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Monday, March 28, 2011

20 Rules for Writing Detective Stories

Anyone who knows me knows that I'm mad for vintage mystery. There are certain dusty and cobwebbed tropes that I still find amusing, out of date though they are. I'm lucky that a lot of readers share my sense of humor -- or maybe it's my sense of nostalgia.

But, unlike eyeholes in oil paintings, certain things never go out of style. Those things are the elements of what makes for a satisfying mystery. I thought it would be fun to share today S.S. Van Dine's famous 1928 essay "Twenty Rules for Writing Dectective Stories," and see where those rules have changed -- and where they have not changed.

"Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories"
by S.S. Van Dine

THE DETECTIVE story is a kind of intellectual game. It is more — it is a sporting event. And for the writing of detective stories there are very definite laws — unwritten, perhaps, but none the less binding; and every respectable and self-respecting concocter of literary mysteries lives up to them. Herewith, then, is a sort Credo, based partly on the practice of all the great writers of detective stories, and partly on the promptings of the honest author's inner conscience. To wit:

   1. The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.

   2. No willful tricks or deceptions may be placed on the reader other than those played legitimately by the criminal on the detective himself.

   3. There must be no love interest. The business in hand is to bring a criminal to the bar of justice, not to bring a lovelorn couple to the hymeneal altar.

   4. The detective himself, or one of the official investigators, should never turn out to be the culprit. This is bald trickery, on a par with offering some one a bright penny for a five-dollar gold piece. It's false pretenses.

   5. The culprit must be determined by logical deductions — not by accident or coincidence or unmotivated confession. To solve a criminal problem in this latter fashion is like sending the reader on a deliberate wild-goose chase, and then telling him, after he has failed, that you had the object of his search up your sleeve all the time. Such an author is no better than a practical joker.

   6. The detective novel must have a detective in it; and a detective is not a detective unless he detects. His function is to gather clues that will eventually lead to the person who did the dirty work in the first chapter; and if the detective does not reach his conclusions through an analysis of those clues, he has no more solved his problem than the schoolboy who gets his answer out of the back of the arithmetic.

   7. There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better. No lesser crime than murder will suffice. Three hundred pages is far too much pother for a crime other than murder. After all, the reader's trouble and expenditure of energy must be rewarded.

   8. The problem of the crime must he solved by strictly naturalistic means. Such methods for learning the truth as slate-writing, ouija-boards, mind-reading, spiritualistic se'ances, crystal-gazing, and the like, are taboo. A reader has a chance when matching his wits with a rationalistic detective, but if he must compete with the world of spirits and go chasing about the fourth dimension of metaphysics, he is defeated ab initio.

   9. There must be but one detective — that is, but one protagonist of deduction — one deus ex machina. To bring the minds of three or four, or sometimes a gang of detectives to bear on a problem, is not only to disperse the interest and break the direct thread of logic, but to take an unfair advantage of the reader. If there is more than one detective the reader doesn't know who his codeductor is. It's like making the reader run a race with a relay team.

   10. The culprit must turn out to be a person who has played a more or less prominent part in the story — that is, a person with whom the reader is familiar and in whom he takes an interest.

   11. A servant must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. This is begging a noble question. It is a too easy solution. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person — one that wouldn't ordinarily come under suspicion.

   12. There must be but one culprit, no matter how many murders are committed. The culprit may, of course, have a minor helper or co-plotter; but the entire onus must rest on one pair of shoulders: the entire indignation of the reader must be permitted to concentrate on a single black nature.

   13. Secret societies, camorras, mafias, et al., have no place in a detective story. A fascinating and truly beautiful murder is irremediably spoiled by any such wholesale culpability. To be sure, the murderer in a detective novel should be given a sporting chance; but it is going too far to grant him a secret society to fall back on. No high-class, self-respecting murderer would want such odds.

   14. The method of murder, and the means of detecting it, must be be rational and scientific. That is to say, pseudo-science and purely imaginative and speculative devices are not to be tolerated in the roman policier. Once an author soars into the realm of fantasy, in the Jules Verne manner, he is outside the bounds of detective fiction, cavorting in the uncharted reaches of adventure.

   15. The truth of the problem must at all times be apparent — provided the reader is shrewd enough to see it. By this I mean that if the reader, after learning the explanation for the crime, should reread the book, he would see that the solution had, in a sense, been staring him in the face-that all the clues really pointed to the culprit — and that, if he had been as clever as the detective, he could have solved the mystery himself without going on to the final chapter. That the clever reader does often thus solve the problem goes without saying.

   16. A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no "atmospheric" preoccupations. such matters have no vital place in a record of crime and deduction. They hold up the action and introduce issues irrelevant to the main purpose, which is to state a problem, analyze it, and bring it to a successful conclusion. To be sure, there must be a sufficient descriptiveness and character delineation to give the novel verisimilitude.

   17. A professional criminal must never be shouldered with the guilt of a crime in a detective story. Crimes by housebreakers and bandits are the province of the police departments — not of authors and brilliant amateur detectives. A really fascinating crime is one committed by a pillar of a church, or a spinster noted for her charities.

   18. A crime in a detective story must never turn out to be an accident or a suicide. To end an odyssey of sleuthing with such an anti-climax is to hoodwink the trusting and kind-hearted reader.

   19. The motives for all crimes in detective stories should be personal. International plottings and war politics belong in a different category of fiction — in secret-service tales, for instance. But a murder story must be kept gemütlich, so to speak. It must reflect the reader's everyday experiences, and give him a certain outlet for his own repressed desires and emotions.

   20. And (to give my Credo an even score of items) I herewith list a few of the devices which no self-respecting detective story writer will now avail himself of. They have been employed too often, and are familiar to all true lovers of literary crime. To use them is a confession of the author's ineptitude and lack of originality. (a) Determining the identity of the culprit by comparing the butt of a cigarette left at the scene of the crime with the brand smoked by a suspect. (b) The bogus spiritualistic se'ance to frighten the culprit into giving himself away. (c) Forged fingerprints. (d) The dummy-figure alibi. (e) The dog that does not bark and thereby reveals the fact that the intruder is familiar. (f)The final pinning of the crime on a twin, or a relative who looks exactly like the suspected, but innocent, person. (g) The hypodermic syringe and the knockout drops. (h) The commission of the murder in a locked room after the police have actually broken in. (i) The word association test for guilt. (j) The cipher, or code letter, which is eventually unraveled by the sleuth.

So what do you think? Have some of those come full circle now?


Elise Warner said...

Fascinating rules but then again, I've often heard rules are meant to be broken.

Josh Lanyon said...

As a matter of fact, I think I read once that Van Dine wrote this as a reaction to some of Agatha Christie's stories -- which did indeed defy these rules.

In some cases resulting in her most famous novels.

Anonymous said...

I wonder how this differs from Romantic Suspense? I read a lot of Mysteries and a lot of Romantic Suspense and the rules apply to each differently. Do you think it is because character development for the love interests is more important than in pure mystery?


J.L. Campbell said...

Printing this out to read.
Interesting stuff.

jennysmum2000 said...

Hmmm, I can see how he would have reacted to Christie! But no love interest? Only one detective? I prefer my detectives to be a little more social. Van Dine's detective would have been a very lonely specimin.

Most of the detective stories I have read from the early C20 do not conform to Van Dine, but they are by British/Commonwealth authors, did US authors follow the guidelines?

Seraphinawitch said...

The no romance rule was dead even in the 1930s, let alone Agatha Christie having romances in some of her novels, though I admit, not usually the Detective! However think of Lord Peter Wimsey's pursuit of Miss Harriet Vane - and what a wonderful dimension that added to the later books. Or Roderick Alleyn and his romance with Agatha Troy - and the wonderfully gruesome murder in Artists in Crime! Then there is Georgette Heyer who had romances in nearly all her detective novels as well as plots so tortuous her KC barrister husband had to map them out and even she didn't always understand them! Cyanide in the toothpaste anyone?

You were therefore in honourable company with Adrien and Jake!

What I find interesting in this is that there is no mention in the rules of the detective's side kick, the stratagem that allows us to peek in at the workings of the detecting process - Holmes and his Watson, Lord Peter and Bunter, and later Harriet, Roderick Alleyn and Inspector Fox to name but a few. Adrien has Jake of course.

I think I shall appear as anon, so this is Seraphinawitch

Anonymous said...

Are readers allowed here too? I find these funny to read, seeing as how you can pretty much name an example of each being broken that are well-accepted by the public. Having said that I think 8 and 10 important, and it pisses me off when it's otherwise. It's also funny comparing this to Chandler's essay - did everyone take a swipe at Christie? I guess it's expected.

Josh Lanyon said...

It's funny to think that Romantic Suspense is a relatively new sub-genre, but it is. Not that early mysteries didn't have romance, but it was always a very minor subplot to the mystery proper.

Josh Lanyon said...

Some of it's still good stuff, I think, JL! Especially the part about the sleuth not solving the crime with intuition, etc.

Josh Lanyon said...

Jan, I bet Christie drove her contemporaries mad. My Gosh, that woman had a fertile imagination -- and she was as productive as a machine.

Josh Lanyon said...

Early on there was a fierce battle between those who believed romance was a viable subplot and the purists who loved mysteries essentially for the puzzle aspect.

We know who ultimately won out since the personal lives of sleuths are now a standard part of every mystery.

Josh Lanyon said...

Hey, Lil! Absolutely readers are invited.

I suspect that Christie nearly drove her contemporaries to murder of another kind. :-D It would be pretty frustrating to try and keep up with her.

And Chandler and the Black Mask boys of course took such a different view of crime writing.

In fact, that's a great topic for blog post too!

Anonymous said...

Almost every single rule suggests one or more of Agatha Christie's stories - and I think they are a bunch of sour grapes. I had to look up SS Van Dine but I certainly know Agatha Christie's books.

Another vintage example of a detective with a love interestto add to the list of personal favourites Seraphinawitch already mentioned would be Margery Allingham's Albert Campion.

Josh Lanyon said...

Van Dine is pretty dry reading, but Christie still sells like hotcakes.

Yes, all the romantic detective pairings are some of my favorite books -- the Campion is one of the longest and most interesting given that (what's her name? Amanda?) is a slip of a girl when they first meet.

Anonymous said...

Some of the rules make sense, like not having the detective 'guess' the right answer. But I think a lot of them are rather dated.

I've never read any Agatha Christie (was too busy reading sci-fi and fantasy stories *g*), but I totally cracked up at the idea that the whole essay was a case of sour grapes because another author was more prolific.

I totally wish my brain was clever enough to write awesome mysteries, but you can only do what you can do, and it doesn't help at all to look at someone else's body of work with envy and jealousy.

Josh Lanyon said...

Well, I'm sure that wasn't the only reason Van Dine was moved to try and set some ground rules. The mystery genre was in its Golden Age and writing mysteries was one of the coolest gigs around. There were a number of mystery writer societies -- as there are now, but I think they took themselves a lot more seriously.

That said, can you imagine belonging to a club that included Agatha Christie, Sayers and the other greats? Wow!

Marilyn said...

Wow. Sounds to me like Mrs. Van Dine put a little too much starch in Mr. Van Dine's shorts. A lot of the stuff that is never to be done, is stuff I like. Not more than one detective? Please! No romance? Preposterous. Actually, how could anyone put down hard and fast rules as to what does or does not work.

Josh Lanyon said...

I know, it's funny, isn't it? I mean, what would Sherlock Holmes have done without Watson? Or Poirot without Hastings? Or Bodie without Doyle? Or one of those other rom--er--platonic pairings.

Bren said...

A suspense novel is really not the same thing as a mystery, is it? Whether or not Romance is involved, I've read that a suspense novel is when the protaganists already know who the criminal and spend the novel trying to catch the bad guy, or prevent something bad from happening. And a mystery is more a revelation - unraveling the clues to find out who the criminal is. Do you think that definition is right?

Josh Lanyon said...

A suspense novel is really not the same thing as a mystery, is it? Whether or not Romance is involved, I've read that a suspense novel is when the protaganists already know who the criminal and spend the novel trying to catch the bad guy, or prevent something bad from happening. And a mystery is more a revelation - unraveling the clues to find out who the criminal is. Do you think that definition is right?

That's pretty close. The bad guy is not always known in suspense -- but the focus is not so much on clues and methodical solving of a puzzle as it is on tension and time factor. In suspense, there is generally going to be threat to the protagonist or someone the protagonist cares for, and even when the mystery/puzzle is solved, the story does not necessarily end because the threat is usually not eliminated by the discovery of identity.

Maureen A. Miller said...

"The detective novel must have a detective in it; and a detective is not a detective unless he detects."

Wisdom to transcend the years. :)

Thanks for sharing this, Josh.

Bren said...

Yes, thanks for sharing, and for the helpful explanation. Really interesting to see how the genre and attitudes have changed over the years!

Blaine D. Arden said...

This does sound like it was written with a bit of tongue in cheek.

As a non-smoker I keep forgetting that there are people who smoke ... so no sigarette buts in my mysteries. Guess I'll have to remember that one ;)

Other than that, these rules almost make detectives seem ... err ... boring ...
I think I like a bit of rule breaking and romance, not to mention fleshed out characters with a social life.

Unknown said...

That's fascinating, Josh. The best thing about rules, of course, is that they exist to be broken. :)

Clare London said...

I think the strength and continuing popularity of detective mystery novels is their ability - and the authors' talent - to mix familiar rules like this with a new twist. Else we'd all know the template by heart LOL.

This was a fascinating read, Josh! :)

Anonymous said...

Violating #10 was a major reason a recent Patricia Cornwall book irritated me. Of course, the whole thing would have fallen apart had Kay and Benton gotten a look at him.

Josh Lanyon said...

Oh! For some reason I didn't get notified of these messages.

Maureen, if there's a single piece of advice to take away from this, it's THAT one. Detectives should detect. Even if they get it wrong. They should still go through all the motions of detecting.

Josh Lanyon said...

Thanks, Bren!

Josh Lanyon said...

Yes, I think Van Dine was being partly humorous, Cayendi. He was also reacting to the trend -- which ultimately did change the course of crime fiction -- to place an undue emphasis on the personal life and concerns of the sleuth. There was a real tug of war between two camps -- those that wanted to keep the mystery novel as a cerebral form of entertainment with a focus on the puzzle aspect of the story, and those who pushed for a more psychological approach with an examination of the characters and their motivation. Ultimately, the latter school won out.

But the idea of romantic suspense was still an anathema at the time Van Dine was writing.

Josh Lanyon said...

Shirley, I agree that much of what I love best about writing mysteries is what Van Dine was most concerned with discouraging!

Josh Lanyon said...

Clare, the fact that mysteries continue to be one of the most popular genres out there -- with endless crossover potential -- is a testament to both the health of the genre and our never-ending quest to make sense of the world around us.

Josh Lanyon said...

PD, even the ways in which some famous authors have violated the code of the genre are fascinating to consider. Who could have anticipated Highsmith and the advent of the psychological thriller?

To be honest, I think Cornwall is getting a bit lazy as of late.

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