Friday, October 2, 2009

Those Meddling Kids

Anyone with any cartoon knowledge knows it is coming. The mask is ripped away revealing that the spooky specter in the episode was…the caretaker… the fisherman… the diner owner?

But whoever the villain was in the Scooby Doo episode, he or she would always boast that they would have gotten away with it—if it weren’t for those meddling kids.

But why should they meddle? In the construction of a cozy mystery, the amateur protagonist needs a motive to take on the case—usually one that does not involve wolfing down Scooby Snacks. He also needs a reason not to just pick up the phone and dial 9-1-1. Generally, in real life, when crime happens, you call the police. You don’t dig out your fingerprint kit and go after the baddies yourself. So why should the cozy detective?

First, the amateur detective needs a reason to get involved. And this generally occurs when the crime touches her personally—but not too personally. Perhaps the protagonist had a passing acquaintance with the victim; perhaps he or she found the body. One word of caution though—if the victim is too close to the sleuth, genuine grief is difficult to write and emotionally draining to read—not necessarily something you desire in light mystery.

Or maybe the detective needs to get involved because he (or someone he cares about) is accused of the crime. If not taken downtown and booked—he is considered enough of a suspect to threaten his reputation, status, or income. In one of Joanne Fluke’s mysteries, Hannah Swensen was motivated to solve the crime that occurred in her cookie shop because the police closed her down when the victim was found there. Hannah needed a place to bake her cookies: sufficient motivation.

Of course, after the amateur has established some credible crime-solving skills, people might then be able to call her in for help, but until then, the author needs to knock off hapless victims in the protagonist’s periphery.

In a true cozy, the amateur sleuth also needs a reason not to leave the investigation solely to the police.

Perhaps the amateur is especially gifted or positioned to be able to solve the crime better than the police. She is in the right place or has exceptional access to the suspects. And then there’s the isolated location, snowstorm, or other natural disaster that keep the police from the scene of the crime.

Or perhaps the police don’t have the resources or experience to carry out an effective investigation. Jessica Fletcher often had to assist small-town sheriff Amos Tupper in “Murder, She Wrote.” But then again, the per capita homicide rate in Cabot Cove would justify a team of crack investigators, their own forensics lab, and martial law. If not incompetent, perhaps the police, or some government official is corrupt and hindering the official investigation. Be forewarned though, cops don’t like it when the police are betrayed as dolts and villains, and the blundering sheriff has become a bit of a cliché.

Or maybe the sleuth is a witness of some sort, but the police will not take her seriously. “I know you’re a nice lady, but there is no sign of a mutilated headless corpse there now. Perhaps you’ve been working too hard.”

Or maybe the death has already been dismissed as an accidental or suicide. Accidental deaths are a great cover for murder and the perfect excuse for an amateur to investigate unhindered by the police. One interesting, but slightly macabre plot-development tool is to scan the headlines for unusual accidental deaths, and then figure out how to murder someone to make it appear like that accident.

But once the amateur is fully involved in the investigation, he may work in tandem with or in opposition to the police. After all, we have a villain to unmask. I’ve got my money on the creepy caretaker.