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?

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 are in a Sleuth Dates Cop situation.


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    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 (Saguru 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.
  • Yagami Light in Death Note used to be an amateur sleuth, but now he is now a very clever serial killer.
  • Jotaro Kujo, of Jo Jos Bizarre Adventure Stardust Crusaders. 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.

    Comic Books 
  • The Elongated Man, Ralph Dibny, 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.
  • 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.
  • Harry Vanderspeigle, the protagonist of Resident Alien, solves mysteries with his great observational and interpersonal skills, but has no formal training or license as a detective.
  • 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.

  • 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.
  • In the fanfic Graduate Meeting Of Mutual Killing, main character Akane Ogata has absolutely no experience in detective work, to the point she needs to be taught some of the most basic stuff. However, she's the main investigative force in the story, and her investigations and deductions greatly contribute to the development of the trials. This may be justified, as the franchise it's based of does include Amateur Sleuths as the protagonists.
  • The fanfic Despair's Last Resort has main character Takara Tsukuda, who was accepted to Hope's Peak Academy with the title of Super High School Level Journalist. Her classmates ask her for advice before the first investigation, justifying that since she's the only one of them who has any amount of experience close enough to detective work. This works out in her favor, as being a journalist required her to do research and investigating of her own.

  • 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....
  • Johnny Goodlittle in horror comedy The Monster has taken a correspondence course on how to be a detective. The local cops ignore him when he finds a clue concerning the mysterious disappearance of a local businessman, so Johnny investigates for himself and winds up in an Old Dark House, trapped by a Mad Scientist.

  • Flavia Gemina and her friends in the The Roman Mysteries are KidDetectives and Amateur Sleuths in The Roman Empire.
  • Agatha Christie has several:
    • Christie's Ariadne Oliver is a bit of a parody of this trope: she's a mystery writer who occasionally ends up helping Hercule Poirot on real murders. She frankly admits that her writing experience gives her very little practical investigating skills and always guesses the wrong person (or, alternatively, guesses every possible suspect in turn before declaring that she always suspected the real killer).
    • The final solution to the crime in Towards Zero was exposed by Andrew MacWhirter, a random passer-by who unwittingly got involved in the investigation through a chance encounter with one of the suspects, whom he believes to be innocent.
    • In Three Act Murder, the murder investigation was initiated by Sir Charles Cartwright, a retired actor, Miss Hermione "Egg" Lytton Gore, his much younger Love Interest, and Mr. Satterwhite, an art critic of sorts. They were eventually joined by Hercule Poirot.
  • 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:
    • 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.
  • 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.
  • In a similar spirit to The Hardy Boys, The Three Investigators were a group of school kids who would solve mysteries they encountered. While they would all help each other and work together, Jupiter was responsible for solving most of the cases.
  • The priest Father Brown, in the Father Brown stories of G.K. Chesterton. He says that the understanding of human nature gained by a priest is all of the training one needs to be a detective.
  • Encyclopedia Brown, a schoolboy who runs his own agency solving schoolyard mysteries, and sometimes assists his father who is the local police chief.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • TKKG from the series of the same name. A group of kids doing investigations.
  • Simon Rattray (a pseudonym for 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.
  • 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 McGurk 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.
  • Stuart Palmer's series character Hildegarde Withers is a veteran schoolteacher who both aids and exasperates New York police captain Oscar Piper.

    Live Action TV 

  • 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.
  • Castle: Mystery writer Richard Castle. (He's very good at it.) A deal with the mayor allows him to shadow homicide detectives as they do their job.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Jonathan Creek, a magician's assistant who solves impossible crimes, including the occasional Locked Room Mystery.
  • 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 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).
  • 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.
  • Ned in Pushing Daisies is the assistant to a private detective, but his proper job and true passion is baking pies.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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. The movie has her abandon this life and leave Neptune to go to a law school. At the start of the film, she's at an interview to a big New York law firm. Then she's dragged back to Neptune and ends up as this trope again.
  • 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. They are also frequently hired for non-criminal cases, such as a divorcing wealthy husband asking him to find out if his wife was ever unfaithful, thus invalidating the prenup (Cal ends up figuring out that she wasn't, causing the angry husband and his lawyer to storm out threatening a lawsuit).
  • 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.
  • The Hour gives us Freddie Lyon, a journalist who happens to get tangled up in plots and conspiracies, and he is far too stubborn to stop until he knows the truth and broadcasts it to the world. In Season Two, Bel starts acting this way, too.
  • Dylan Blake in Open Heart, who's investigating her dad's disappearance after the police close his case.
  • The Kdrama Seonam Girls High School Investigators is about a group of teenage girls who solve crimes. Same goes for the series of novels that inspired the show.
  • Banacek was about an insurance investigator who solved thefts that appeared to have been impossible.
  • In Agatha Raisin, Agatha is PR expert who spends more time solving murders than she does doing public relations.

  • 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.

    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: Miles Edgeworth 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: When They Cry, Furudo Erika is one, even getting a power called the "Detective Authority". In the first four games, Battler (or rather his "piece" in the game) has the role of the detective but isn't aware of it.
  • 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 Dangan Ronpa. 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 Comics 
  • Asia Ellis in morphE. She was kidnapped and dragged into the supernatural world while working on a private investigation.

    Web Original 

    Western Animation 
  • In one of the 1950's Felix the Cat cartoons, "Detective Thinking Hat", Felix becomes a junior G-Man and ends up tracking down and bringing in Rock Bottom.

    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.