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Authors as Sleuths

Have you ever read a mystery where the sleuth is an author? Sarah and Brook discuss mysteries with writers as the central characters.

Authors, Books, and TV shows mentioned

Hammett Unwritten (2013) Gordon McAlpine writing as Owen Fitzstephen

Agatha Christie Series by Andrew Wilson

Murder She Wrote


The Ghost (2007) Robert Harris

The Thirteenth Tale (2006) Diana Sutterfield

The Woman in Cabin 10 (2016) Ruth Ware

The Plot (2021) Jean Hanff Korelitz

The Vanished Bride (2019) Bella Ellis

The Word is Murder (2017) Anthony Horowitz

The Sentence is Death (2018) Anthony Horowitz

Kathy Reichs

Finlay Donovan series by Elle Cosimano

More Information

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Sarah     Welcome to Clued in Mystery. I’m Sarah.

Brook    And I’m Brook. And we both love mystery.

Sarah     Hi, Brook.

Brook    Hi, Sarah.

Sarah     So today we are discussing mysteries where the sleuth is an author. I’m really excited to talk about this because I realize that a surprisingly large number of books that I’ve read have the main character as an author.

And so, I thought it would be kind of fun to talk a little bit about that.

Brook    Yeah, and I have to admit, Sarah that when you suggested this topic for the show—and I think it was a really long time ago; it may have been even one of our first brainstorming lists—I really didn’t know much about the category at all. And I thought “Oh well, that sounds like a kind of a cool concept.” But, oh my goodness, I have completely fallen in love with this, and I may have discovered a favorite category of mystery.

Sarah     Yeah, it’s one of the ones that I really enjoy as well.

So, I’ll just give a little bit of a summary and background.

So, I don’t know if I gravitate towards these because I secretly want to investigate a crime. But that may also be why I write mysteries, because I secretly consider myself to be a detective.

But as I mentioned I do seem to read a lot of books where the main sleuth or the main character is an author. Sometimes I pick these up without realizing that’s the premise. But, if I have two books to choose from and one has the investigator as an author, I’ll probably choose that one.

So, our listeners will remember during our conversation about Agatha Christie’s disappearance how Dorothy L. Sayers and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were asked to provide assistance with the investigation. Perhaps it was this that set the stage for authors to be sleuths in fiction detective stories. Although before Agatha Christie disappeared, Doyle did insert himself into real investigations to advocate for convictions to be turned over. So, maybe that is where that seed was planted. And we can maybe talk a little bit about his character Watson who is the author of the of the recordings of Sherlock stories.

I haven’t read any of these, but there are several authors who’ve made real authors their sleuths. Perhaps it’s Dashiell Hammett’s past as a Pinkerton detective, where he would have actually solved cases in real life, that sparked Gordon McAlpine’s series which he wrote as Owen Fitzstephen, where Hammett investigates crimes.

Multiple authors have paired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde to have them solve cases and I actually love this premise and so I’m definitely going to check out a couple of those

And Andrew Wilson uses Agatha Christie as his detective and Julia Golding has Jane Austen as the sleuth in her middle grade series and there’s countless other examples. I think there’s a series featuring the Brontë sisters, for example.

If we look at TV, Murder She Wrote and Castle are both TV series that have authors as the central characters.

There are several standalone books that use the device of the author as an investigator. The Ghost by Robert Harris, The Thirteenth Tale by Diana Sutterfield, The Woman in Cabin 10, which you and I have already discussed. There’s The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz, where in in that book, it’s not only being an author but stealing another’s work that is central to the story.

So, Brook, do you have any theories about why authors might make their sleuths writers?

Brook    Well, you know I’ve spent this whole week thinking about it and I really focused this time on the idea of the real-life authors as sleuths and that’s kind of where I spent my time diving into to get ready for our episode.

So yes, I’ve been like thinking about why is this so intriguing and fascinating to me, and I have a lot of different thoughts.

But one idea is the fact that you know you if you hear author interviews a lot of the things they get asked right up front is “How do you get your ideas?”

And so, I think that this is a very fun imaginative way, especially in the category of the true-life authors of how they got their idea well because they were on a case themselves. So, you know, of course they’ve got this great treasure trove of material.

Sarah     Yeah, I love that.

So, have you read any of the stories featuring real life authors as the as the sleuths?

Brook    This week I did read book one of the Brontë sisters mysteries. It’s The Vanished Bride by Bella Ellis and Brontë sister fans will recognize that she’s done a little play on her pen name for this because the Brontë sisters used the last name Bell as their pen name when they were writing—they originally wrote as men to become published. Ellis Bell was Emily Bronte’s pen name and now the author of this series has taken on Bella Ellis which I think is quite clever.

And it’s really, really well done. I definitely intend to continue with this series because she also has the tone and the feel of as if you were reading a Brontë novel, which, let’s face it, is a really tall feat to be able to pull that off. But she does and it’s a great mystery and the interactions between the sisters—all three sisters are solving this case together. The relationships and the interaction between the sisters it just it’s great. And you know that she’s done a lot of biographical research too because she refers to some of the things that actually happen in their lives. And she makes it feel very, very real. I believe that these guys probably were solving mysteries now.

Sarah     Amazing. Yeah, I’m definitely going to check that out.

And then the other one that I thought I might check out is Andrew Wilson’s series with Agatha Christie is the sleuth because I think the first book in that series is set during her disappearance. And in that she’s solving a mystery, which I think is one of the theories that we discussed in our episode that maybe that was what she was doing during those during those ten days.

Brook    I agree that’s definitely one I would like to read because it gives us that other alternate explanation of where Agatha was.

Sarah     I can think of a couple of examples where the author’s character is based on themselves. So, the first is Anthony Horowitz whose books The Word is Murder and The Sentence is Death feature fictionalized versions of himself as one of the investigators. And, I just absolutely love this premise and it kind of goes back to what I said earlier about you know me secretly wanting to investigate a crime. He’s taken that and made that a series that I really enjoy.

And the other one that I can think of is Kathy Reichs and her books where her main character like her is both an author and a forensic anthropologist, but the writing kind of part of her personality or her character’s personality is really secondary to the investigation. Maybe the sleuth is writing adjacent.

And then I don’t know if I would put Watson in there, because he’s certainly part of the way that the Sherlock stories become famous, or his investigations become famous, is through these chronicles that Watson has been writing as they’ve done their investigations and he certainly is considered an author in those stories.

Brook    I was also interested, as I was reading and thinking about this setup if you will, that authors make great sleuths because a sleuth has to have some sort of special skill. Whether it’s Poirot or Marple or you mentioned Jessica Fletcher, they have to have some special skill that enables them to solve the crime and get the “aha” before everyone else. And if you think about the skills that an author has, they’re kind of quiet quietly observing the world. They’re taking in details that other people in the room probably are not.

Brook    Authors tend to be good at communicating and rather eloquent and we, I at least, think of my favorite authors as very intelligent. So, I think that it’s a good starting point. To make them the sleuth in a story.

Sarah     Yeah, I would definitely agree with that, and I think I would add that they need to be pretty good researchers, right? And so, thinking about where you might get some more information about I don’t know a particular crime or a particular event.

Sarah     You know, certainly in Murder She Wrote, Jessica Fletcher being an author was a really good excuse for her to be in different situations where a body might be found, right? So that helps with that you know because sometimes you think about some books or some stories where you’re like, I mean, how many bodies could there possibly be in this bakery, right?

Brook    Exactly yeah, that’s a really good point. And some of the stories where the author is the journalist. So that takes us back to The Woman in Cabin 10. A journalist maybe even is assigned to cover the case, right? So, it’s a great way to help carry a series on as an excuse of why that person is there. I agree with that, Sarah, and their research point. That’s great because that’s what authors do right? They like, “Oh, I want to learn about that.” So they would have the ability and the resources at the tips of their fingers.

Sarah     Exactly. And the other thing that I was thinking about as I was preparing for our conversation today was there are some stories where an author is a sidekick, right? I think about Agatha Christie’s character Ariadne Oliver and she appears in several of Christie’s books and stories and she helps Poirot in a couple of cases, whether she’s… I don’t know that she’s necessarily actively investigating, but you know she might have a conversation with someone that she relays to Poirot and that triggers for him the solution to the to the crime.

I think the same thing of Harriet Vane, Dorothy L. Sayers’ character who works with Lord Peter Whimsey in a couple of cases. Same thing, she speaks to people and asks questions and maybe can get to some places that the traditional sleuth doesn’t necessarily have access to.

Brook    Yeah, and that reminds me of what we talked about in the “Authors as Spies” episode. Authors are a lot of times unassuming. They might be the bookish, quiet one that you wouldn’t necessarily assume is actually detecting and investigating the crime. So, I think you’re right, they can use some of those maybe introversion skills as a way to get in and talk with people and feel like they’re non-threatening. I think that also makes them a good sleuth and it makes for a fun story.

I know for me, authors are the people that I consider my heroes and so I love the idea of having an author be the detective, whether it’s a real-life author. And you mentioned there’s a lot of different ones if people are interested. Emily Dickinson is a sleuth in one, Doyle, Wilde, the Brontë sisters, Dickens. I mean if you have a favorite author, you might want to poke around and see if they’ve been cast as a sleuth.

But it feels really satisfying as a bookish person to have this person that you’ve looked up to be the hero of the story in this way.

Sarah     I’ve just been hit by an idea, Brook. What about a publishing company where the authors are also all detectives. We could write a whole series.

Brook    Oh my gosh. I love it. Now you’ve got my wheels turning, Sarah.

Sarah     But to your point, I think there’s just something really satisfying about the idea of an author that you love also solving mysteries. You know, not only writing them but actually actively solving them.

Brook    At the end of the Brontë sisters book one, there’s a fantastic author note by the author, who was able to visit the Brontë sisters home when she was actually quite young and anyway. It’s great. You can tell I’m really loving this book.

But she says in it. “Admittedly, there’s no evidence that the Brontë sisters were ever sleuths. But then again, there’s no evidence that they weren’t.” And I thought that that was just really fun. Well, what if? We don’t know what their real life is like.

Sarah     Yeah, I love it. I’m definitely going to check that out.

A couple of the others I think there’s probably some really great stories and I highly recommend the Anthony Horowitz The Word is Murder and The Sentence is Death, which, the way that he talks about his life as an author and then kind of being swept up in these investigations is pretty great.

Brook    Yes, those are on my list as well.

Sarah     So there’s a couple of other books that I’ve read recently that feature an author as the sleuth and I’m thinking of the Finlay Donovan series by Elle Cosimano where Finlay Donovan is an author. The character is talking about having to meet these deadlines to submit manuscripts to her editor and she’s working with her agent and at the same time also investigating some crimes. Which is kind of fun. As someone who is also an author, it’s kind of fun to see that in a story.

Brook    Oh, I would totally agree.

And would you say because, I can think back even stories that maybe weren’t necessarily mysteries but books that I read as a young person where the author was the protagonist or excuse me the protagonist was an author. Would you say, Sarah, that some of those books encouraged you to want to be an author like reading these stories about what it was like to have this life?

Sarah     Yeah, there’s something inspiring, just seeing um seeing that you know little bit of author life for sure. Throw in a murder and I’m hooked.

So last year I read The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz. And, I really enjoyed that because the whole premise of the book was around one author stealing another author’s work and how that unravels. So it’s more of a domestic thriller. It’s not really a “who done it”. But I really enjoyed that book

Brook    Yeah, that sounds great. I think that maybe there’s not enough attention paid to the gravity of that. If you think about plagiarism or straight up just publishing someone else’s work. Those are real crimes and they could be a great setup for a murder mystery.

Sarah     Yeah, totally totally and it was done really well I think in in this book.

I just started watching Castle, which I had never seen any of it before. I don’t know why I never watched it before because it’s really fun to see this author living out that idea of helping the police with investigations and you know he very much inserts himself into this investigation, or on an ongoing basis inserts himself into you know each of the weekly cases that that the police are facing. And yeah, it’s kind of fun to see ah to see that on the screen.

Brook    I have not watched Castle either. But I was very into Murder She Wrote for a period of time and forced my family to watch it each week and would then go to my grandma’s house because she still had a typewriter set up and pretty much decide that I was Jessica Fletcher and ah live out some of the cases in my imagination.

Sarah     Oh, I love that, Brook.

Yeah, I definitely watched Murder She Wrote when I was when I was younger. But it’s been a long time actually since I’ve since I’ve watched it so I might have to see if I can find some old episodes to refresh my memory. But yeah, it was I think, I don’t know if there were any earlier examples on screen of an author or someone in the publishing space being the protagonist of ah of a crime show.

Brook    I can’t think of any.

I do have a quote from The Vanished Bride and this is Charlotte Brontë speaking to her sisters. And this is the point in the story where the sleuths are kind of deciding that they may be over their heads.

We see that a lot in a story where they’re like, maybe we should just give up, this is this is crazy. But she says “It is our duty not to hide. It is our vocation as writers to peer into the dark to stare and stare until our eyes adjust to the merk and discern every detail. That we may drag it into the light.” And I thought that that was a really great way to sum up what an author sleuth might have as their impetus

Sarah     Oh, that’s really great. Thanks so much for sharing that.

So, Brook, I think this was a really great conversation, talking about sleuths or authors as sleuths.

So yeah, I think there’s a lot of books in this category and as you suggested, if someone has a favorite author, there’s probably a book or two with that author as the sleuth that investigating mysteries and so definitely worth checking out.

Brook    That’s right!

So, thank you, everyone for joining us today on Clued in Mystery.

I’m Brook.

Sarah     And I’m Sarah. And we both love mystery.