Please welcome Steve Goble, author of the Spider John mystery series. He’s here with a guest post writing about the perils of writing historical amateur sleuth stories.
The Perils of Writing Historical Amateur Sleuth Stories
By Steve Goble
Of all the varieties of mysteries out there, amateur sleuth stories appeal to me the most.
I think it is the independent nature of the amateur detective I like best; such protagonists can bend or ignore rules that a cop or a licensed detective has to take seriously. It’s easy to identify with an amateur sleuth, too. I’m not a police officer or private investigator, but could I stumble across a mystery at any moment and become a sleuth myself? Of course I could.
So I am not surprised that I ended up writing amateur detective stories. I needed an original protagonist, of course. I didn’t want to write about a news reporter or a cop’s niece or anything like that, but I definitely wanted to write about an investigator unaffiliated with the official long arm of the law.
Once I came up with the notion of a “pirate detective” — Spider John Rush is a decent man who got caught up in a very bad crowd in the 18th Century — I was thrilled. As far as I could tell, no one was writing mystery tales featuring a pirate protagonist.
I thought I had even beaten the age-old bugaboo of amateur detective fiction, the old question of “why do people get murdered everywhere Father Brown goes?”
That would be no issue for me. “Pirates run into mysteries and crimes all the time! There will be no shortage of plot ideas! These stories are practically going to write themselves!”
Of course, as a first-time novelist embarking on a bold venture into literary territory beyond the edges of the map, I should have noted the markings: “Here be monsters!”
I eventually discovered there were many, many things I had not considered, and that my protagonist’s profession posed some problems that Miss Marple and the Hardy Boys were unlikely to face. I present the following stumbling blocks, in hopes that other writers contemplating the amateur sleuth sub-genre will think harder about this stuff than I did before setting sail, and thus save themselves a great deal of bother and time.
FORENSICS? WHAT ARE FORENSICS? — Spider John’s sleuthing career begins off the American Colonial coast in 1722. Now, a historical mystery does not inherently exclude the use of science to suss out the killer, of course. Brother Cadfael uses his knowledge of plants, medicines and battle wounds to connect culprits and crimes all the time, and he did his detective work in the 12th Century, long before Spider’s day. But Spider, like a good many people of his time, is not literate, and there are no encyclopedias or monographs on various tobaccos available in the stores of a typical pirate ship, anyway. And in Spider’s day, flintlock pistols did not have serial numbers. Spider could not get on the phone to call his friend who works at the morgue to ask questions about rigor mortis or strange powders.
This means Spider has no scientific resources or databases to confirm his suspicions. He might think that pewter flask from the crime scene belongs to a particular suspect, but he’s never going to be able to confirm it with fingerprints or a store receipt. He can’t check the compasses and sextants aboard for digital metadata to pinpoint the ship’s location at a specific time in the past. Spider has to figure things out the hard way. That means I have to, as well.
PESKY QUESTIONS — Amateur sleuths ask questions, of course, and that can be quite annoying to someone who is hiding a body in an old refrigerator or who recently tossed incriminating documents into the fireplace. Generally speaking, though, the people Jessica Fletcher questions are still pretending to be members of polite society. Sure, they might find her interrogations pesky and inconvenient, and they might slip something deadly into her tea or lure her into a death trap at some future point. Such predicaments tend to develop slowly, however, and Jessica has time to figure things out and live to sleuth another day.
If Spider John goes around being nosy, the risk is very immediate. He’s asking questions among pirates who kill and maim people for a living. They are carrying guns and knives and cutlasses and will likely just go ahead and kill him right there and then, in front of cheering witnesses. Time to think? Nah. Spider’s interrogations must be handled much more delicately than those of the average amateur detective.
TRAVEL PLANS — When Travis McGee wants to trace the past movements of someone in L.A., he gets on a plane and leaves Fort Lauderdale. That freedom is quite handy for a detective. When Spider wants to check records at the Admiralty to see if that old Royal Navy surgeon really is an old Royal Navy surgeon, he … can’t. He’s on a ship that goes where it is going to go no matter what Spider desires. Even when he’s on land, he has to be constantly wary of lawmen, and he usually can’t afford to hire a coach. He does a lot of slow walking from one point to another. And I can’t tell you how many times I wished Spider could just call the Bahamas to confirm a minor detail.
ONCE A PIRATE DETECTIVE CATCHES THE BAD GUY, THEN WHAT? — It very quickly dawned on me that Spider John would never, ever be able to just tell his cop buddies whodunit and let them drag the villain off to jail. No, no, no. Spider John never wanted to be a pirate, but he got trapped in that life and his hands are not clean. The last thing Spider ever wants to do is get close enough to an officer of the law to risk being caught. Simon Templar can just tip off Chief Inspector Teal, but Spider has to both dispense justice and plan his own getaway. It complicates things, to say the least. I now know why Ellery Queen worked with his veteran cop father so often. Mighty handy, that.
Those are just a few of the pitfalls I failed to consider before I started poking at the keyboard to chronicle the adventures of Spider John. I hope you will learn from my experience before you begin writing your own amateur sleuth series about a mute French scribe in the 1400s or a Salem witch wandering around colonial Boston to find serial killers. And I do dearly, sincerely hope somebody does write those …
I should point out, though, that there are some advantages to writing about a buccaneer detective. When Spider wants someone to answer a question, by thunder, a flintlock under the chin is quite the incentive. That’s seldom an option for Father Brown.
A Bottle of Rum
“A twisty, suspenseful story full of murder and—unexpectedly—of friendship, A BOTTLE OF RUM is a darkly funny, bloody good time.” — Kristen Lepionka, Shamus and Goldie Award-winning author of the Roxane Weary mystery series
“A Bottle Of Rum entertains from the first knife thrust to the final explosion. Goble’s mystery-solving pirate, Spider John, comes ashore in his latest adventure, but the swashbuckler’s trademark ingenuity, loyalty and mind-boggling profanities are on full and dazzling display as always.” — Andrew Welsh-Huggins, editor, Columbus Noir and author, the Andy Hayes private eye series.
August, 1723 — Spider John Rush believes he has escaped piracy forever. Enjoying rum and chess in a dark Lymington tavern, he dreams of finding passage to Nantucket to reunite with his beloved Em and to finally get to know the son he remembers only as a babe in arms, though the lad must be dreaming of going to sea himself by now. But when a lazy taverner is stabbed to death, one glance at the victim tells Spider the pirate life has followed him ashore and he cannot possibly ignore this bloody crime. The wise maneuver would be to run before authorities arrive, but Spider is denied that choice because he’s already deeply, connected to the crime—he fashioned the murder weapon with his own hands.
The knife was a gift to a young man, one who ran off with the notorious Anne Bonny before Spider could drag him into a respectable life.
Soon, Spider John and his ancient shipmate Odin are dodging accusations and battling smugglers on a trail that leads to a madhouse where patients are dying one by one. Spider finds himself tangling with a horribly maimed former shipmate, vengeful pirates, a gun-wielding brunette, a death-obsessed young woman, a sneaky farmhand and a philosopher engaged in frightening experiments. But death seems to be winning at Pryor Pond, and the next life lost may be the one Spider desperately wants to save.
Spider must brave sharp steel, musket balls, gunpowder bombs, dangerous women and gruesome surgery if he is to find his foolish young friend alive and try once again to put piracy in their past.
Series: A Spider John Mystery #3
Published by: Seventh Street Books — November 12, 2019