The Scientist as Amateur Sleuth

I know it appeals to the popular imagination, but I just don’t buy the premise of a popular form of murder mystery, what I call the “amateur sleuth concept.”  The idea’s very simple.  The main character is anything but a detective – librarian, architect, chemistry professor or graduate student.  Then murder strikes in a place that is part of his or her life.  As the police bumble around getting it all wrong (usually), the protagonist works out who the culprit is and typically, to raise the stakes I guess, must find a way to catch him or her.   Going after the killer in person involves certain risks, but again the protagonist courageously (and very foolishly) takes those risks, and in some clever way, brings him to justice, mostly without the cops.  Usually the amateur detective is either smarter than the cops are or has specialized knowledge they don’t, or both.

The whole concept is just plain implausible to me.  Are we to believe that the years of training and on-the-job experience law enforcement officers accumulate amount to nothing compared with the genius of an amateur, who is trying to solve his or her first case?  Does it make any sense that the police investigators would ignore any special expertise the protagonist might bring to the specifics of the case?  And most implausible of all, would your average librarian, architect, chemistry professor or graduate student have the skill and stamina to face down and capture someone who has already committed murder?  But I guess that’s part of the appeal of this subgenre.  A reader can identify with a graduate student, and it’s pleasant to imagine oneself being brave and tough enough to survive a beating and still manage to get an ID or foil the perpetrator’s escape.

Too often in the murder mystery solved by the amateur, the victim is not a close friend or family member.  Unraveling the narrative of the murder may give the reader a brief moment of intellectual satisfaction and the capture, and implied punishment that will follow, result in moral smugness.  But no one walks away from the incident with anything that can be used to understand other similar situations or improve some small aspect of the world beyond the end of the story.  Whereas the mysteries scientists tackle as scientists have solutions that are general.  They can be applied to many other similar and related mysteries, and they can lead to improvements in the quality of life and the education or the elimination of suffering and pain.

What I most resent is the way this genre detracts from the excitement of real science.  The scientist doesn’t get any work done while out fighting crime, and anything interesting he or she might discover in his real work pales in comparison to his or her feats as a crime fighter.  Real scientists solve real mysteries, and the answers when they come, are awesome in the original sense of the word – they literally inspire “a feeling of reverential fear or wonder.”  Along with awe may come an appreciation of the elegance and beauty of Nature’s inner reality.

I’m happy to let professionals solve crimes, and the police procedural genre fits my sense of reality much better than the amateur sleuth genre of crime mysteries.  That’s probably because as a reader my focus is  on the big questions, nature’s most challenging mysteries, problems that when solved will change the world as we understand it.

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