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Karen McCullough: What Makes a Good Detective in a Mystery?

karen_mccullough_2015_200I love a good mystery. Cozy, noir, amateur detective, police procedural, whatever the form, I’ll enjoy it as long as it’s well written, tells a good story, has interesting characters, and plays fair with the reader. A good villain is a cherry on top of the sundae. But even though most mysteries are built on the plot, they still tend to sink or swim on the appeal of the main character, who is usually the detective or at least the person who attempts to solve the crime.

Detectives come in every size, shape, gender, nationality, race, age, and abilities. For some it’s their job, for others it’s a calling, and some of them get pushed into the role by circumstances. The gamut runs from Nero Wolfe to Miss Marple, Precious Ramotswe to Mike Hammer, Hercule Poirot to V.I . Warshawski, Sherlock Holmes to Nancy Drew. It includes pretty much every sub-grouping of human beings imaginable. But not every character makes a good detective.

Obviously a good detective needs to be reasonably intelligent, curious, observant, and motivated to set things right, though the reasons can vary. The detective has to be willing to work at solving the mystery, gathering evidence, talking to people, researching history and doing whatever else is necessary to get answers. They may be initially resistant to the job, but once they’re in, they’re all in to do the job right. We expect that a detective will work to find the solution and get to it by his or her own efforts, not by having the answer fall into his lap.

But those are kind of bottom-line things. I’m more interested in what makes a fictional detective particularly intriguing to readers, one that brings readers back book after book. What is it about a character that keeps people wanting to spend more time in his or her company?

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about all the mystery novels I’ve read and trying to come up with characteristics my favorite protagonists share. But I’m not coming up with much. In fact, they are all so different I can’t figure out much of anything they have in common. Here are the couple of traits I’ve thought of.

They are all highly motivated to solve the crime or figure out the mystery. They need to resolve it. Whether it’s a passion for justice, pride in doing their job well, or just a dedication to the truth, they pursue the quest until the situation is resolved. And they all seem to have some kind of personal problems, quirks, or defects that interact (and sometimes get in the way of) their need to solve the mystery. On further thought, that’s mostly called being human which isn’t all that much help.

agfm_v2_200I started thinking about this question a few days ago when I read a series of mysteries that all failed to intrigue me very much. Some were indie-published and some were from the best-known NY publisher of cozy mysteries. All were decently written and plotted. What they had in common were protagonists so bland and forgettable I had trouble remembering who they were even while I was reading the story.

After all this, my bottom line is: I can’t really point to anything more definite about detectives I (and many others) remember other than that they’re all…memorable. Each in his or her own way is unique, different enough but also intriguing enough that they keep bringing us back to spend more time in their presence. They never fail to entertain us.

Karen McCullough is the author of a dozen published novels and novellas in the mystery, romantic suspense, and fantasy genres as well. She has won numerous awards, including an Eppie Award for fantasy, and has also been a four-time Eppie finalist, and a finalist in the Daphne, Prism, Dream Realm, Rising Star, Lories, Scarlett Letter, and Vixen Awards contests. Her short fiction has appeared in several anthologies and numerous small press publications in the mystery, fantasy, science fiction, and romance genres. She has three children, six grandchildren (plus one on the way) and lives in Greensboro, NC, with her husband of many years.

 

Website: http://www.kmccullough.com

Blog: http://www.kmccullough/kblog

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/KarenMcCulloughAuthor

Twitter: https://twitter.com/kgmccullough

 

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