Hello amateur sleuths!
Welcome to the start of May of Mystery, an entire month dedicated to mystery writing. Two years ago, I broke down Ronald Knox’ Rules of Mystery Writing. Surprisingly, he’s not the only author who has created rules for mysteries. In 1928, S.S. Van Dine published “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories”.
Are these guidelines still relevant to today’s detective fiction? Or are they outdated? Let’s investigate, shall we?
1. The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.
Absolutely. A mystery story is not only a tale for readers to enjoy, it’s also a puzzle for readers to solve. It’s a game. All the clues must be on the table. Both the sleuth and the audience must have equal opportunity to unravel the mystery in the end.
2. No willful tricks or deceptions may be placed on the reader other than those played legitimately by the criminal on the detective himself.
Red herrings and plot twists are one thing. Misinforming the readers intentionally is another. Readers are counting on you, the writer, to tell it to them straight. If the antagonist tricks the detective, they are tricking the audience as well, and that’s fine. Withholding information, lying to, or just messing with readers for laughs? That’s bad. It’s a disservice to the audience.
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.
I disagree with this one. Stories can be multi-layered and fall under more than one genre. A love interest never killed nobody… Wait, let me rephrase that. Having a romance element mixed in with a mystery plot is not impossible and need not be discouraged. Heck, it could even add to the suspense of the plot, if done correctly. You don’t have to be chained to one genre. Balance is key. A love interest, or a spark of romance, in a murder mystery is fine, in my opinion.
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.
True. The detective cannot be the culprit. That’s like saying the protagonist and the antagonist are the one in the same. That actually makes no sense. Like, where’s the conflict? He’s right, it is 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.
For a clue to accidently fall into the detective’s hands? Where’s the fun in that? Coincidence very rarely happens in an investigation. Sure, that may happen in cartoons, but that’s taking the easy way out. Think of real life investigators. I’m sure they’d love a murder weapon to just fall from the sky. Make sure the evidence is found by means of detection and deduction, not gift wrapped with a bow for the sleuth.
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.
You need a detective in detective fiction? Shocker. Well, you don’t necessarily need a professional detective, an amateur sleuth or private investigator works too. I do agree though, whatever the main character’s job is, they do need to detect. No matter their profession, the protagonist must dissect clues and actively investigate the crime.
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.
For a minute, can we just appreciate “the deader the corpse, the better” line? Pure gold.
In my opinion, this point shows its age. The central crime of a detective novel doesn’t have to be a murder. It usually is, but it doesn’t need to be. There are plenty of mysteries out there focused on a kidnapping or a robbery or another major crime. Those can be just as compelling as a murder mystery.
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 seances, 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.
I understand where he’s coming from with this one. In the real world, yes, a detective must find clues by rational means. However, if a mystery does dip its toe into other genres – say, fantasy or supernatural – them magical means could be plausible. But, for the most part, sleuths should be grounded in logic. Finding evidence in such a mystical way does cheat the audience a bit, unless a fantasy element is heavily present in the plot.
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 co-deductor is. It’s like making the reader run a race with a relay team.
Clearly, this man did not live long enough to see the animated wonder that is Scooby-Doo and Mystery Inc. You can have more than one detective on the case. Many great mysteries have dynamic duos or reliable Watson-types in them. Multiple characters can work together and share the glory of solving a case. A team of sleuths can share the spotlight, each member bringing something different from the investigation.
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.
Agreed. Don’t introduce the culprit halfway through the story. That’s cheating. The reader must have an opportunity to solve the case alongside the detective. The antagonist should appear in the beginning of the story and be actively involved in the plot, one way or another. Otherwise, you risk duping the audience, in an unfavorable way.
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.
True enough. ‘The butler did it’ is a bit cliché. When you have a line-up of suspects, think about who, on the surface, looks least likely to commit the crime. That character might be the best choice for a compelling antagonist.
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.
Keep in mind, this list was written in 1928, Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express was published January, 1934. That being said, it is possible to have more than one culprit. Typically though, yes, there is a main criminal performing the crime in a given story. Someone has to be the bad guy, right?
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.
Personally, I’m not a fan of stories involving secret societies and mafias. At the start of any mystery, the suspects need to be on the same level of suspicion, the same playing field. And yes, if one of the suspects is a freaking crime boss or hit man for the mob, that does not bode well for the plot. It may even fall into the ‘too cliché’ category.
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.
Again, I believe a mystery can dabble in other genres, even fantasy. In any world – real or otherwise – the murder must make logical sense. I do think the means of murder and detection must be realistic. When things feel too farfetched, readers will lose interest.
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.
When it comes to evidence, you must be upfront with the audience. All the pieces of the puzzle have to be on the table. They don’t have to make a crystal clear picture, but all the relevant clues must be gathered before the ending. Remember, timing is everything. Be aware of when and how the reader and the detective learn the facts of a case.
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.
Well, too much description can be boring. No one likes a word vomit. Details set the scene and paint a picture for the reader’s imagination. On the other hand, subplots can actually benefit the story as a whole. Also, flushed out character are important. Character must have depth and feel genuine if an audience is going to connect with them.
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.
Basically, the culprit should be someone the audience least expects. That makes for an ever so satisfying plot twist. This relates to the point regarding mafias. If one suspect in the lineup is a rogue with a long crime record, that character being the killer may come across as predictable.
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.
What an anti-climatic ending that would be. All that investigating and clue hunting for nothing. An actual waste of time, for both the reader and the detective.
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.
Before you ask, gemütlich means pleasant and cheerful. I had to google it. Although, there’s not much cheerfulness in a detective story. Every suspect needs a solid motive. Whether those are personal means or not, that’s up for debate. Thinking about it now, I suppose people are driven to crime due to personal reasons. Make sure each suspect has a clear motive or carries an ounce of suspicion, like any one of them could have performed the crime.
Last point is the lightening round!
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. With modern day investigation techniques, I’m sure this is possible.
- (b) The bogus spiritualistic seance to frighten the culprit into giving himself away. Yeah, I don’t think that would work. No good.
- (c) Forged fingerprints. On the fence with this one.
- (d) The dummy-figure alibi. Sure, that’s probably fine, right?
- (e) The dog that does not bark and thereby reveals the fact that the intruder is familiar. Love this! Saw it happen in an old noir film. Made me laugh. 10/10.
- (f)The final pinning of the crime on a twin, or a relative who looks exactly like the suspected, but innocent, person. Evil twin trope, a classic.
- (g) The hypodermic syringe and the knockout drops. Somewhat overdone in fiction, however, knockout drugs do exists. I’m on the fence with this one too.
- (h) The commission of the murder in a locked room after the police have actually broken in. Has this guy never heard of a locked room mystery?
- (i) The word association test for guilt. Not sure what this means, but I’ll take his word for it.
- (j) The cipher, or code letter, which is eventually unraveled by the sleuth. Hate these. Nobody has time for that.
What do you think of Van Dine’s rules for writing detective stories? Do you agree or disagree with any of them? Talk about it in the comments.
Stay safe, keep writing and happy sleuthing!
17 thoughts on “Are S.S. Van Dine’s Rules for Writing Detective Stories Still Accurate?”
I agree with some of them. I think it’s truly up to the writer and what their audience is though. If people want to read a cliche, or a book with a cipher that the investigators eventually get to, that’s up to them.
And, hey, what if one cliche just transformed the story into something? You never know.
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True enough. That’s the beauty of fiction writing. A writer can create any kind of story they want.
Thanks for stopping by! 🙂
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#7 — I’m inclined to agree with Van Dine. At the very least, I’d say there should be the threat of murder. If the stakes are high, the mystery is more involving.
#8 and #14 — Anything supernatural or not existing within the natural world (as we know it at the time of publication) is fine as long as it is introduced to the reader in a timely manner. If (say) the detective reads someone’s mind in chapter one, then I will gladly accept that telekinesis is a thing within the novel’s world and can be applied to the problem/investigation/solution. The problem comes when the author introduces telekinesis in chapter 18. This is my main issue with the film, The Prestige (2006). I don’t mind sci-fi, but I have to know I’m watching sci-fi.
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Excellent points! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. 🙂
Good thoughts! To point # 7, I can think of a few examples: the Italian job and Ocean’s 11, 12, etc. where the mystery is how someone did a seemingly impossible heist, which is actually very compelling.
To point # 5- I can’t stand when the culprit is someone who hasn’t been mentioned, or who there aren’t any clues to suggest it was that person and there’s no way you could have guessed it.
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I hadn’t read these rules by Van Dine before. Thanks for the post!
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I agree with most of these. The worst is when the suspect couldn’t have been rationally deduced from the facts in the novel.
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(i) The word association test for guilt. Not sure what this means, but I’ll take his word for it.
What I suspect this is, is when a scene like the following plays out:
“The victim was killed using a rarely seen and difficult to procure poison. Hypochlorohydroxiate.”
One of the suspects acts the odd one out to the name drop, whether that be gasping in horror or simply looking away, nothing gets past our eagle-eyed detective.
Of course, numerous other things might cause a person to react to a supposedly deadly substance. God knows I get paranoid reading chemical names off the back of food, so this particular “proof” shouldn’t hold water.
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Dated but fun. I agree with your comments except one: he counsels against writing a locked room mystery AFTER the cops have broken in. I think that’s an important distinction, No problem with a locked room mystery; just unfair and unrealistic after the cops are in the room. My 2 cents. Otherwise I agreed with every comment you made – I had just read these a few minutes before and stumbled on your version – I had the same thoughts! So thanks for the validation! LOL! Stay safe, Eric
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Nice solid rules, but I completely agree with every exception you made here!
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