The Case of the Foolish Protagonist

Monday, February 22, 2016

Why do so many female cozy mystery writers insist on demeaning their own sex by creating a protagonist who does rash things that put her in danger? That’s the fastest way to make me abandon the story. Yes, some females are foolish, and so are some males. But don’t glorify that foolishness by making it the preeminent characteristic of a protagonist I’m supposed to admire.

As a teenager, I was an avid mystery fan. I read detective stories like Ellery Queen and Nero Wolfe and police procedurals like the 87th Precinct books by Ed McBain. And at a time when money was tight in my family, I even had a subscription to the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. But my all-time favorite mystery writer was—and is—Agatha Christie.

I like puzzles, not chases. Whodunits, not thrillers. P.D. James, not John Grisham. And for me, the best mysteries include the characters’ psychology as part of the puzzle.

That’s one of the reasons I like Agatha Christie so much. The solution arises inevitably out of the murderer’s inner character, and sometimes out of the victim’s character as well. Even if I know who did it from the beginning (as I do now that I have read each book several times), I always enjoy that exploration.

But none of the books I enjoy have a protagonist who does stupid things.

Ellery Queen and Nero Wolfe and Hercule Poirot all fall into their mysteries naturally. Because they are professional detectives/private eyes, people bring cases to them. And because they are professionals, they rarely take unnecessary risks. The Miss Marple books start differently. Her involvement in so many murders is an epic coincidence. But once you get beyond that, the rest of the story follows naturally from the situation and the characters.

More importantly for my point, like the detectives mentioned above, Miss Marple doesn’t take unnecessary risks. She listens and silently analyzes the case, comparing the characters involved in the murder to other people she has known, but then she tells her conclusions to the police and lets them take it the rest of the way. She seems such a sweet—although cynical—old lady, that the murderer never realizes she is a danger to him.

Cozies with foolish protagonists may be popular in the short run, but they will never last the way Agatha Christie’s works have.

And I’m glad about that.

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