See the end of the blog for a selected list.

Amateur sleuths dominated the early years of the detective novel. In fact, the most famous detectives of the Golden Age were amateurs: Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Lord Wimsey, and Albert Campion (Scaggs 2005, 40).

Amateur detectives are the figures furthest removed from the realities of a criminal investigation. They have no special training and often just fall into a case. These amateurs have the appeal of keen powers of observation and deduction; they are especially skilled at turning up clues that the police miss (Mosby 2008; Saricks 2001). They frequently have a hobby or profession that the reader can learn about – an added feature that many readers enjoy. These sleuths have the advantage of answering only to themselves but have the disadvantage of not having the resources available to the professional investigator.

Their appeal lies in their personalities; readers are most likely to identify with this type of detective (Mosby 2008; Niebuhr 2003). Amateur detective mysteries are usually gentler than the other types (Saricks 2001) but plausibility can be problematic with these novels. It can be difficult to explain why amateur sleuths “constantly stumble over corpses or be repeatedly summoned to cases of mysterious death, where they are not only welcomed, but deferentially invited to the scene of the crime by the police” (Binyon 1989, 7). Remember Nancy Drew and the Hardy boys? Key authors in this subgenre are Janet Evanovich, Lillian Jackson Braun, Diane Mott Davidson, Dick Francis, Margaret Truman, and Dorothy Sayers.

Unlike amateur sleuths, private detectives are paid for their work. They investigate without the support of an institution, and most of them work alone. These detectives have the appeal of “feisty independence” and “orneriness” (Niebuhr 2003, 312; Porter 2003, 95). Similar to the amateur, the private eye does what many readers wish they could do: “confront authority, triumph over impossible odds, and right the wrongs of society,” even if they have to work outside the forces of the law (Niebuhr 2003, 312).

Not surprisingly the American private investigator originated in the far west, “on the state where the advancing frontier finally ran out, and where the American dream may be said to have come to an end in more than one sense, California, north and south” (Porter 2003, 95).

Often private detective mysteries are first-person narratives that create a sense of intimacy between protagonist and reader. The settings are frequently urban; the tone, dark; the action, violent; and the novels, hard-boiled. Serious social issues are often addressed in these novels (Saricks 2001). See the Shamus Awards for a list of award-winning private investigator books. Key authors in this subgenre are Sue Grafton, Robert B. Parker, James Lee Burke, Dennis Lehane, Marcia Muller, Agatha Christie, Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammett, Sharon McCrone, and Raymond Chandler.

Police detective mysteries feature either a single detective or an entire police force. Before the 1950s, the police detective was a figure of ridicule. Ed McBain is credited with improving the image and creating the police detective as hero. What is the attraction of this kind of novel? Police detective mysteries offer a behind-the-scenes look at the realities of a police force (Charles, Morrison, and Clark 2002). Readers interested in the details of police work enjoy this type of mystery. Of the three subgenres, the police detective novel is closest to reality; many readers love the sense of authenticity that these novels convey.

Unlike earlier sleuths such as Sherlock Holmes and Hercules Poirot who employ their powers of observation and logical analysis to solve cases, the police detective does so by “using informants, tailing suspects, and availing himself of the resources of the police laboratory” (Dove 1982, 2). The procedural evolved from the hard-boiled tradition, transitioning from personal and small scale detective work to public and large-scale policing (Scaggs 2005, 89).

Police detective novels can be either cozy or hard-boiled, but the latter tends to dominate. Settings vary, although large metropolitan places predominate, and a strong sense of place usually characterizes these books (Blaha 2008). Police detectives usually appear in more dangerous situations than private investigators. The majority of them are male (although this is gradually changing), and all of them are expected to play by the rules.

Some critics distinguish between police detective novels and police procedurals. Crimes in the latter category are solved by an entire team of detectives working together. Charles, Morrison, and Clark (2002) point out that “the interaction of these characters’ distinct personalities in both public and private settings can be explored by the author and enjoyed by the fans” (26). P. D. James, Colin Dexter, Ed McBain, Ruth Rendell, Tony Hillerman, and Elizabeth George are important authors in the police detective/police procedural subgenre.

If you would like to learn more, consult the following resources:

Binyon, T. J. ‘Murder Will Out’: The Detective in Fiction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Blaha, Franz G. “Police Procedurals.” In Critical Survey of Mystery and Detective Fiction, edited by Carl E. Rollyson, vol.1: 2083-93. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press, 2008.

Charles, John, Joanna Morrison, and Candace Clark. The Mystery Readers’ Advisory: The Librarian’s Clues to Murder and Mayhem. Chicago: American Library Association, 2002.

Dove, George N. The Police Procedural. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1982.

Mosby, Charmaine Allmon. “Amateur Sleuths.” In Critical Survey of Mystery and Detective Fiction, edited by Carl E. Rollyson, vol 5: 2133-43. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press, 2008.

Niebuhr, Gary Warren. Make Mine a Mystery: A Reader’s Guide to Mystery and Detective Fiction. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2003.

Porter, Dennis. “The Private Eye.” In The Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction, edited by Martin Priestman, 95-113. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Saricks, Joyce G. “Mysteries.” The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction. Chicago: American Library Association, 2001, 145-85.

Scaggs, John. “The Police Procedural.” In Crime Fiction. London: Routledge, 2005, 85-104.

Von Mueller, Eddy. “The Police Procedural in Literature and on Television.” In The Cambridge Companion to American Crime Fiction, edited by Catherine Ross Nickerson, 96-109. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.