Mystery novels with non-detective, non-legal protagonists.
November 19, 2014 10:29 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for good mystery novels with protagonists who are not cops, not PIs, not lawyers, etc., and who are not really working with those sort of professionals, and who may also be in over their heads. They may accidentally fall into the mystery, or they may bring it upon themselves. The point is that they are "civilians" who must investigate a mystery.

By way of analogy, The Big Lebowski is a movie version of what I'm looking for, because the Dude is forced to play detective.Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a borderline case, because the main character actually does work alongside a real PI, although the story does remain close enough to the fact that the main character is a civilian who doesn't really know what he's doing.
posted by Sticherbeast to Media & Arts (78 answers total) 89 users marked this as a favorite
Gillian Flynn's 3 novels all do this.
posted by jabes at 10:35 AM on November 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Paul Auster's City of Glass, and Marisha Pessl's Night Film.
posted by oinopaponton at 10:36 AM on November 19, 2014

Most of the Madeleine L'Engle books, especially "A Severed Wasp".
posted by Melismata at 10:36 AM on November 19, 2014

I've read a few of this collaborative pair's books, but only liked Agnes and the Hitman.
posted by Buttons Bellbottom at 10:36 AM on November 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco (probably also his Foucault's Pendulum)
Maybe the Secret Garden by Donna Tartt?
posted by Admiral Haddock at 10:36 AM on November 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Agatha Christie's "The Man in the Brown Suit" fits.
posted by jillithd at 10:37 AM on November 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

Ooooh! Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl!
posted by The Michael The at 10:40 AM on November 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn
posted by stefanie at 10:40 AM on November 19, 2014

Jeff Resnick Mysteries
posted by Sassyfras at 10:40 AM on November 19, 2014

Also Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson.
posted by jabes at 10:41 AM on November 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

The new Murder At The Brightwell is pretty much like this, though the protagonist pretends to herself that she is helping the detective (who is not a major character).
posted by jeather at 10:41 AM on November 19, 2014

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo fits this well, although I don't think the sequels are quite what you're looking for.
posted by hanov3r at 10:49 AM on November 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I feel like there's a whole conceit where someone is accused of a murder and has to find the real killer, and a lot of those books have non-professional sleuths. Garnethill by Denise Mina would be one of those. (The protagonist comes back for two subsequent books.)
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 10:49 AM on November 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

Almost all Dick Francis novels. He was a jockey who became a writer, so all of his protagonists & mysteries have some connection to horses. A few of them had a character, Sid Halley, who was a former jockey turned detective, but the vast majority of his books feature regular people caught up in circumstances.
posted by oh yeah! at 10:49 AM on November 19, 2014 [7 favorites]

Ditto on Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl (I haven't read the others) and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

Also The Secret History by Donna Tart, which is what I think Admiral Haddock meant :)

A lot of Chuck Pahlaniuk's books are like this.
posted by radioamy at 10:51 AM on November 19, 2014

The Secret History by Donna Tart, which is what I think Admiral Haddock meant :)

Whoops, yes!
posted by Admiral Haddock at 10:53 AM on November 19, 2014

British author Simon Brett wrote a whole series of mysteries featuring a perpetually down-on-his-luck actor named Charles Paris, which I devoured in junior high. Lots of backstage intrigue and behind-the-scenes-in-show-business stuff, very little police involvement.

Mind you, the fact that this is a whole series probably comes across as a sort of Murder, She Wrote scale now ("Man,why is there a murder that takes place on EVERY show this guy gets cast in?"), but it's still fun.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:54 AM on November 19, 2014

The Lily Bard series by Charlaine Harris seems like it would qualify. I've only read the first book. It was OK; a very quick read and a bit fluffy but entertaining. Not sure if that's what you're looking for.
posted by peep at 11:02 AM on November 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

Dorothy L. Sayers' Harriet Vane novels (especially Gaudy Night, set in the academic world).
Many of Robert Barnard's mysteries (e.g. Out Of The Blackout or Death Of An Old Goat).
Emma Lathen's novels about John Putnam Thatcher (a banker investigating murders in the financial world)

None of these bring the problems on themselves, but none of them are private detectives or cops either.
posted by Amy NM at 11:09 AM on November 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

Dick Francis is legendary for writing mysteries where the protagonist is not a detective or a cop. In many of them the protagonist is a jockey, but also architects, painters, inventers, a wine merchant, a retired airline pilot, and a lot of other things.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:14 AM on November 19, 2014

I am somewhat embarrassed to admit having read at least the first two books in this series, in which an accountant both learns to knit and also investigates a murder. I found them on the free table at work and returned them there as soon as I finished them, but they definitely meet your requirements.
posted by SeedStitch at 11:15 AM on November 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Black Hour by Lori Rader-Day is a recent entry in the professor as detective field.
posted by BibiRose at 11:16 AM on November 19, 2014

I am not a big mystery fan but I do have a recommendation - The Groucho Marx Detective series by Ron Goulart. The first book is Groucho Marx, Private Eye. Groucho Marx and a sidekick investigating myserties in 40's Hollywood. Fabulous! I hadn't thought about these in years and now I am going to read them again. :)
posted by bijou243 at 11:25 AM on November 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

Lord Peter Wimsey detects for fun so he's sort of in that wheelhouse, but there's one book in the series that focuses on Harriet Vane, Lord Peter's love interest. It's called Have his Carcase and it talks about applying what she knows from writing detective fiction to having found a body on the beach. The following book is good as well, Gaudy Night, where Harriet goes to a reunion and encounters unpleasantness which she is then asked to 'look into.'
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:25 AM on November 19, 2014

How about a pig? "Freddy the Detective"
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:25 AM on November 19, 2014

There's a series where Jane Austen is the investigator. I've only read the first five or so but they're reasonably well written and charming.
posted by PussKillian at 11:28 AM on November 19, 2014

Sundiver by David Brin is a SF novel set partly in a spacecraft diving into... ah, you'll never guess which heavenly body. It's a murder-mystery, though. In addition to alien beings, it features non-human sentient characters, including a chimp with a PhD and some cetacean subjects in the process of being uplifted into sentience.

Also worth noting that Demwa, the protagonist and ad hoc detective, is bi-polar, but he's self-treating according to a new paradigmatic view on the disorder.
posted by Sunburnt at 11:32 AM on November 19, 2014

Oh, I just thought of another one--Lilian Jackson Braun's The Cat Who . . . series. The cat helps his person solve various crimes.
posted by Amy NM at 11:34 AM on November 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time.
posted by gatorae at 11:43 AM on November 19, 2014 [10 favorites]

My friend Alafair Burke's Long Gone is about a young NYer who finds a cool job at last but then has to prove her own innocence in the murder of her employer.
posted by nicwolff at 11:45 AM on November 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

The entire Cadfael series, by Ellis Peters; the protagonist is a 12th-century monk.
Charlotte Macleod's Peter Shandy series might suit.
Not sure if you'd count Lindsey Davis' Falco series as civilian or not: ancient Rome, Falco is an 'informer', the equivalent of a modern PI.
Margaret Frazer's Sister Frevisse is similar to Ellis Peters' Cadfael, in a medieval abbey setting. (If you like Peters, you'll probably like Frazer.)
Seconding Charlaine Harris' Lily Bard or perhaps Harper Connelly titles, but not her newer supernatural series.
posted by easily confused at 11:45 AM on November 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I like murder mysteries that take place in academia, and academics are usually the mystery-solving protagonists. I'm fond of Joanne Dobson's Karen Pelletier series, Lev Raphael's Nick Hoffman series (look past the dreadful cover art on the reissues), and Amanda Cross's Kate Fansler series. There's a huge list of others here, most of which I'm not familiar with (guess what I'll be up to once I finish my current library haul).

I'm also fond of Julia Spencer-Fleming's books, which fulfill half of your requirement. Her books have dual protagonists--one of whom is a sheriff, but the other of whom is a minister and member of the National Guard. I'd even argue that the minister should get top billing as protagonist and mystery-solver.
posted by dlugoczaj at 11:48 AM on November 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

The website Stop, You're Killing Me is a great resource for all things mystery, and includes a Job Index of occupations of main characters.
posted by Daily Alice at 11:49 AM on November 19, 2014 [6 favorites]

Sticking just with clergy: Ellis Peters' s Brother Cadfael, G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown, Harry Kemelman's Rabbi David Small.
posted by Perodicticus potto at 11:51 AM on November 19, 2014

Oh, and the bird mysteries by Donna Andrews, starting with Murder with Peacocks. (She does work with cops occasionally, but is not a cop.)

A useful term will be cozy mystery, which typically involves a non-cop solving a mystery using non-forensic means, without heavy violence or sex.
posted by jeather at 11:52 AM on November 19, 2014 [5 favorites]

The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing. It was made into a movie twice.
posted by interplanetjanet at 11:55 AM on November 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thirding Charlaine Harris's Lily Bard series. I read these when they first came out, long before the author's current popularity, and I prefer them to the Sookie Stackhouse books. This is not a fluffy or lighthearted series, even though it is entertaining and easy to get into. The main character is quiet, solitary, and serious--definitely not a screwball heroine; she is basically dealing with PTSD from a violent event and has moved to a new town to start over as a cleaning lady. She is definitely a civilian investigator, at least in the first novel.

Much more screwball and humorous is Rhys Bowen's Her Royal Spyness series. The series is set in the 1930s and starts with the main character, a lively young aristocratic young woman, trying to clear her family's name in a murder investigation.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:56 AM on November 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

Monica Ferris' Needlecraft Mysteries - she owns a store in the series.
Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce - she's a young girl.
posted by soelo at 11:56 AM on November 19, 2014

Smila's Sense of Snow
posted by Ideal Impulse at 11:57 AM on November 19, 2014 [4 favorites]

Fletch. While he starts out as an investigative journalist, in the books he takes the money that Chevy Chase let burn, so becomes a sort of itinerant wealthy mystery solving jerk.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 11:59 AM on November 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Monster of Florence
posted by melissasaurus at 11:59 AM on November 19, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks all for the excellent recommendations! I'll have to sort these later.

I'm not sure about the series recommendations. Within the confines of my question, I am only interested in books about civilians who are explicitly not used to this kind of thing. For example, I love both Father Brown and Cadfael, but they are both effectively detectives, even if that's not their official job title. They frequently, and with level-headed aplomb, solve mysteries.

Smilla's Sense of Snow and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, on the other hand, are more or less very good examples of what I'm talking about.
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:07 PM on November 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: (And that's all my fault for not more clearly stating my question, not a criticism.)
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:09 PM on November 19, 2014

Devil in a Blue Dress, the first in the Easy Rawlins series. Later in the series he becomes a full-time detective, but in this book he just falls into it.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 12:14 PM on November 19, 2014

3rding Dick Francis -- you can get an overview of the protagonists of all bazillion novels here. They are wonderful and cover every profession from bankers to glassblowers.

Or The Art Forger, a recent NYT best-seller.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:17 PM on November 19, 2014

Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49.
William Gibson's Pattern Recognition and Zero History.

These aren't mysteries in that the protagonist is trying to find out who killed someone, but there are central mysteries to each novel that the protagonist spends the novel trying to figure out.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 12:18 PM on November 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I really enjoyed Lora Roberts' Liz Sullivan series set in the Bay Area, and even though it's a series I think it meets your criteria, but I'd have to allow that Liz's circle of acquaintance includes an unusually high proportion of unlucky people.
posted by jamjam at 12:40 PM on November 19, 2014

The Nina Borg books by Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis (Danish). Nina Borg is a nurse who volunteers for a human rights organization, and gets involved in cases concerning immigrants in Denmark.
posted by matildaben at 12:49 PM on November 19, 2014

Agatha Christie's Why Didn't They Ask Evans? is about an often-ineffectual vicar's son and his childhood friend Lady Frances Derwent (aka Frankie) nosing about in a mystery and not knowing how to do anything.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 12:55 PM on November 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Meg Cabot's Heather Wells series. A former pop star takes a job as an RA at a college in NYC and investigates a mysterious death in the dormitory. I have only read the first book, so not sure if she becomes more of a private investigator over the course of the series.

Buzz Kill by Beth Fantaskey. A humorous YA mystery about a high school senior who digs deeper into the disappearance of the school's football coach.
posted by wsquared at 1:09 PM on November 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

This may be a little more absurd/fantastical than what you're looking for, but what comes to mind is The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Which, like a good mystery, had me staying up until 4am multiple nights in a row because I had to keep reading to find out what happened next.

Murakami in general has a tendency to make non-detective-characters investigate mysterious circumstances.
posted by millipede at 1:21 PM on November 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

gatorae's mention of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time reminded me that Rubbernecker by Belinda Bauer is a great example of this
The idea of a young man with Asperger’s Syndrome trying to retro-engineer a crime that nobody else even suspects has taken place, was a challenge I set myself because I knew that if I could pull it off, then it would be really good fun.

The strange and isolated Patrick Fort learns as much from a dead man as he does from the living, and his obsession with the transition between life and death gave me a chance to explore what it is we leave behind us when we die, be that memories, mysteries – or even clues…
Lucie Whitehouse's novel Before We Met has had lots of critical acclaim but I didn't enjoy it as much as Rubbernecker.
posted by humph at 1:23 PM on November 19, 2014

Seconding Agnes and the Hitman by Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer.
posted by stampsgal at 1:49 PM on November 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

I believe that three of Josephine Tey's novels might meet your needs --

Miss Pym Disposes
The Franchise Affair
Brat Farrar

Written in the '40s, well done and only a brief mention of her usual 'tec early on in the second book. They are all separate stories BTW.
posted by alwayson_slightlyoff at 2:06 PM on November 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

Novels by Mary Stewart.
posted by SemiSalt at 2:08 PM on November 19, 2014

City of Light by Lauren Belfer

The Salaryman's Wife by Sujata Massey
posted by Kriesa at 2:11 PM on November 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Tell No One by Harlan Coben

Doing Harm by Kelly Parsons

There's a subgenre called cozy mysteries which involve amateur sleuths. Many of them however simply involve busybodies who take it upon themselves to nose around into a mysterious death versus being compelled to do so for their own protection/defense.
posted by fuse theorem at 2:29 PM on November 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Joanne Pence's Angie Amalfi series and Katherine Hall Page's Faith Fairchild series both do this. They are cozy mysteries rather than the traditional mystery, but still enjoyable as quick reads.
posted by notjustthefish at 2:54 PM on November 19, 2014

Persia Walker's Harlem Redux is very good.
posted by BibiRose at 3:43 PM on November 19, 2014

Mistress of the Art of Death
posted by adamvasco at 4:17 PM on November 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Most of Eric Ambler's novels use this set up; I would start with either A Coffin For Dimitrios or The Light of Day.

The Gift Shop
posted by fox problems at 6:06 PM on November 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Serialist & Mystery Girl. Both by David Gordon
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:41 PM on November 19, 2014

Donna Andrews' Meg Langslow series, about a decorative blacksmith who also solves crime is thoroughly readable guff.

Nth'ing Dick Francis, though - used to devour those.
posted by coriolisdave at 7:12 PM on November 19, 2014

It's part of a larger story arc, but Issue #11 of the current (Matt Fraction) run of Hawkeye uses a lot of the standard "detective novel" tropes but is told from the point of view of a dog, with only the words he knows legible and smells shown through iconography. There's a few other mystery stories in that run; Kate Bishop has a brief stint of attempting to be a private detective based on her credentials of being "practically an Avenger" (read: no credentials at all, really). Not sure if you meant to include graphic novels, but hey, any opportunity to try to get people to read the dog issue is one I've gotta take.

You may find the TVTropes entry on Amatuer Sleuth useful.
posted by NoraReed at 7:28 PM on November 19, 2014

Denise Swanson's Scumble River Mysteries, especially the earlier ones. The heroine is a school psychologist.
posted by SisterHavana at 8:45 PM on November 19, 2014

So many people have mentioned Dick Francis, but none of them have quite emphasized the one thing that I think would appeal to you most-- in each novel (with a few exceptions) the protagonist is a member of some number of varying profession-- banking, truck driver, wine store owner, architect, pilot and so on through thirty or so books. And in addition to the horse-racing background every book shares, Francis delves in to the details of the protagonists' work, so you end up learning about computer programming, or Olympic rifle shooting, or meteorology, or the Trans-Canada railroad, or old-fashioned film photography, or whatever. So yes, I am 'nthing the recommendation for Dick Francis.
posted by seasparrow at 8:54 PM on November 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

Elizabeth Hand's Cass Neary books fit the bill (though they are a bit gruesome at points)--Generation Loss and Available Dark. The protagonist is a drug-addled former photographer.
posted by orrnyereg at 9:16 PM on November 19, 2014

Caroline Carver writes mysteris like this. Generally the protagonist is a professional woman such as a journalist or an architect who stumbles into a crime.
posted by rdnnyc at 9:04 AM on November 20, 2014

Agatha Raisin is a PR hotshot that stumbles over crimes
posted by meijusa at 9:24 AM on November 20, 2014

The Corrina Chapman books feature a female protagonist that is a baker who reluctantly solves crimes in between making or eating delicious foods.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 9:27 PM on November 20, 2014

Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody series. Amelia is an heiress and archaeologist drawn into detecting through encountering ne'er-do-wells in her archaeological endeavours.
posted by misfish at 9:41 PM on November 20, 2014

The Caveman's Valentine by George Dawes Green. I haven't read it, but I saw the excellent 2001 movie based on it. The ad hoc detective here is a homeless schizophrenic man living in a cave in a New York City park. One Valentine's Day, he finds outside his cave a young man who has been murdered. He proceeds to investigate. As we learn more about him (and again, I only saw the movie, so how this unfolds in the book, I'm not really sure), we find that his mental illness set in as an adult, and that he is a Juilliard-trained classical pianist of great reputation before his breakdown. We also experience his delusions, such as dancing moths and a searchlight that beams down from the Chrysler Building where an evil figure lives, constantly scanning the city for the protagonist.
posted by Sunburnt at 10:06 PM on November 21, 2014

The Glass Key by Hammett. Protag is right hand man for gangster, solves murder in the street that threatens his boss's dealings. Coen movie Miller's Crossing somewhat based on it, similar set up.
posted by meadowlark lime at 2:03 PM on November 22, 2014

Double Negative by David Carkeet. A linguist solves a murder at the institute where he works.
posted by daikon at 4:43 PM on November 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh hey, I just remembered this book: 3 a.m. If you have a Kindle, it's currently free.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:56 AM on November 23, 2014

The Manual of Detection is kind of strange, but fits the bill.
posted by taltalim at 9:40 AM on November 25, 2014

Late to the party, but: A Coffin for Dimitrios, by Eric Ambler.
posted by Iridic at 9:35 PM on December 12, 2014

Carol Goodman has written a number of standalone novels that are what you're looking for. Arcadia Falls is about a teacher who takes a job at a boarding school and brings her daughter along; The Seduction of Water is about an author and academic who is writing a book about the hotel where her mother was a maid many years ago; The Ghost Orchid is about a group of artists and writers in residence at an estate in upstate New York. There is a mystery in each one but none of her protagonists is a police detective or private investigator; they're all lay people.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:16 AM on December 13, 2014

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