Remember the hard boiled private detective? The private investigator hired to save a client wrongly accused of some heinous crime was a staple of page and screen for many years. But in our casual-Fridays world, the detective who stood out for wearing a cheap suit is long gone. Characters solving crimes these days usually work in law enforcement or serve as consultants to the police.
So when I started writing Christian cozy mysteries, why did I decide to make my sleuth Karen Maxwell a private investigator? The obvious answer would be that I didn’t know what I was doing. But I prefer to think that I did it to challenge myself.
Here’s why it’s a bad idea to use a private detective in a modern mystery.
- First of all, there is no such thing as a private detective. Detectives work for the police. “Private eyes” work for investigation firms, and most of their business consists of doing background checks. Clients often hire investigators to find who out who’s stealing from them, but they don’t hire them to solve murders. So if the lead character is a private investigator, she’s not going to be solving murders, and most people pick up a mystery expecting to find at least one or two dead bodies lurking in the pages. But this situation actually this works in my favor. I tend to write with a lot of humor and it just didn’t feel right to have characters snarking at each other over breakfast cereal while people are dropping dead all over town. So my cozy mysteries have dead parrots rather than dead people.
- The second problem with using a private investigator as my fictional crime solver is that a competent investigator already has a pretty good idea “whodunit” by the time he or she goes out to a site to investigate. There may be a couple of suspects, but nowhere near the number of red herrings that are required to sustain a good cozy mystery plot. What’s my solution to this problem? I deviate from reality here and have my investigator spend more time “undercover” than a client would realistically pay for.
- A third problem with using a private investigator as my fictional detective is that most investigation work these days is done on the computer. If I write a story where the heroine comes to the office and sits in front of her computer for eight hours, it’s not going to be much fun to read even if I have her associate turn the coffeemaker into a Feng Shui aquarium. My solution to this problem is two-fold. First, I skip over most of the computer stuff. Second, I would have Karen get even with her associate by doing something like covering his motivational posters with banana stickers and sardine labels. It may not advance the plot, but at least it’s a change of pace.
Of course, there are some advantages to using a private investigator. For starters, it gives my heroine a reason to get involved in the first place. I don’t have to make my character a busybody or know-it-all—she gets involved and starts asking questions because that’s her job. And because it’s a new job and she’s not very confident about either her abilities or her status in the firm, her insecurity creates a sense of tension. The job provides her sole source of income and a chance to rebuild her confidence after a disastrous divorce. So if she fails to solve the mystery, that failure would be devastating. While the books are intended to be entertaining and share a Christian message, there is a serious undercurrent about a woman rebuilding her life and sense of self worth.
So while I would not recommend that other writers use professional private investigators as the main character in a cozy mystery novel, I think it works for my offbeat suburban soccer mom mysteries. I hope you agree!
Thanks for reading!
The Karen Maxwell mysteries are available in ebook in all formats through a variety of online retailers. Book three in the series, Roped In, is also available in print through online retailers. The first two books are out-of-print but print copies are available through Authors Den. Click on the covers to learn more about each book: