Which Thriller Heroes Have the Strangest Careers?
Policemen and private investigators aren’t the only crime-solving heroes in fiction. From Robert Langdon to Lisbeth Salander, amateur sleuths have been making regular appearances in thriller and crime books for decades. I’d always been drawn to protagonists in crime novels that have everyday jobs—amateurs who must use their professional training to solve a crime, outwit a villain or do something courageous.
Many thriller authors aren’t trained as writers, and use their use their experience in other fields to construct a plot. I am an architect and used my professional background as the basis for my new novel. In "The Paris Architect," the main character designs hiding places for Jews escaping the Germans in occupied Paris during World War II. Using his talent and training, he saves people from certain death. He’s an ordinary fellow called upon to do something dangerous.
Here are some of my favorite amateur sleuths—and their unusual first careers:
Monk: Brother Cadfael
Another Catholic sleuth, this one is a Welsh Benedictine monk from the 11th century. Unlike Father Brown, Brother Cadfael was a soldier before he became a monk in his middle age and was well acquainted with the secular world. He uses his intuition and knowledge of human nature to solve crime—plus, his skills as an herbalist make him a kind of medieval medical examiner, which can come in handy on the job.
Jockey: Sid Halley
An ex-jockey is the hero of these Dick Francis novels, inspired by the author's own experience: He was a jockey for the steeple chasers owned by England's Queen Mother in the 1950s. Francis uses his personal knowledge of the sport to set up crimes set in the world of racing: Halley can uncover why a stable of top performing two-year-old horses do so poorly as three-year-olds—because he knows when horses are being doped.
Park ranger: Anna Pigeon
Pigeon is a park ranger who solves murders set in America's national parks like Yosemite, Mesa Verde and Natchez Trace, uncovering crime in some of the country's most beautiful settings. Nevada Barr's firsthand experience with the Anasazi ruins in Mesa Verde, where she once worked as a ranger, plays an important role in her murder mysteries.
Geologist: Em Hansen
Sarah Andrews' sleuth Em Hansen is a geologist, like Andrews herself, and uses her professional training to help her solve crimes. She can look at the mud on the shoes of a corpse and know, if the soil doesn't match that of the crime scene, that the body had been moved. One of the most pleasurable things about heroes who have unique skills is the creativity of authors like Andrews, who devises plots that only heroes with such esoteric abilities could solve.
Headhunters: Xenia Smith & Leslie Wetzon
Author Annette Meyers uses her training as a Wall Street headhunter to inspire her partner-protagonists Smith and Wetzon, who solve crime amid the greed and ambition of Wall Street. Meyer's experience as an assistant to Hal Prince, a legendary Broadway director and producer, finds a place in the novels as well, with the theater figuring prominently in her plots.
Hacker: Lisbeth Salander
The heroine of Stieg Larsson's popular novels is a world-class computer hacker, a career that has been playing an increasingly prominent role in today’s techno-thrillers. Scarred by a traumatic childhood, the introverted but brilliant Salander uses her considerable computer skills in destroying the media tycoon Hans-Erik Wennerström.
Symbologist: Robert Langdon
Dan Brown's Harvard professor of symbology is a world away from the hardboiled detective, but uses his vast knowledge to solve the murder of Jacques Saunière, the curator of the Louvre, and uncover the mystery of Mary Magdalene and the Holy Grail. He is probably the most complete cerebral sleuth of all… even though his field of symbology is a totally fictitious area of scholarship made up by Brown, who loved to solve puzzles, codes and anagrams as a child.
Charles Belfoure is the author of "The Paris Architect" and is an award-winning architect, specializing in historical preservation. A graduate of the Pratt Institute and Columbia University, he is a former instructor at Goucher College and a freelance writer for the Baltimore Sun and the New York Times. He lives in Westminster, Md.