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Amateur Sleuth

Shawn: I gave you the guy!
Detective Lassiter: He had a partner.
Shawn: I have to find that guy now? I'm confused; when do you start chipping in?
Psych

Character with no formal connection to law enforcement who regularly solves crimes but does not get paid for it.

Often a Mystery Magnet. If so, despite the amazing number and variety of murders that occur wherever he or she happens to be, the Amateur Sleuth is rarely — if ever — suspected of any complicity. This notwithstanding, the possibility that the Amateur Sleuth is in fact a very clever serial killer is a common joking assertion among some viewers. As one stand-up comedian once said of Jessica Fletcher from Murder, She Wrote, "Wherever dat little white woman goes, somebody dies!" Another stand-up comedian remarked that "giving this woman a plane ticket is like giving Manson parole."

The other variety of amateur sleuth acts just like a professional, apart from the minor details of not having police powers, and not being paid to solve crimes. Intrepid Reporters generally fall into this category. This might include a sleuth that would plausibly work with police on a regular basis because of the nature of their job. A typical example of this might be a district attorney or an insurance agent.

One common variety is a retired detective, such as Hercule Poirot or Nick Charles. Other specific varations are the Little Old Lady Investigates, the Kid Detective and the Mystery Writer Detective. Some Hardboiled Detectives will be amateur sleuths, though this is rare. Compare Private Detective.

In literature, amateur sleuths are very frequently Every Man (or more often Every Woman) characters who are nevertheless regarded as very intelligent and charismatic. They are not heroic in the I Was Born Ready sense but are still courageous and prefer brains to brawn (which they are unsuited for anyway). Often it occurs without the character actually stepping forward and assertively taking charge, but only because others simply defer to her because of her natural intelligence and intuition. The amateur sleuth genre is especially known for having a built in readership. One of the things often said about such readers is that they consider themselves more intelligent than the general public at large, and are typically not two-fisted alpha types such as those who commonly become heroes in fiction. There is the expectation from the readers that the protagonist be the type of character that they can see themselves as. Also, a good number of self published and small press mystery authors give their protagonists the same daytime profession as themselves.

Very susceptible to a Busman's Holiday. If female, they also frequently have a Cop Boyfriend.

Examples

    open/close all folders 

    Anime and Manga 
  • Shinichi Kudo from Detective Conan (Case Closed in the US), before he is turned into a schoolboy Kid Detective through a fictional drug.
    • The series actually has several of those, starting with Shinichi's father Yusaku who used to be sleuth and then became a mystery novelist. The one we see the most is Shinichi/Conan's friend Heiji Hattori, the son of a high-ranked policeman who often helps his dad as well as Conan himself. And in fact, there's a short arc named Detectives Koshien which gathers Conan, Heiji, and other three school-aged sleuths (Saaaguru Hakuba, Junya Tokitsu, and Natsuki Koshimizu) for a TV competition between them. Which actually was a trap, since one of the detectives had greatly wronged another... and ended up dead for his trouble.
    • And the aforementioned Saguru Hakuba is the Amateur Sleuth in another series by Gosho Aoyama, Magic Kaito.
  • Subversion: Yagami Light in Death Note — although he used to be an amateur sleuth, he is now a very clever serial killer.
    • Played straight by L, who takes on interesting cases for the challenge.
      • L is a little subverted in that he does accept payment for the cases he solves, particularly under a couple of his other aliases. There's a reason he can afford to build skyscrapers.
  • Jotaro Kujo, of JoJo's Bizarre Adventure. The guy, as far as we know, has never taken a single class on the subject, but repeatedly outwits opponents and discerns the nature of the situation through intuition. Well, that and watching lots of Columbo when he was younger.
  • The titular Psychic Detective Yakumo, a college student who can see dead people.
  • Kyuu Renjou and his friends in Tantei Gakuen Q attend an academy for those.
  • Nishigami of Shindere Shoujo To Kodoku Na Shinigami is rapidly developing into this role.

    Comic Books 
  • The Elongated Man, Ralph Dibney, also emphasizes detection in most of his stories (his name being a play on "The Thin Man"), separating him from the wackiness of Plastic Man (who he started as an Captain Ersatz of) and the grim, Goddamn-Batmanitude of Batman.
  • Francis Albany and Olivia Sturgess.
  • Rorschach from Watchmen. Other superheroes were deputized by the US government eventually but once they were outlawed, they were retired.
    • He's also a subversion, in that he's thoroughly dismissed as a paranoid lunatic. In fact, Ozymandias plays on this paranoia to mislead the other heroes until it's too late.
  • Really, every superhero who isn't officially authorized by the police or government.
    • Capes especially oscillate on this status. Superman is often stated to be specifically deputized by the Metropolis Police Department and the Justice League and The Avengers have at times had official status with the United States or the United Nations, or both but are often independent.
    • Likewise, Batman has been deputized by the Gotham police department. Depending on the version, either it's official or unofficial. In either case, he has received first-rate detective training, making him a professional in all but title.
  • The Sandman; that is, the Golden Age Sandman, not the guy with the dark hair and pale skin.
  • Aside from John Hartigan, every hero in Sin City fits this description since they are not normally professional detectives (although Dwight used to be a PI).
  • Mickey Mouse, believe it or not. Building on traditions from the newspaper strip by Floyd Gottfredson, and the later Mickey/Goofy adventure comics by Paul Murry, Mickey often appears as an Amateur Sleuth in comics, in some stories even being presented as a licensed private eye.

    Fanworks 
  • Discussed in Story of Three Boys. Kurt and Puck (with the help of Finn) go to great lengths to keep their relationship a secret, since Puck isn't out. However, Rachel starts to suspect that something is up with them, and they pretty soon realize that they have to tell her what's going on so that they can ask her to keep quiet about it, before she decides to discuss her suspicions with other people. At this point, Puck starts affectionately calling her Super-Sleuth.

    Film 
  • Brendan Frye, the teenaged protagonist of Brick.
  • Jeffrey Beaumont in Blue Velvet.
  • Insurance agent Barton Keyes in Double Indemnity.
  • In The Ex-Mrs. Bradford, Paula (Jean Arthur) is a mystery writer who does this. Her husband, an M.D. (William Powell) divorced her because she was constantly dragging him into risking life and limb in her real-life cases.
    Hold him, Brad, I'll clunk him! *WHAM!* Ooohhh....

    Literature 
  • Flavia Gemina and her friends in the The Roman Mysteries are KidDetectives and Amateur Sleuths in The Roman Empire.
  • Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, an elderly woman.
  • Margery Allingham's Albert Campion, a mysterious aristocrat driven by his love of adventure. Specialist in fairy stories.
  • Jack Reacher, the character Lee Child's Reacher novels are based around. A freelancing drifter who solves murders, and various other mysteries, living off a payout received at the end of his military days, and money obtained from bad guys or in gratitude for solving cases.
  • Dorothy L. Sayers's:
    • Lord Peter Wimsey, an independently wealthy aristocrat whose hobby is detection; except for once moonlighting as an advertising copywriter, he has never held a job — he's too rich to actually need one.
    • Sayers also wrote a number of short stories featuring a traveling salesman with the unlikely name of Montague Egg; when he's not acting in his capacity as a broker for a London firm of wine merchants, he finds himself occasionally stumbling across crime scenes and offering his common-sense expertise.
  • Nancy Drew, a schoolgirl.
  • The Hardy Boys, schoolboys. (Subverted in the 3rd season of the 1970s tv series in which the Boys so impressed a Justice Department official that they are recruited as professional agents for the organization).
    • In two recent Spin-Off series they're not so amateur anymore. In the Hardy Boys Casefiles, they're recruited into an Interpol-like organization called the Network by an agent known only as the Gray Man who realized they're out for vengeance after Joe's girlfriend Iola is killed by a car bomb. In The Hardy Boys: Undercover Brothers, they're recruited into another organization called ATAC (American Teens Against Crime,) with the in-series justification that teenagers can go places and ask questions that would otherwise made adults looks suspicious.
  • The priest Father Brown, in the Father Brown stories of G.K. Chesterton.
  • Encyclopedia Brown, schoolboy.
  • "Sammy Keyes", teen girl detective in Santa Martina, California.
  • Lawrence Block's Bernie Rhodenbarr is a professional burglar who has a habit of running across murders during his "jobs" - and usually ends up the prime suspect, forcing him to solve the cases in order to exonerate himself.
  • Ellery Queen, created by Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee under the pseudonym "Ellery Queen," is a mystery writer who assists his police chief father on tough cases.
    • The duo also created Shakespearean actor Drury Lane, who took up detecting as a hobby after retiring from the stage.
  • The Happy Hollisters, a family with five children.
  • Although the Trope Codifier Sherlock Holmes has no formal connection to law enforcement and is occasionally referred to as an "amateur" in the stories, he doesn't quite fit this trope since crime-solving is still his primary line of work. And he gets paid for it.
    • He is professionally termed as a "Consulting Detective" and charges fees for his services. He would appear to be what we'd commonly call now a private investigator. Holmes describes himself as an "amateur of crime", using the term in the then-current usage to mean an enthusiast or "lover" of crime, from the latin "amo". He does refer to "remitting his fees entirely" at his discretion, and does so on at least one occasion; there are also occasions where he does not actually solve the crime - the murder of Charles Augustus Milverton, for example, where he colludes in covering the matter up - or there IS no crime, such as "The Man With The Twisted Lip".
  • Amelia Peabody and her husband Radcliffe Emerson are both amateur sleuths who are both Victorian Egyptologists, so that they qualify for Adventurer Archaeologist, not to mention Battle Couple.
  • Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael.
  • Charles Paris, a perennially semi-employed British actor, in a series of books by Simon Brett. He's usually a suspect at some point.
  • Nicholas Bracewell, "bookholder" (stage manager) for an Elizabethan theater company, in a series by Edward Marston.
  • Groucho Marx, Master Detective, by Ron Gulart.
  • Sujata Massey's Rei Shimura is a Japanese-American antique dealer/amateur sleuth. In later books of the series, however, she becomes an official agent for a CIA-wannabe.
  • The Boxcar Children, although being a series aimed at young children, the "crimes" they solve are rarely very serious.
  • Half Moon Investigations, written by Eoin Colfer, involves Fletcher Moon who is a 12-year-old detective. Somewhat of a subversion in that Fletcher is a certified Private Eye, but he is certified in the US and lives in Ireland. (He took an online course.)
  • John Dickson Carr's portly master detective Dr. Gideon Fell, and (under the pseudonym Carter Dickson) Sir Henry Merrivale, the masters of the locked room murder.
  • John Putnam Thatcher, written by Emma Lathen (pseudonym for the writing partnership of Mary Jane Latsis and Martha Henissart), is a Wall Street banker. Supposedly the two chose a banker as their detective because "there is nothing on God's earth a banker can't get into". (Though, if they'd been writing after the banking crisis/recession instead of before .... )
  • Irwin Maurice "Fletch" Fletcher, from Gregory McDonald's series of Fletch novels. As far as is known, he was only ever suspected in Confess, Fletch, and even then not seriously; for five of the books he's an Intrepid Reporter but about halfway through the series goes into semiretirement and is just the guy who happens to be there.
  • Brother William of Baskerville from The Name of the Rose.
  • TKKG from the series of the same name. A group of kids doing investigations.
  • Simon Rattray (Elleston Trevor) wrote a series of mysteries with chess-themed titles about Hugo Bishop. The back covers of the 1980s editions all carried the words, "He's not a cop, nor a private eye. He just shows up to help." He's noted as writing books collectively titled Personality Under Stress, which suggests some sort of psychologist, but he's accustomed to things like finding a bomb in his airplane. He's on a First Name Basis with a Scotland Yard inspector (they're old school chums), and a number of other policemen recognize him with a respectful, "Oh, it's you, Mr. Bishop," and take his orders without much question.
  • The main character of Sarah Caudwell's Hilary Tamar books is an Oxford professor, who is assisted in solving crimes by a quartet of barristers.
  • Trixie, Honey and their friends in the Trixie Belden series.
  • Kate Appleton from Janet Evanovich's Love in a Nutshell
  • Fisk and Michael in the Knight and Rogue Series.
  • Firestar from Warrior Cats went out of his way to solve several crimes in The Original Series, such as Redtail's death and some kit-killings in ShadowClan. Minor character Shrewtooth later tries his paws at it by solving the mystery of Leafstar's lost kits in the SkyClan and the Stranger manga minutes before Leafstar herself worked it out.
  • Lori Shepherd in the Aunt Dimity series, and in some respects, Dimity herself. Lori has some knowledge of old books and manuscripts (which does come in handy from time to time), but she inherited a fortune from Dimity and so no longer must work for a living. When not sleuthing, she oversees a charitable foundation and keeps house for her husband and sons. In life, Dimity wasn't a sleuth either.
  • In The Savannah Reid Mysteries, Savannah (a Private Detective)'s assistant Tammy. Tammy even refers to what they do as "sleuthing", much to Savannah's amusement.
  • Das Fräulein von Scuderi (1819, "Mademoiselle de Scudéri" in English) by E. T. A. Hoffmann is widely seen as the first German crime novella. Here a series of mysterious and brutal murders in Paris in 1680 is solved by real-life court poet Madeleine de Scudéry (1607-1701).
  • Several of Edward D Hoch's series:
    • In the Simon Ark series, Simon claims to be a Coptic priest. Of course, he also claims to be 2000 years old, and searching for works of the devil. What he finds is usually more mundane.
    • The Ben Snow series stars a cowboy drifter in the old west who discovers and solves mysteries.
  • Enough by Donald Westlake. Carey Thorpe is a drama critic who in the novels solves several murders for the police. He himself also murdered someone at the start of the book. He drinks, drops valium, sleeps with other men's wives, and has two children from a previous marriage he does not care about. The book is basically a Deconstruction of the amateur slueth genre.
  • The Mc Gurk Organization in the Mc Gurk Mysteries series of children's books. A group of kids who meet in the Mc Gurk basement and find themselves informally doing the legwork that solves real cases.

    Live Action TV 
  • Jessica Fletcher, a crime author, in Murder, She Wrote.
  • Dr. Mark Sloan, a surgeon, in Diagnosis: Murder, which is also blended with the Medical Drama.
  • Jonathan Creek, a magician's assistant who solves impossible crimes, including the occasional Locked Room Mystery.
  • The Harts (a self-made millionaire and a journalist) in Hart to Hart.
  • One of Tenkaichi's "conditions" from The Conditions of Great Detectives is to be this so the story moves along.
    • In the series finale the serial murderer is killing off fictional amateur sleuths, so he calls the remaining ones to a house so they can be killed one by one.
  • The titular OCD and phobia-ridden detective of Monk does have a somewhat official connection to law enforcement, but murders do happen wherever he goes, which means he's often outside SFPD jurisdiction.
    • Before that he was already solving crimes since junior high.
  • The Winchesters on Supernatural. Their only connection to the law consists of constantly being on the run from it, though occasionally they stumble onto a sympathetic detective who at least doesn't turn them in right away.
  • Dexter, whose adopted father and sister are both official law enforcement officers, but he works only as a technical consultant. It's interesting that in this series, the amateur sleuth actually is a clever serial killer, although his skill at hiding his murders means that he is rarely called to investigate his own crimes. Except, of course, in the second series, when a scuba diver stumbles onto Dexter's underwater burial ground, and the central plot is about the hunt for the "Bay Harbor Butcher" (Dexter) and Dexter's attempts to sabotage the investigation and not get caught.
  • The UCOS squad of New Tricks is composed of retired detectives who, although they investigate unsolved crimes, are not actually official police officers. They actually use this, though, in order to bend the rules that would otherwise constrain serving officers (much to the displeasure of their boss, who is a serving officer).
  • The titular character of Veronica Mars starts out as a semi-amateur sleuth, in that she helps out her father with his case load as a PI while at the same time carrying on her own investigation into her best friend's death (effectively pro bono, as the case is considered solved by the law). Towards the end of the first season, she becomes an unlicensed PI to many of her fellow high school students, digging up information in exchange for cash. In the third season, legally an adult, she passes her test to become a licensed PI. The proposed fourth season which never got off the ground would have ended the amateur part completely, jumping ahead a couple of years for her to become an FBI agent.
  • Angel similarly starts off as a vigilante, eventually branching out into paranormal (and unlicensed) PI work where he sometimes is and isn't paid. The more personal work that becomes the Story Arc for the season is usually free, while the Monster of the Week case often ends up with money changing hands. In the third season, with the birth of his son, he becomes money-obsessed for a short time. This is mostly abandoned by season 5, when he and his group take over Wolfram & Hart's LA branch.
  • Father Dowling of the Father Dowling Mysteries.
  • Ned in Pushing Daisies is the assistant to a private detective, but his proper job and true passion is baking pies.
  • Chance Harper of Strange Luck often wound up in a position to solve crimes, albeit more because of his role as an all-around Weirdness Magnet than a Mystery Magnet. Subverted in that he was just as likely to be in a position to get blamed for a crime he'd have gladly played no part in solving. A freelance photographer by trade, figuring he may as well sell photos of the bizarre shit that's always happening to him.
  • John Smith, the hero of the TV version of The Dead Zone, is just a retired schoolteacher (with lots of money) who's driven to solve crimes and prevent disasters because of the visions he starts getting after waking up from a six-year coma. In the pilot, however, he develops an extremely useful law enforcement connection in the form of his ex-fiancee's new husband, who also happens to be the local sheriff. Throughout the series (until Sheriff Bannerman dies) they constantly trade favors and help each other with their cases.
  • Jonathan on Bored to Death. (He's not good at it.)
  • Mystery writer Richard Castle. (He's very good at it.)
  • Shawn Spencer on Psych originally just used the deduction skills his father taught him since childhood to simply call in tips for the reward money. The police, however, believed from the amount of good info he provided, that he was involved in the majority of crimes he helped solved. Before Shawn can be arrested as an accomplice, he fools them by proclaiming he has psychic abilities. Now to keep the ruse going, Shawn with the help of his best friend Gus must continue aiding the police in various investigations as a paid "psychic consultant". They also accept jobs from private citizens, though usually those tie into police investigations anyway.
  • Charlie Eppes on NUMB3RS. Plausibly justified in his case.
    • Charlie is employed by the FBI as a consultant and he got his start by accident when his FBI agent brother was working a serial killer case. Charlie developed a system that would predict where the killer lives based on where the victims are killed after seeing a map of the locations. He also has sufficient security clearance given his past work with the NSA, which was sufficiently classified that his brother didn't know.
  • Cal Lightman and his staff on Lie to Me are psychologists specializing in discerning whether or not someone's telling the truth. The police and FBI frequently find this useful.
  • Subverted by Patrick Jane on The Mentalist. He checks all the boxes on the Amateur Sleuth checklist - former conman using his skills at getting inside the minds of criminals and suspects to crack cases that leave trained detectives stumped - except that he's actually on the police payroll as a consultant.
  • Shirley from The Adventures Of Shirley Holmes. Of course.
  • Perry Mason and Ben Matlock, attorneys for the defence; famous for The Perry Mason Method of sleuthing.
  • In the Community episode "Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design" Annie becomes one, drawing a very reluctant Jeff into her investigation of Professor Professorson.
  • The Hardy Boys Nancy Drew Mysteries: No matter where Frank & Joe Hardy go, they end up involved in a mystery...though the show sometimes subverts it by having the cops or others get real suspicious about the Hardys' involvement, up to and including tossing them in jail.
  • Laura Thyme and Rosemary Boxer of Rosemary And Thyme.
  • Ellery Queen

    Radio 
  • Lamont Cranston's public identity as an "amateur criminologist" in The Shadow.

    Video Games 
  • Pennington of Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door certainly acts the part, but he may be one of the worst amateur sleuths on the face of the planet. He spends the entire sixth chapter of the game trying to solve one mystery after another with Mario's "help", and gets every single possible thing wrong, even when the answer is right in front of his face. He even mis-guesses the identity of his "deputy" (admittedly, he wasn't too far off on that last one. He guesses Luigi).
  • Robert Cath, protagonist and player character of the adventure game The Last Express, boards a train to find his friend murdered, and proceeds to investigate both the murder and various pieces of international intrigue aboard.
  • In a more obscure example, The Learning Company's Super Solvers edutainment games.
  • Jake and Jennifer Eagle of the Eagle Eye Mysteries Edutainment Game series.
  • The four kids in The Clue Finders Edutainment Game series in a couple of the games.
  • The main cast of Persona 4. However, they're not very good at actually solving the case, and it isn't until a actual detective joins the group that they start making headway.
  • Nancy Drew from the eponymous game series is a teenager detective.

    Visual Novels 
  • The Ace Attorney series runs on this; both Phoenix and Apollo tend to do most of the detective work for their clients despite being defense attorneys with no police training. The games don't seem to be sure if this is legal or not within the game world.
    • And in Ace Attorney Investigations Prosecutor Edgeworth does no prosecuting but a lot of detective work. In fact, the Judge lampshades this at the end of the game.
      Judge: A prosecutor joined forces with a thief and became a detective. Maybe I should join forces with a bailiff and become a lawyer!
  • In Umineko no Naku Koro ni, Furudo Erika is one. Or believe to be one, anyway. Battler would count as well, had he actually solved anything.
  • The main character in the murder mystery visual novel Jisei, who is accused of committing murder, helps question possible suspects in the vicinity of the crime so that he may clear his name and assist the detective on the scene in finding the real killer.
  • Makoto Naegi from Danganronpa. As the main character in a mystery game, he tends to be the one pulling the students through the trials, with some help from his Aloof Ally Kyouko Kirigiri (who is later revealed to be an actual Great Detective) whenever he gets stuck.

    Web Original 

    Western Animation 

    Real Life 
  • Peter R. De Vries (not to be confused with the similarly named character from Dune), crime reporter. Cracked more cases than Detective Conan (and he's a cartoon character). Though in real life this means tracking down petty swindlers in most cases. But his big cases include tracking down the big bad of the beer-brewing billionaire kidnappers, getting two innocent people accused of murder out of jail and catching the real killer, foiled a prince and princess any rights to the throne as the princess had a prior relationship with the biggest drug lord in Dutch history and tricked a sociopath to confess on hidden camera the murder of a missing girl in Aruba, whom he also caught trafficking Thai prostitutes a few months earlier.


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