1. RightWrite

    RightWrite Member

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    OK to exclude scene disasters and tension buildup for cozy mysteries?

    Discussion in 'Plot Development' started by RightWrite, May 28, 2018.

    I'm writing a cozy mystery similar to Agatha Christie's Manor house cases with a small circle of suspects. Most of the books I've read on the topic of mystery writing stress writing the plot in the format of a series of scenes and sequels. Furthermore, they stress that the writer creates tension from the very beginning and keep heightening the tension with twists and turns, and mainly physical conflicts with the antagonist until the ending in which the tension peaks.

    I find writing in scenes and sequels for a mystery, especially a cozy mystery, counter intuitive. I want my detective to approach the case and solve it in a creative, smart, and productive manner. I can't see myself writing scenes with disasters when the detective should focus on the intellectual aspects of solving the crime. The crime should be a challenge to the reader as a satisfying exercise in logical thinking. Also, there should be no room for break neck action and rising tension in which the detective is beat up or barriers are placed in his tracks all the time. The same goes for romantic subplots. I want to avoid this too.

    So, is it OK, acceptable, or common for cozy mystery writers to exclude writing scenes that feature conflicts and disasters? Is it OK to exclude the process of progressively making the tension worse to the end or even excluding tension all together? Of course, I know I should make the scenes interesting enough to make the reader want to continue reading the story. So, I want to write a mystery that offers the reader a satisfying opportunity to engage in a pure exercise of solving a crime using logical thinking without being distracted by unnecessary tension, disasters, and subplot dramas.
     
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  2. GlitterRain7

    GlitterRain7 Galaxy Girl Contributor

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    I don't write mystery, so I may be completely wrong, but couldn't you start the book at the "aftermath" scene, so the disaster is over with? You know, the detective arriving after the body is found and the crime tape and police are there? As for the rest of the book and disasters, I think it really depends on what you define as a "disaster." I mean, your detective might lose a piece of important evidence. Is that what you consider a disaster? Is that what you want to avoid? I think something like that would almost be expected to keep the reader reading, that tension, that "Ohh where did it go? Did someone steal it?" type of thing. If by disaster you mean, "should the town catch on fire and kill a bunch of people," I don't think that's necessary. Unless, of course, the plot calls for that.
    As for conflicts, well, I think there's always some conflict in books, no matter what. People like conflict. No one wants to read a book a book about the status quo, and I don't think there's really any books that do that. I guess it really depends on what you're defining as "conflict." Romantic subplots I do not believe are necessary in mystery, so I think you can safely exclude that if you wish. The action and rising tension? I don't know. You might be able to get out of a "boss battle" or something to that extent, but I think you have to have rising tension.
     
  3. jannert

    jannert Who? Whooo? Staff Supporter Contributor

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    In short, yes. It's not only possible but perhaps even recommended, not to write too much sturm and drang into a cosy mystery. In general, people don't read cosy mysteries for conflict and disasters. They are mainly interested in whodunnit. Many of these kinds of traditional cosy mysteries are actually quite matter-of-fact in tone.

    My mother in law was a cosy mystery fantatic. What she wanted to do was SOLVE the mystery. It was like a game of Cluedo to her. She wasn't interested in being on the edge of her seat while reading the thing. She wanted to figure out whodunnit and how. The plotting had to be hole-free and clever enough to fool her, for her to enjoy these stories. Murders abounded, of course, but there was always some logical reason for them. Wacko serial killers or psychopaths who killed people just for fun or love of blood and gore didn't figure in these stories.

    The trick behind a cosy mystery is figuring out a) why the murderer would want to kill that particular person, and b) how they managed to pull it off and get away with the deed. Of course this often meant they had to kill more people, just to keep themselves from getting caught. But there was always that element of logic, and a logical reason why other people also had to die. The murderers usually turned out to be people who lived right in the same community as the detectives (official or unoffical) and hung out in the same social circles. They were people you 'knew' and usually initially trusted.

    I used to read Agatha Christie mysteries when I was young, growing up in the USA ...not for the excitement, but for the local colour, which to me at the time, was exotic 'midcentury' England. I didn't really care whodunnit, but I didn't want some heavy-duty excitement either. I just wanted a window on these 'exotic' lives.

    For conflict and other kinds of excitement, I used to read Mary Stewart. Often, in Mary Stewart's books, we know right at the start who the villain was, and the story is about how that villain gets brought down. Mary Stewart was considered more of a Romance writer, and she is credited with being the first bestselling Romance author to bring Mystery/Thriller tropes into her stories.

    What modern cosies are like, I couldn't really say. But I suspect the word 'cosy' gives it away. It's a comfortable read, meant to tease your brain cells into solving a puzzle. It's not meant to scare you or get you all emotionally worked-up.
     
    Last edited: May 29, 2018
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  4. Mckk

    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I don't read cosy mysteries really, so my opinion is not so informed. However, I do enjoy watching a good mystery or reading a crime novel.

    Have you read Agatha Christie, since you reference her? How did she break up her books and develop the story? And what about Sherlock Holmes? You should probably delve into British mystery and crime stories, because they're pretty masterful when it comes to the whodunnit genre. That brings another question to mind - what sort of advice have you been reading? Were they British or American in nature?

    The two nations do their crime stories incredibly differently. Americans focus much more on fast pace tension, getting quite cold and gruesome if their crime dramas are anything to go by. Whereas the Brits really focus on the mystery aspect, the lonely, quiet atmosphere where the quirky detective is the star of the show. Are you sure you haven't been reading American advice when what you wanna go for is more English in nature/style? British crime goes a lot slower - you really have to think and focus. Whereas the Americans throw in all kinds of drama - family stuff, romance stuff, grotesque crime scenes. I remember watching the Sherlock Holmes show with Benedict Cumberbatch and when he visited the crime scene and a shot of the body was shown, it was simply a fully-clothed woman lying on the ground. No blood, no dramatic music, no flashing lights. (yet this went so much against the grain of what I've got used to in crime dramas that it was the mundane that stood out to me, and made it that much better. By contrast I cannot tell you how a single American crime scene looks, despite having consumed a large amount of it) This lack of artificial drama is definitely NOT the case when you look at American crime drama.

    If your crime and the method are interesting, creative enough, it's true disasters are probably unnecessary for the readers to engage. Also if your detective is interesting enough. Again, bear in mind I haven't really read any cosy mysteries myself, but to my knowledge, Miss Marple is an old, retired lady who enjoys knitting, right? Sherlock Holmes is this antisocial genius and a pedantic. When I watched the remake of Murder on the Orient Express recently, Detective Poirot was far from ordinary. There's something immensely clever about them.

    The only other character I can think of that was similar was probably L from Death Note, but story-wise the anime took a turn to the extreme - but that's because it's Japanese in nature.

    I'd rather study books you want to emulate. Forget generic advice on how to write this genre from the internet. Look at the books you have read and loved and whom you want to learn from. How did they heighten tension without throwing in all the flashy drama? How did they keep things interesting? What made their detectives and their crime so intriguing that you just had to read on? If you can break down how these authors did it, then you can probably replicate it and see for yourself what are the key ingredients, and then throw in your own spin on things. After all, while there are worse things to be than to be the next Agatha Christie, you wanna be you ;)
     
    Last edited: May 29, 2018
  5. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    I feel that perhaps the advice you’re referring to should be read more flexibly. In Agatha Christie’s Sleeping Murder, I would argue that Gemma’s slow discoveries about her new house qualified as increasing tension, and the discovery of the wallpaper as the “disaster” category. Then her reaction at the theater was the second disaster.
     
  6. Edward M. Grant

    Edward M. Grant Contributor Contributor

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    Tension doesn't have to mean people getting stabbed, or bombs exploding. Cozy mysteries typically start with thousands of words, sometimes many chapters, of cozy setup before someone gets bumped off. That doesn't mean you can't have tension and conflict in there.

    It's not a book, but I was watching an episode of the Midsomer Murders show on Netflix a couple of weeks ago, and there was a whole bunch of setup before anyone got killed, about a group of travellers arriving in the village. That introduced a lot of conflict between the villagers and travellers and tension about what was going to happen, because there was a lot of animosity between the two groups.

    Heck, it could be something as simple as who's going to win the best cucumber prize at the village show. Then someone's cucumber is stolen from their back yard, and now everyone's camped out there at night to make sure it doesn't happen to them.

    And that eventually becomes a big part of the solution to the murder :).

    Having lived in English villages, I'm actually thinking of writing a cozy mystery after I finish this blood-and-guts werewolf novel. Or maybe writing the sequel in that style.
     
  7. RightWrite

    RightWrite Member

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    Thank you everyone for your replies. Sorry for the delay in responding. I was busy with family matters.

    By disaster, I mean something horrible happening to the main character/detective or the main character in the scene. As for conflicts, I was referring to unneeded human drama. I want to focus on the reader having an opportunity to solve the crime with pure logic without the mumbo jumbo associated with everyday human drama.

    Everything you said resonates quite well with what I want to achieve. So I take it that cozy mysteries and the term "whodunnit mysteries" are synonymous. In that case, what I am after is writing a whodunnit in the cozy mystery tradition, especially in the traditional style of cozy mysteries like that of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot or Doyle's Sherlock Holmes.

    Oh my god! You hit nail on the head. What I've been reading and taking advice from was through American sources. Well, then that explains why I've been distinctly dissatisfied with all the drama, fast pace tension, romance, physical confrontations, etc. that they advocate so much for. So, that means I should focus on British style cozy mysteries/whodunnits. From your description of British cozy mysteries, it definitely seems like the mystery I want to write. I want to create a distinct, unique and personal brand of cozy mysteries in the tradition similar to Agatha Christie or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I have lots of creative ideas. Yes, I have read Agatha Christie's Poirot and Doyle's Holmes. They are both my idols so to speak :). I particularly enjoy the absence of heavy tension, drama, romance, etc. in her Hercule Poirot books. For me her novels and short stories serve as an exercise in pure logical thinking in the process of solving a crime along side the sleuth. Which instructional books etc would you recommend that I read? Also, is the classic whodunnit/cozy mystery popular in the U.S.?

    I'll definitely take these suggestions into consideration. Thanks.
     
    Last edited: Jun 21, 2018
  8. jannert

    jannert Who? Whooo? Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Here's a link that might give you a few ideas. It's interesting to read that the cosy mystery has moved on a little bit from Christie, etc. http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/4-things-you-should-know-about-writing-a-cozy-mystery-novel

    I do take some exception to the idea expressed in the article that one main thing setting a cosy apart from other types of mystery novels is the absence of sex and violence. Cosy mysteries may well lack these elements, but it's not out of prudishness. It's because they provide an intellectual experience rather than an emotional one.

    The driving force behind these stories is the desire for the reader to solve the mystery, using the clues the writers give them. So the blood and gore doesn't matter. It's who did the crime and why that counts.

    Here's the kicker. Readers try really hard to solve these mysteries as they read, but are much happier if they can't! If you make the solution too obvious, the readers won't enjoy your books. So ...it's a bit of a technical feat to manage expectations that way.

    Christie solved this problem by setting up SO many people who could have committed the crime and had motives to do so, that it was difficult to choose between them. Red herrings abound in her books. The criminal usually ended up being somebody you thought was above suspicion (which was hard to pull off) or it was somebody whom you did suspect all along, but the method they used and their motivation was something you hadn't thought of. She was also fond of combining criminals, so that several people contributed to the murder, and were connected to each other in ways that only became apparent as the story drew to a conclusion.

    Keep in mind, the reader wants to be challenged, but at the end they also want to be surprised. However, they don't want to be annoyed. So you must include all the relevant clues within the story so the reader COULD have solved the mystery—if they had been able to see the tree rather than the forest. It's not considered kosher to hold vital clues back.
     
    Last edited: Jun 21, 2018
  9. mashers

    mashers Contributor Contributor Community Volunteer

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    I think there's a compromise between a story which is full of heightened tension and dramatic scenes, and one which is totally 'safe' and 'cosy'. The drama can come from within the characters and their perceptions and motivations, even if it isn't played out in their actions or the events of the story. I think a really good example of this is the TV show House. In several episodes, the patient has actually already died. There is no time limit to find the diagnosis and identify the treatment. Nothing will happen if they don't solve the mystery of why they died. It's already over. But the tension and the drama comes from House's need to know, and his dissatisfaction with not being able to solve the mystery. So even though the patient is already dead, the viewer is still desperate for the diagnosis to be made, because they want House's need to know to be satisfied.

    In the case of a murder mystery, you could have tension within your main character (who is, presumably, the one investigating the crime). Perhaps he/she is obsessed with finding the truth, and cannot leave a mystery unsolved. Every time they think they get close to the truth and are foiled in their attempt to solve the mystery, their frustration and inner tension increases. Perhaps they become more desperate, and the lengths they will go to to get to the truth are further. Maybe they become less moral in their investigation out of ruthless desperation to uncover the truth.

    One thing I would add is that it's probably quite unrealistic for there to be no actual tension in this kind of scenario. If you were inside a big mansion in the middle of the night during a massive storm or whatever, with no way to leave, and you know that somebody in that house was murdering people, you wouldn't be swanning around wearing fur, drinking brandy by the fire and listening to Verdi. You'd be packing your shit, arming yourself with a poker, and getting the hell out of there. Having said all that, I do realise there is escapism and appeal in the 'cosy mystery' where everybody is mysterious and enigmatic and glamorous.
     
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  10. jannert

    jannert Who? Whooo? Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Those are good points. I have been trying to remember what kept me reading Agatha Christie. Of course when I read them, I was still living in my home state of Michigan. I found her twee English village scenario quite exotic and fascinating. Most of the stories took place in the 30s, 40s and 50s, so they were also somewhat historical by the time I read them, so that, too, was a draw for me.

    I have to say I never tried to solve the mysteries. That exercise didn't interest me at all. (In fact, very occasionally, I skipped ahead to find out whodunnit so I could simply enjoy reading the rest of the story. That quirk of mine made me aware of the tricks she employed to fool us.) I just read her books for their story value and local colour.

    I think Agatha Christie's personal focus was on 'normal' criminality. How the potential for murder lurks among us, and who knows who might be motivated enough to pull one off, eh? Sometimes her murderers are evil people, who have killed before and will kill again—mostly to protect themselves from being caught. Other times the murder has a specific purpose ...to get rid of a particular person for a logical or emotional reason. But what all these killers have in common is their ordinary nature, and the personal nature of the crimes they commit. They are never faceless outsiders. They are always people everybody thought they knew well.

    Her guilty characters usually appeared to be one thing, when they obviously had layers to their character that were not obvious at all. Their personal histories often played a part in their urge to commit crime as well. Several things appeared frequently in Christie's stories - adopted children, secret relationships, the return of a long-lost relative, etc.

    What is odd for me is that I read every single Christie mystery that she wrote, and many of them several times. But I never didn't read other mystery writers much at all. I still don't. I do think, upon reflection, that it was Christie's local colour I really enjoyed. However, I do appreciate her skill in creating effective puzzles. She was pretty unstoppable at that. Her formula of creating umpteen plausible suspects has become standard for most other mystery writers.
     
    Last edited: Jun 21, 2018
  11. mashers

    mashers Contributor Contributor Community Volunteer

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    @jannert
    I think in any good mystery, the audience should be curious about the truth, but not want to solve it themselves - they should want the person investigating to solve it and for it to be revealed that way. It shows that the audience has identified with the investigator and recognised their need to solve the problem for themselves.

    I don't read or watch fiction which is specifically a mystery. But I think mystery is a feature of all good fiction. If there's no mystery, there's nothing to discover.
     
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  12. jannert

    jannert Who? Whooo? Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Yes, you are right about many people who read mysteries including me.

    However, I did live with a mother-in-law who actively attempted to solve every mystery she read. She would even make notes and diagrams as she was reading. Solving the mystery was definitely the reason she read them. Ditto watching murder mysteries on TV. She was never a fan of Columbo, because she didn't like knowing who had committed the crime beforehand. She liked Murder She Wrote instead.

    So yeah, these kinds of readers certainly do exist. (My own mother was similar with the Agatha Christie mysteries. She used to get angry when she couldn't solve one—Christie CHEATED—and contemptuous when she did. Sigh....)
     
  13. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    If you haven't read them, and you happen to have a craving, I would recommend Josephine Tey's mysteries to someone who likes Agatha Christie but doesn't like mysteries.

    Also some of Robert Barnard's, but only some. I keep meaning to make a list; it's as if he's two or three different authors, though I'm pretty sure he's really just Robert Barnard. Fete Fatale and Skeleton in the Grass, among others, appeal to the same things that Christie and Tey appeal to. IMO, of course.

    I realize you're not asking for mystery recommendations. I can't help it. :)

    Although! Hey, @RightWrite, Robert Barnard's cozier mysteries also seem relevant to your question.
     
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  14. jannert

    jannert Who? Whooo? Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Actually, I think I have read Josephine Tey at some point in my life. I'll have a look over her titles. What did you think would appeal to me about her work, seeing as how I'm not really fond of mysteries. Does she also do local colour as well?

    Robert Barnard. I'll have a look. I believe you once recommended Rumer Godden to me, and I really liked the stories I read as a consequence. Maybe we have somewhat compatible reading tastes? :)
     
  15. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    I'm debating Josephine Tey and local color. I think so. When I think about her books, I think mostly about the characters and the relationships, but the setting is certainly very much present. I would argue that her mysteries are really just very good character novels that happen to have crime or murder to highlight the characters and relationships, as opposed to highlighting them with something else.

    Robert Barnard has some books that are rather distant and satirical (Death of a Perfect Mother is one), and some that are much closer and more like a cozy and also have that character-novel appeal--like the two I mentioned. Oh, Masters of the House is another of his cozy ones. And Out of the Blackout. And... well, anyway. Come to think of it, he probably offers more local color than Josephine Tey, if only because in the novels that reach back into recent (early to mid 20th century) history, I think he's more aware of it--Josephine Tey was in the time she's writing about.

    I think of Robert Barnard when I think of Josephine Tey because he wrote a foreward for the most recent printings of her books.

    Rumer Godden! Yay! Maybe we do.
     
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  16. Edward M. Grant

    Edward M. Grant Contributor Contributor

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    Pedantically speaking, it does matter to the cozy audience. They don't want to see the blood and gore, so they'll throw your book at the wall if you start off a cozy mystery and then throw in a gorey scene of bloody murder in chapter ten.

    That's why the usual method is to hand out all the clues as you go along, then provide the one last vital piece of information at the end which ties them together and proves whodunnit.
     
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  17. jannert

    jannert Who? Whooo? Staff Supporter Contributor

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    No, sorry, I put that badly. I meant the blood and gore doesn't matter to the story, when it's a cozy. It's often a small hole in the chest, or poison that doesn't really leave a mark. The murders in a cozy mystery are often very neat.
     
  18. jannert

    jannert Who? Whooo? Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I just visited Amazon and got sidetracked a bit ...and ordered Josephine Tey's novel about Richard III instead of a mystery! Can't resist good historical novels. Also ordered "In This House of Brede," which I've been meaning to read for ages.
     
  19. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    Unless she wrote two books about Richard III, it's also a mystery. :) (Daughter of Time, right?) The main character is her usual series detective. It's just that the murders happened a long, looooong time ago.
     
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  20. jannert

    jannert Who? Whooo? Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Yep, that's the one. I didn't realise it was a 'mystery' other than the fact that we all know it's a mystery, if that makes sense. Burble burble burble...
     
  21. RightWrite

    RightWrite Member

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    These are good points and are on par with what I've been thinking about modern cozies written in the traditional style, but I have some questions:

    In the article that you linked to above, the author says that modern cozy mystery detectives "solve crimes with old-fashioned detective work rather than forensics". First, what does the author mean by "old fashioned detective work"? Does it refer to the act of approaching and solving a crime through pure logical thinking in which clues, suspects, alibis, and information from police are abundant or trapping a suspected murderer with a clever approach? Also, in this same quote it says they solve crimes without forensics. Wasn't Sherlock Holmes guilty of conducting forensic detective work with his chemical laboratory equipment in his apartment in Baker Street? How about Poirot? In the "Mysterious Affair at Styles", Poirot consults a chemist to do a chemical test which provides the vital clue which helps him identify the killer. So, are modern cozies in the traditional style completely devoid of forensics work or are they conservatively/occasionally sprinkled with them?

    I also noticed the following excerpt from the article: "The pacing of cozies has changed over the years. While detection is still at the heart of the story, that plot must move along with more driving action than the genre used to demand. Today’s readers aren’t content to simply follow along while a sleuth interviews suspects in hopes of solving a crime; they want to feel compelled to keep turning pages long after bedtime." What does the author mean by "more driving action"?

    These are also good points. I'll definitely keep this in mind.

    I'll checkout Robert Barnard's cozy mysteries. Thanks.
     
    Last edited: Jun 24, 2018
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  22. jannert

    jannert Who? Whooo? Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I have no idea exactly what they meant by 'more driving action.' Perhaps they meant a little quiet village with a vicarage isn't quite the setting folks want any more. I don't know. That remark puzzled me as well.

    As far as the forensic angle ...I think today's less-cozy mysteries tend to revolve around demented serial killers and other psychopathic characters ...whose murders aren't particularly logical, although they may follow a pattern. Therefore the focus is more on catching the character using bait, traps, etc, rather than figuring out how and why the crime was committed. In a cozy mystery, there often isn't an obvious pattern to multiple murders. The trick is eventually seeing a pattern, which requires learning about the victims themselves and uncovering possible connections to each other.

    Forensics abound in police procedural stories. However, cozy mysteries with a non-professional 'detective' won't have access to forensics will they? So they'll need to be able to put two and two together the old fashioned way.

    I can't imagine how you could incorporate forensics into a story where your detective is an amateur who does not have access to modern things like DNA results.
     
    Last edited: Jun 25, 2018
  23. RightWrite

    RightWrite Member

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    What if the amateur detective had a police friend that has access to forensic information to share with the detective. Wouldn't that allow the detective to incorporate forensic information into his or her investigations?

    Also, in my opinion, the amateur detective having access to forensic information like DNA results would basically nullify all his mental efforts to solve the crime as it would be as simple as matching or not matching the DNA with the suspects. In other words, all that is required is to verify if each suspect's DNA matches with the DNA found at the crime scene and you either prove them guilty or not based on this alone which I think is a major hindrance to the classic whodunit style method of solving a crime that is typical of cozy mysteries. What do you think?
     
    Last edited: Nov 21, 2018
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  24. jannert

    jannert Who? Whooo? Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Yeah, a 'friend' would be one way to do this. And it's certainly been done. But there is another issue with that one ...the amateur detective may want to thwart accepted procedure, but I suspect it's against the law for workers in the forensic industry to reveal DNA information, etc. So these people would be putting their jobs on the line, if nothing else.

    I think an amateur detective works best when he or she is the person who figures out who committed a crime. He or she may not have access to DNA evidence, fingerprints, etc. That will be up to prosecutors to provide, etc. But I see no reason why an amateur couldn't put the police on the right track, etc, using old-fashioned thinking and probing into motive and opportunity. That requires logic, alibi checking, knowledge of the people involved, etc.

    Modern forensics doesn't 'solve' crimes. It can provide proof at a very high level of accuracy. But detectives still need to think their way through who might be a suspect, who had a motive, and work through the scene of the crime and the possibilities. Once you zero in on a suspect, THEN the forensics comes into play and their guilt can often be proved or disproved. But the initial whodunnitry still has to happen. And there are LOTS of unsolved crimes out there to be getting on with. Forensics isn't the total answer to solving crimes. People solve crimes.
     
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  25. RightWrite

    RightWrite Member

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    Sorry if I seem to be probing the issue too deeply, but what do you mean by "the amateur detective may want to thwart accepted procedure"? Why would they want to thwart accepted procedure? And I don't think it's against the law in all countries and localities for workers in the forensic industry to reveal DNA information, right? Just a thought.
     
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