Neil Placky’s excellent guest blog on The Kill Zone recently got me thinking about the nature of mystery series, police procedurals in particular. The series seem to fall into three camps: protagonists who are always linked to the criminal case being solved, cops who are sometimes linked to the case at hand, and detectives who rarely have an emotional connection to the case they’re working on. I’m not as widely read as I’d like to be, so my examples here are broad.

In the first category, the TV show Murder She Wrote comes to mind (as well as most cozies). In the third category, there’s John Sanford’s long-running series about Detective Lucas Davenport and Ridley Pearson’s series about Detective Lou Boldt. Neither detective hardly ever has a personal stake in their cases’ outcomes, yet they are favorites of mine—and millions of other readers.

My own series (and many others) falls into the middle. But even when Detective Jackson has a link to the case he’s solving, it’s not an intimate first-person connection.

I know many readers like emotional connections, but the question this raises for me is credibility. If your protagonist (whether a cop, an FBI agent, reporter, or private detective) is surrounded by people who can’t stay out of trouble, does he or she start to seem suspect? If every crime he/she solves is somehow personal, does your series start to lose credibility?

I’m thinking about this now because I’m plotting my fourth Jackson story and wondering how important the personal connection is to readers.

Writers: Do you connect your protagonist personally to his/her cases? Is it working for you?

Readers: How important is the personal connection? Can a series lose your respect if the protagonist has too many personal connections to criminal cases?

  1. In my Annie Seymour books, Annie has a tenuous personal connection to the stories she’s working on because her mother is a high powered attorney in the city and is involved. This is pretty normal in a small city like New Haven, that the same attorneys are working many of the high profile cases. But it is really only the fourth book, SHOT GIRL, that Annie has a very deeply personal connection to the story she’s working on.

    In my tattoo shop mysteries, my tattooist is an amateur sleuth, which is a whole different ballgame. There is a personal connection to both cases in both books, only because why would she bother otherwise? Amateur sleuths are much, much harder to write in that the credibility is very strained.

  2. Hello LJ –
    I believe strongly that all your characters need be credible, and especially the professionals know their profession, whatever that might be. There is a necessary balancing act with the personal life and the professional life, career vs private life, so when say a florist aunt comes into play she should know all about flowers, whether this knowledge is helpful in solving the crime or not, as it may just be helpful in gaining some perspective (for the heroine). In my estimation when we bring in props like canes, smokes, chains, bling, a gold scalpel that my Dr. Jessica carries as it was a gift from her father, these props need have meaning as much as does the setting and minor characdters. Whew, it’s tough keeping all the plates in the air while on a unicycle, isn’t it?

  3. I loved Louise Penny’s first book (the only one I’ve read so far, though I’ll CERTAINLY real all of them!) because the professional detective connected HIMSELF to the crime. I like it when the detective is personally motivated to find out what happened / bring justice, not necessarily because he/she knows anybody connected with the case but just because that’s who he/she is.

  4. With a serialized character, eventually I cannot take it anymore when the same patterns of connection to a case keep coming up. However, in a stand-alone novel, I think it adds depth and interest when the detective etc. is personally invested. Another approach which hasn’t been overdone yet is the first season of 24 model, in which two seemingly unrelated events, one personal, one professional, end up being linked. I think this makes for the strongest story and the biggest “bang.”

  5. Letitia, I’m inclined to agree. I like it when seemingly unconnected plot lines come together in the end, and I sometimes use that structure (i.e., The Sex Club).

  6. I almost always find a personal connection between the crime and the protagonist to be a bit too coincidental for my taste, which has done nothing at all to stop me from creating just such a contrivance in my current WIP. If the emotions work, the coincidence can be forgiven.

  7. I think it depends on the type of mystery/thriller. I can suspend disbelief re: a protagonist who is involved with more than her/his fair share of bodies if the plots and characters are believable within the world created. If not… it drives me mad. It also depends on what I’m looking for at a particular time when I’m reading…

  8. I try to insert a personal connection for my detective, Sean Sean. I believe the character is more interesting to the readers if he has some kind of personal connection. It may be an emotional connection involving family or close friend, it may start as another “case” and become personal due to actions by the targets. At other times the connection may come because Sean is forced to do something difficult that arises out of his character or his personal history. For ex. in an upcoming book Sean is forced to enter a burning building to retrieve important documents. Turns out he’s deathly afraid of fire becuause of an incident in his childhood long repressed.

  9. I’m a relentless cozy mystery reader, and personal connections definitely make the protagonists more sympathetic to me. However, there’s a fine line of credibility. Karen nailed it – if the protag has connections that make sense, like a defense attorney or the police chief, then the eventual connection resonates and is plausible. If the protagonist is perpetually stumbling over dead bodies, well, that gets tiresome after the first half dozen books in a series. Or, there has to be some other compelling reason to suspend belief, and that can be the case in a well-defined character.

  10. As a reader: The personal connections to murders gets old and I stop reading. The Kay Scarpetta novels are my best example. I also REALLY get tired of the internal backstabbing within law enforcement plotlines or subplots. BEEN. DONE. MOVE. ON. PLEASE.

    As a writer: I think it works sometimes, but not all the time. In some ways, I feel like it is a cycle of perpetual picking on a character that gets boring to write after a while. Well, maybe not boring, but repetitive, if that is not the same thing. Might help me meet deadlines, but would suck the creativity right out of me to stay in the same cycle. How could I ever give my readers something new, different or exciting if I’m constantly tying my character to the crimes?

    Besides, I also think it begins to become unrealistic when the same serial killer tangos with the same cop over and over again. Taking this out of reading for a moment… One reason why THE MENTALIST works is because they don’t focus it on the Red John murderer in every episode – which is what THE PROFILER did before its demise.

    My ten cents, for what they are worth =0)

    LJ, thanks for Tweeting about this tonight!

  11. Though my character is not a cop, I think I can contribute a little. My cases don’t start out having personal connections to my private detective. She ends up having some kind of complicated involvement at some point during the investigation. Sometimes this is initiated by her, sometimes by the bad guys. I don’t want all of the cases to be about her, but I like for her to have a connection at least on a philosophical level. For example, I like for her personal issues to somewhat mirror the conflict that’s taking place within the crime being committed. Does that make sense?

    It seems to be working well so far. We’ll see. 🙂

    Great topic as usual!

  12. Very interesting post, LJ. One advantage that I have is that I write about Honolulu– which is, in the end, a city on a pretty small island, one with lots of family, educational, cultural and religious connections. When I was there recently, I heard a talk by a former FBI agent in charge, who said they have a real problem there because so many cops are related to so many crooks.

    The way I look at it is that my cop hero solves crimes all the time– but the only ones that are important enough to merit a book are the ones that he has a personal stake in.

  13. Although I still love to watch MURDER, SHE WROTE, I did begin to see it as a personal liability to know Jessica Fletcher – you could be the victim of the week! As far as my first book, FREEZER BURN, one of the suspects is a former client of Peri (my PI), but she doesn’t know the victim personally. I have more stories to tell about Peri, and she may end up with a personal stake in them from time to time, but I don’t want to make each novel formulaic. Wish me luck.

    Gayle Carline

  14. I think you need to mix it up a bit. It gets a bit unrealistic if all the stories are personal, but it’s nice to see the odd book have some thing personal at stake for the main character. It keeps it realistic and it also keeps it fresh.

    Joan De La Haye

  15. Intriguing question, LJ. I hadn’t really thought about it, but my three Greg McKenzie whodunits all have a personal connection. In the first, a close friend asks Greg to look into his son’s “suicide” down in Florida. In the second, after Greg and Jill go into the PI business, they discover the woman who hires them is related to Jill. And the third involves a case where they are hired by an old Air Force buddy’s girlfriend.

    I think a personal connection adds drama to the story and gives more opportunity for character development. The kind of connection I use is a bit diifferent from where the protag stumbles onto bodies and gets involved. That can get old pretty fast. But giving your detective a little more incentive to pursue the case never hurts.

  16. In cozies, the protag almost always has some kind of connection to the violence either directly or through a friend. I think that’s one reason why Murder She Wrote got old for me. If I lived in her town, I would have crossed the street when I saw her coming.

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