The Appeal of the Amateur
In England a couple of months ago, a man named David Martin, who was renovating his chimney in Bletchingley, Surrey, discovered the remains of a carrier pigeon with a red canister still strapped to its leg.
Answer true or false to the following statement: It would have been more interesting if the canister were found on a shelf in the basement of the War Department archives.
Most would answer False — it would not be more interesting to find this bit of history in the archives of the War Department. First of all, we expect to find history in those archives. Secondly, we do not expect to find history up an old chimney in someone’s house.
The story of the pigeon continues. Inside the canister, Mr. Martin discovered a slip of paper with the words “Pigeon Service” written across the top. Below that were 27 handwritten blocks of code. He took it to the British government, where the nation’s top code breakers at Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) declared it impossible to decrypt.
It might all have ended there, but the story went round the world and came to the attention of a man named Gord Young, an amateur historian in Peterborough, Ontario. Mr. Young had an uncle who served in the Canadian Royal Flying Corp and subsequently left among his possessions a codebook from World War II. Using that book, Mr. Young decoded the message and reported that it pertained to German troop movements in Normandy.
Answer true or false to the following statement: It would be a better story if an expert at GCHQ had decoded the message.
Again, I believe most people would answer False. Why is this so? Because we expect code breakers to break codes — that’s what they do. What we don’t expect is amateur historians to break codes that GCHQ declares unbreakable. And the most effective storytelling involves the unexpected.
We live in an interesting age. On one hand, the sum total of all human knowledge has grown so vast that no single person — not even a genius among geniuses — could learn all of it in one lifetime. Thus we rely upon experts to gain command of a single subject matter — say, secret codes — so that others of us can go about our business.
On the other hand, modern communications enable us all to share problems. Thus an amateur with a particular set of life experiences or insights (or a copy of the lost secret-code book!) may be able to solve a puzzle that eludes all of the experts.
The great gift of Cozy Mysteries, I think, is the elevation of amateurs above experts. In the Cozy, of course, police or private detectives may exist, but it is the curious amateur who wins the prize. An expert might have all the training, but the amateur has more elusive qualities — more human qualities, one might say — that enable her to see that which remains hidden from the police.
In the case of the carrier pigeon, experts at GCHQ refused to declare that Mr. Young broke the code of the pigeon found in the chimney. But, much like that quintessential Cozy heroine, Miss Marple, Mr. Young would not allow himself to be cowed. BBC reported him saying that “folks are trying to over-think this matter,” adding, “It’s not complex.”
One has to love the confidence behind that analysis. It has a salt-of-the-earth quality that would seem quite familiar coming from the lips of a Cozy heroine.
And why do we read those words with such a sense of triumph? For one thing, because while we can respect expertise, the expert by nature is a know-it-all and everyone likes seeing a know-it-all get his comeuppance. In this regard the pigeon story would be even better if reports had portrayed some expert at GCHQ in detail — a plump lower lip, perhaps…an imperious air…fingers tucked into the vest of his three-piece suit. Then we could picture him red in the face with the royal arms behind him, having been shown up by some guy at the outer reaches of the Commonwealth.
One other thing the pigeon story doesn’t have is a present sense of danger. When the amateur is trying to solve a murder — rather than a decades-old mystery — by implication the killer remains on the loose. And generally the amateur would be easy pickings for the murderer. After all, who would have any trouble wrestling Miss Marple to the floor and cutting her throat?
Oops! Oh, sorry. These are Cozies we’re talking about, where most violence happens “off screen.” Yet this great gift of the amateur, which was largely bestowed upon us by Cozies, plays out also in today’s thrillers and crossover mysteries.
My first three novels (two thrillers and a mystery) owe a debt of gratitude to this convention of the amateur sleuth made popular by Cozies. The protagonists in both thrillers are amateurs caught up in events they at first don’t fully understand. As amateurs, they’re overmatched, which heightens the suspense.
Similarly, the protagonist in my mystery is a debt workout specialist who gets roped into playing detective. He doesn’t even own a gun until near the end, and he barely has time to learn to shoot.
Yet, despite their limitations, all of these characters conquer overwhelming odds to prevail. With that statement have I given away the ending? Yes, but no. You already knew the good guys would win, because these are novels we’re talking about, not real life. We read mysteries and thrillers to get away from a world where the bad guys too often prevail, where amateurs nearly always fall short of the experts.
Like the story of the secret code, however, these novels ultimately entertain us so much because they give us hope. They remind us that, once in a while, the tables do turn. Once in a while some guy in Ontario outsmarts all the code breakers at Headquarters. Once in a while, in a world of experts, the amateur triumphs.
And when that happens, friends, it ain’t pigeon feed.
J.E. Fishman, a former Doubleday editor and literary agent, is author of the thrillers The Dark Pool and Primacy, as well as the mystery Cadaver Blues: A Phuoc Goldberg Fiasco. With his friends at Shelton Interactive, he also administers The 1000-Word Cliffhanger Project. He divides his time between Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and New York City. Follow him through his website at http://jefishman.com