I Hate It When That Happens, or The Depopulation of Cabot Cove

Possibly the two unluckiest people in the known universe were the characters played by Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers in a 1980’s television show called Hart to Hart. This insufferably cute couple, an industrialist and his wife, had the misfortune of stumbling onto a murder, extortion attempt, kidnapping, or other crime each and every week of the show’s five-year existence. They were not law officers, private investigators, medical examiners, lawyers, or professionals of any kind. They were just . . . unlucky. A similar fate befell Jessica Fletcher, the fictional mystery author, who randomly encountered a weekly murder that victimized the luckless, and dwindling, population of Cabot Cove, Maine.

Such is the plight of pretty much every amateur detective in crime fiction. Readers of cozy mysteries have never minded such improbabilities. When innkeepers, chefs, scrapbookers, needlepoint ladies, and bookstore owners, to name only a few occupational types, routinely encounter and solve murders that stump the police, fans of these mysteries accept without question their heroes’ regular encounters with homicide, a horrific experience most of us will never have. Why, then, does this phenomenon bug me so much?

In part, I suppose it’s because thrillers are somehow supposed to be more “realistic” than cozies. They’re generally grittier and more graphic. They try not to be “cozy.” And so, after I wrote my first thriller, Bound to Die, which featured an amateur sleuth, I retired the character. That was really unnecessary, people told me. Nobody would care if Tori McMillan just happened to become embroiled in another world-shaking conspiracy. Maybe people were right. But it bugged me; I sort of hate it when that happens.

Years later, I had a similar decision to make with respect to my series character, Pen Wilkinson. Readers liked Pen enough (and so did I) that I quickly decided to feature her in a series. The plausibility of future encounters with bad guys was bolstered by her new job as an assistant US attorney, in which she regularly prosecutes criminals. But I’ve felt the need for her to branch out from work-related cases, particularly given my preference for corporate-themed stories. And that has brought me face to-face with the irritating Cabot Cove problem again. My solution? I’ve decided to face the situation head-on, and to embrace Pen’s propensity to become involved in sticky situations. In fact, it will become a major issue for her, and a point of contention with those close to her.