The annual Deadly Ink mystery writers’ conference last weekend included an array of “howdunit” panels for authors to discuss their craft. The “pros versus amateurs” panel had a lively discussion of the choice of protagonist and the flaws their creators give them.
A professional (police detective, private investigator, FBI agent, Harry Bosch) can do many things and get information that an amateur (a victim’s family member, the nosy neighbor, Miss Marple) cannot—and vice-versa. News reporters are in a somewhat intermediary position; they can get more information and have access to more sources than an amateur, but they still don’t have access to everything and may have to rely on the good will of the professionals to feed them vital clues. In general, non-professional investigators are much more likely to break the law in obtaining information than police detectives, who are thinking ahead to building a prosecutable case. They don’t want their evidence thrown out of court because their methods were improper. Private investigators who stray from the law risk having their license yanked. Of course, it’s when they do stray that things get interesting!
The idea of the lone investigator is strong in fiction, if not in real life, but amateurs often need to cajole the help of someone “on the inside.” If that amateur is a woman, when the case comes down to a confrontation with the baddies, “she has to end up doing the heavy lifting,” said panel moderator Jane Cleland.
The five panelists well illustrated the potential range of mystery-solving sleuths. Cleland’s New Hampshire protagonist is antiques appraiser Josie Prescott, whose profession (in nine books so far) brings her into contact with some pretty high-priced goods—the series has been called “the Antiques Roadshow for mystery fans.” I picked up her Blood Rubies about a fake—or is it?—Faberge egg.
When the authors were asked for a single word to describe their protagonists, what resulted was an impressive number of synonyms for “stubborn.” Here’s what else they had to say about their principals.
R.G. Belsky – Belsky is a former managing editor of the New York Daily News and metropolitan editor of the New York Post. It’s a natural that his series—three books so far—features prickly, big-mouthed reporter Gil Malloy, whose overriding motive in any situation is to get the story. Belsky says what was important to him was to have a character who operates out of a strong moral base. The most recent book in this series—“a personal ride through the investigative process of journalism” is Shooting for the Stars, probing the cracks in the closed-case murder of a Hollywood actress.
Sheila York writes historical mysteries set in Hollywood’s post-World War II Golden Age, and her protagonist is screenwriter, now reduced to script-doctor Lauren Atwill. Researching her scripts has given Atwill a plausible opportunity to acquire specialized knowledge—lockpicking, for example—which, well, why have a skill if you don’t use it? In a city where gossip reigns, poor Lauren is acquiring a reputation for having bodies turn up wherever she goes. In No Broken Hearts, fourth in the series, events soon make her wonder if these rumors about her are true.
Tim Hall writes “new adult” fiction (no hard-core violence), humor-filled mysteries set on Long Island and featuring Bert Shambles, whose name, Hall explains, “says it all.” He has a past brush with the law that requires him to stay employed, but he’s a bit of a ditz, a laid-back twenty-three-year-old thrift shop employee whose motto might be “If at first you don’t succeed, why bother?” Unfortunately, in addition to his brilliant career, Shambles also has a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Hall has two mysteries in this series. The most recent is Tie Died.
Annette Dashofy writes traditional mysteries whose main character, Zoe Chambers, is a female paramedic and deputy coroner in a rural Pennsylvania township where the main coroner takes the juicy cases and she deals with the leftovers. And yet . . . She teams up with the police chief when she needs a professional hand, but she’ll need a different kind of help to get over her biggest obstacle to advancement in her field: autopsies make her ill. The first in the series, Circle of Influence, was an Agatha Award nominee for Best First Novel; third and most recent is Bridges Burned, in which Zoe takes in the victims of an accidental fire as suspicions of murder flare up.
Kathryn Johnson is the author of two current series, including the contemporary romantic-
suspense series “Affairs of State,” whose third title, No Mercy, is coming soon. Her historical thrillers each feature one of Queen Victoria’s five daughters. The most recent is The Shadow Princess, about the oldest, Vicky. When her husband, briefly the emperor of Germany, dies, the novel has Vicky returning to London just as the Jack the Ripper terror grips the city. Crown Prince Eddy is a suspect, and she is determined to clear his name. The “princess” books are written under the pen name Mary Hart Perry. As protagonists, Victoria’s daughters can command quite a bit of assistance and are used to getting what they ask for; at the same time, their work is more difficult because they are so famous. (Writers also may be interested in Johnson’s latest book: The Extreme Novelist: The No-Time-To-Write Method for Drafting Your Novel in 8 Weeks.)