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Eight of the Most Unlikely Amateur Sleuths in Fiction

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Ever since Miss Marple looked up from her knitting needles and solved her first murder, fiction has loved an unconventional amateur detective. From classic children’s adventures with sleuths like Nancy Drew or the Hardy boys, to Richard Osman’s crime solving seniors in The Thursday Murder Club, millions of readers are drawn to the ‘every person’ who finds themselves at the center of a crime.

Part of the reason these books are so popular is that amateur detectives are often more relatable to the reader than a hardened cop with decades of experience. In the absence of any formal training, an accidental investigator is forced to rely on their curiosity, wit and ingenuity to solve the case, and they have to take risks and break the rules in a way a professional never could. They also make the same mistakes you or I might, often with hilarious results.

In my latest novel, Nosy Neighbors, two neighbors-at-war, 77-year-old Dorothy Darling and 25-year-old Kat Bennett, become unlikely allies when their building is threatened with demolition, and even more unlikely amateur sleuths when a fellow resident is violently attacked in his home.

One of the reasons I wanted to write this story was to turn the idea of a ‘nosy neighbor’ on its head. On the surface, Dorothy is a reclusive, cantankerous woman who spends her days spying on her neighbors and complaining about their antisocial behavior. But it’s also this ‘nosiness’ which makes her an excellent amateur detective, as she not only sees everything that’s going on in the building but also knows a huge amount about her neighbors’ lives. What’s more, as a women in her late seventies, Dorothy is routinely dismissed and ignored by those around her, something which she uses to her advantage. No-one suspects a lonely older lady of being a sleuth, and it’s this ‘unlikeliness’ which helps her to not just solve the mystery, but also help her neighbors along the way.

Here are eight other novels featuring brilliantly unexpected amateur detectives.


Vera Wong’s Unsolicited Advice for Murderers by Jesse Q. Sutanto

Vera Wong is a widowed sixty-year-old tea shop owner in San Francisco, who spends her days mixing the perfect tea for her infrequent customers and internet stalking her hapless son to see if he’s dating anyone. When she wakes up one morning to find a dead body in her tea shop, Vera takes it upon herself to catch the killer. Using unconventional techniques—like turning up at a suspect’s house with bags of home-cooked food and inviting herself in for dinner— Vera is utterly unique, charming and hilarious.


Miss Austen Investigates by Jessica Bull

You read that correctly: Jane Austen, author of such classics as Pride and Prejudice and Emma, is also a literary sleuth. In Jessica Bull’s imaginative debut, the year is 1795 and Jane’s brother has been accused of murdering a milliner whose body is discovered in a locked cupboard at a ball. Jane must use her sharp wit and keen powers of observation to navigate society and prove her brother’s innocence, before time runs out and he’s sent to the gallows.


The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

Christopher John Francis Boone is a 15-year-old boy who loves prime numbers, lists and patterns, but hates physical contact and the colour yellow. When he discovers his neighbor’s poodle lying dead in the front garden, Christopher decides to become a detective and mystery writer. But as his investigation into who killed the dog progresses, the mystery becomes more complicated than the boy could have ever imagined. Christoper is one of the most heart-warming and memorable characters you’ll ever have the pleasure of reading.


The Windsor Knot by SJ Bennett

This is another example of an author taking a real-life character and turning them into an unlikely amateur sleuth, and in this case it’s Queen Elizabeth II! In the first book in this fabulous, deeply-affectionate series, the 89-year-old Queen must get to the bottom of a rather grizzly case when a guest at one of her ‘Dine and Sleeps’ is found dead at Windsor Castle. In later novels, SJ Bennett takes us back to earlier cases when the young Elizabeth had only been on the throne for a few years. But in all the books, we see a smart, witty and quick-thinking woman with a secret knack for solving crimes.


Dead, Dead Girls by Nekesa Afia

Louise Lloyd is a young Black gay woman in 1920s Harlem, who spends her days working in a café and her nights dancing at the Zodiac, Harlem’s hottest speakeasy. After she gets into an altercation with a police officer, Louise is given an unusual ultimatum: help the police catch the murderer who’s killing young Black girls in the neighborhood, or go to jail herself. Along the way, Louise has to confront a dark secret from her own past, in this pacy, evocative and chilling mystery that’s the first in an excellent series.


Finlay Donovan is Killing It by Elle Cosimano

Finlay Donovan’s life is not going to plan: her two kids are driving her up the wall, her cheating ex-husband just fired the nanny without telling her, and she’s late delivering her new mystery novel to her agent. Things get a whole lot more complicated when she’s overheard describing the novel’s plot to her agent and is mistaken for a contract killer. Finlay is a chaotic but wonderfully relatable character, and the plot zips along at lightning speed in this brilliantly zany comedy mystery.


Arsenic and Adobo by Mia P. Manansala

Lila Macapagal has recently broken up with her boyfriend and moved back home to save her family’s failing restaurant. But when a nasty food critic (and Lila’s ex) dies eating a dish in the restaurant, Lila becomes the prime suspect. Aided  by her hilariously interfering aunties and her adorable dachshund, Longanisa, Lila turns detective to clear her name. This book is not only funny and charming, but will leave you salivating for the delicious Filipino food descriptions.


The Miss Marple novels by Agatha Christie

An unworldly, fluttering English pensioner who likes gardening and bird watching might seem like an unusual crime-fighter, but in Agatha Christie’s own words, ‘there is no detective in England equal to a spinster lady of uncertain age with plenty of time on her hands.’ A lifetime spent observing her fellow villagers in Mary St Mead makes Miss Marple an expert on human nature, and she brilliantly uses her sex and age to her advantage, frequently getting clues faster than the police because people tend to underestimate a gossipy older lady and let their guard down around her. Miss Marple is the OG amateur sleuth, and still one of the best.



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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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