“What evil lurks in the hearts of men…the shadow knows.” There’s a reason The Shadow was such a popular character, first in pulps in the thirties and then television, comic books, movies, and radio (with personal fave Orson Welles! But that’s a separate thought.) The Shadow was—let’s just say it—a shady character. A vigilante.
By definition, a vigilante is a citizen or member of a self-appointed group of citizens who undertake law enforcement in their community without legal authority, typically because the legal agencies are thought to be inadequate. I’ll admit, when I think vigilante, I think Batman. But doesn’t this definition describe many amateur sleuth protagonists? Isn’t this the motivation at their core, the reason they risk life and limb to solve mysteries in their own backyards?
Crime fiction continues to be one of the most popular genres of fiction, and many readers connect with the character who is acting in an unofficial capacity: amateur sleuth or former cop who has left the force either voluntarily or not by choice. We appreciate that they’re fighting to find the truth, and we support them in the often illegal choices they make in order to get answers. We’re like the shadow over their shoulders, knowing that the bad guy must be caught, and rooting not for the police but for the person who makes the effort to right the wrongs that have been done.
At a recent cozy mystery panel, I polled the audience. “Show of hands: how many of you have investigated a local murder?” You can guess how many people raised their hands (none). But—like fans of The Shadow—we crave stories where the bad guys don’t win. As long as evil lurks in the hearts of men, we’ll continue to follow amateur sleuths into danger.
Diane Vallere | @dianevallere