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What makes an amateur detective?

[image credit: Buster Keaton, Sherlock, JR 1924]

[image credit: Buster Keaton, Sherlock, JR 1924]

In 1841, Edgar Allen Poe published the first modern detective story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, and introduced the world to the amateur detective. Over the past 175 years, his prototype detective C. August Dupin has spawned crimesolving sleuths from Sherlock Holmes to Miss Marple, Sam Spade, Jack Reacher, and everything in between.

It must be tough to be a Beloved Amateur Detective. Sherlock Holmes, Jack Reacher, Jessica Fletcher, and the rest of the BADs can’t take two steps without stumbling over a corpse. And if the BAD is your significant other/best bud/family member, you are virtually guaranteed either to end up one of the corpses or accused of corpse-making.

So why do we all love the BADs so much? My theory is that in a world full of uncertainties, we love knowing that the BAD will find the clues, solve the mystery, gather the suspects, and unfailingly reveal the guilty.

Elementary? Well…maybe not always. For a look at how it is —and isn’t—done, please see my review below for Ellen Jacobson’s upcoming release, Murder at the Marina.


A dilapidated sailboat for your anniversary—not very romantic. A dead body on board—even worse.

Mollie McGhie is hoping for diamonds for her tenth wedding anniversary. Instead, her husband presents her with a dilapidated sailboat. Just one problem—she doesn’t know anything about boats, nor does she want to.

When Mollie discovers someone murdered on board, she hopes it will convince her husband that owning a boat is a bad idea. Unfortunately, he’s more determined than ever to fix the boat up and set out to sea.

Mollie finds herself drawn into the tight-knit community living at Palm Tree Marina in Coconut Cove, a small town on the Florida coast. She uncovers a crime ring dealing in stolen marine equipment, investigates an alien abduction, eats way too many chocolate bars, adopts a cat, and learns far more about sailing than she ever wanted to.

Can Mollie discover who the murderer is before her nosiness gets her killed?

My Review: 4 out of 5 stars for Murder at the Marina by Ellen Jacobson

What genre of amateur sleuth is Mollie McGhie, heroine of Ellen Jacobson’s new mystery, Murder at the Marina?  It’s easier to say what she isn’t. Mollie isn’t an eccentric little old lady who offers tea and crime solving over her knitting. She’s not a hardboiled private eye, although she does aspire to the (unpaid) position of Investigative Reporter for FAROUT (the Federation for Alien Research, Outreach, and UFO Tracking). Nor is Mollie a super sleuth, technology expert, police investigator, or damaged detective. And the one single element these detectives have in common—the ability to ask the right questions —is not precisely Mollie’s strong suit. In fact, she’s not the brightest light in the harbor.

Chief Dalton looked at me with surprise. ‘Abduction? We haven’t had any reports of an abduction.’

‘Oh, that’s interesting. No other reports of bright lights, unexplained bruises, that sort of thing?’

‘What exactly are you talking about, Mrs. McGhie?’

‘The classic signs of abduction, such as sleepwalking and strange dreams. Nosebleeds, like yours.’ He looked confused. ‘Don’t you guys get training in this?’

‘Come again?’

‘Alien abduction. What else could I be talking about?’

Mollie McGhie is, in fact, a short, chocolate/caffeine-addicted wife who is expecting to receive a diamond for her tenth anniversary. Instead, her husband—who apparently answers to ‘Scooter’ even though he’s a forty-something software developer reluctantly retired from the successful company he helped found—surprises her with the boat she’d never wanted.

Mollie suspects the anniversary boat, the Marjorie Jane, is a serious rival for her husband’s affections. She refuses to speak to Scooter, a punishment which might have been more effective if he’d noticed it. Or if he didn’t offer to make her a mocha. “I could have just nodded in response to his question, but I noticed that he wasn’t putting nearly enough chocolate syrup into my cup. After the events of last night, I deserved an extra chocolaty start to the day. This required words.”

Molly accompanies Scooter to the Marina, still unhappy about her nautical rival. And that’s even before the bodies start turning up. Mollie, whose investigative training only includes the signs of alien abduction, is hilariously out of her depth, forced to rely on ever-increasing amounts of chocolate, caffeine, and charm. Still, desperate times call for desperate measures, even if it means store-bought brownies.

I fell in love with Molly, whose innate cheer makes her willing to give everyone the benefit of the doubt (except for aliens and gift-boats, of course). She’s a sweet, funny, self-absorbed, and completely unreliable narrator who stumbles haplessly between dead bodies and clues even as the danger gets closer. Told in the first person, we get to know Molly’s slightly snarky sense of humor, her exasperated affection for husband Scooter, her dedication to documenting alien abduction, and her complete inability to ask the right questions.

Unfortunately, the other residents of the marina were both numerous and less well-developed. At times the stock characters and dialog seemed so much like a game of Clue (or, for my UK readers, Cluedo) that I expected to hear, “Colonel Mustard on the poop deck with a boat hook”. But the book more than makes up for this with the wonderful setting of the Palm Tree Marina, and Mollie’s hilarious nonstop narration. The pace is brisk, so full of action that neither Molly nor her readers has time to reflect, or worry about pesky little details like whether any of the murders has a particularly believable motivation.

But the answer to my earlier question about what kind of amateur detective Mollie is? She doesn’t assemble the clues into a coherent theory, she doesn’t figure out the murderer, and she especially doesn’t gather all the suspects together for the big reveal. Instead, Mollie is the kind of detective who has me laughing out loud as she is consistently amazed by unfolding events, even while gathering up clues that let the reader figure who-done-it well before Mollie ever has…well, a clue.

If you like your mysteries fast-paced and funny, with great settings and a likeably charming (if unreliable) narrator, I’d not only recommend you preorder Murder at the Marina, but join me in hoping for a sequel.


**I received this book for free from the publisher or author in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.**

Contact & Buy Links

Murder At The Marina is available at:

If you’re interested in finding out more about Ellen’s writing and daily life living aboard her boat you can follow along at: