Believe In Your Sleuth?

Triss Stein 2Triss Stein is a small–town girl from New York farm country who has spent most of her adult life in New York the city. This gives her the useful double vision of a stranger and a resident for writing mysteries about Brooklyn neighborhoods in her ever-fascinating, ever-changing, ever-challenging adopted home. In the new book, Brooklyn Secrets, Erica find herself immersed in the old and new stories of tough Brownsville, and the choices its young people make.

The amateur sleuth is a long, beloved tradition in the mystery world, going back at least to Jane Marple and probably further. At first thought, it seems easy to write, as the action usually takes place in everyday life – a village, a suburb, a normal workplace, not in the world of gangs, drug dealers, armed thugs.

It might seem easier, but it isn’t. How many times can a sleuth with no professional credentials become involved with crime solving? Once, maybe, in special circumstances, and if the reader is willing to suspend some disbelief. (It is the author’s job to make the reader willing). But many times? I just don’t think Jane Marple’s nephew consulting her on police business would be accepted today.

Of course anything at all is possible – this is fiction, after all – but the author has to make it plausible at least for the length of time the reader is immersed in the story.

You see the problem? The author has to keep coming up with connections to each crime. I often think I have it when I don’t. That sad fact shows up when I move from the dreaming-up-ideas stage to the writing-down-the-action stage.

In all the books in this series, there is both a current crime story and a mystery from the past, as my heroine, Erica Donato, a student historian, researches Brooklyn history.

In the first book of the series, Brooklyn Bones, a body is found behind a wall in Erica’s old home. It is a teen-age girl and it was hidden there within living memory. For a historian and the mother of a teen who becomes way too interested in this mysterious lost girl, investigating is a believable choice, isn’t it? In the next book, Brooklyn Graves, the history question comes in a normal way as part of her job, but the murder of a family friend, a man with not a single enemy, does not. They are Russian immigrants, his grieving widow does not trust the police and she begs Erica for help. How could she say no?

In the new book, Brooklyn Secrets, it all became a lot more daunting than the two earlier plots. For my crime writing purposes I may have started in the wrong place. Erica is doing some research into the Brownsville neighborhood, a high-crime, extremely poor area on the edge of the city, which was once home to the violent mob organization, Murder Inc. Visiting the neighborhood for some then-and-now insights, she meets a charming young girl with a promising future. And she is appalled, along with the rest of the city, when that girl turns up a few days later brutally beaten and hanging onto life by a thread.

Brooklyn SecretsBut what could bring Erica back into that crime, back to Brownsville, back into the action? She has absolutely no reason to return, let alone become involved. Then she sees the mother of the young girl on a tv press conference, outspoken, insisting someone knows what happened to her daughter and demanding they come forward. And she realizes she knows her. Or knew her slightly, years ago, when they were both young mothers taking the bus to Brooklyn College to continue their education. They weren’t friends, barely even acquaintances, but Erica responds mother to mother and sends a note: how can I help?

And that is how she is pulled deeply into the Brownsville of the here-and-now, while she is also researching life in the Brownsville of back then, in the not-so-good old days. Did I make it work? An outsider, could I write about this complex neighborhood, modern Brownsville, and get it right? Could I put Erica there in the middle of the action and make it seem, even briefly, believable?

Readers, what do you think about amateur sleuths? Can you just accept any plot, because after all, it’s all a story? It doesn’t have to be realistic. Or does it have to make some kind of sense for you to enjoy it?