Twenty rules for writing a detective novel
A modern re-write (ex novo, in reality!) by Rina Brundu Eustace
They’re eighty years old but don’t look it! I’m talking about the Twenty rules for writing detective stories by S. S. Van Dine (pseudonym of Willard Huntington Wright, 1888- 1939), the celebrated American crime writer of the golden age.
Just like that! In reading and re-reading them a question spontaneously comes to mind: what modern author wouldn’t endorse almost all of them? I say almost because, in reality, something has changed, not so much within the text, as in the production context. It goes without saying: times have changed (that’s not a contradiction)!
The competition is ruthless, particularly in the form of avant-garde television serials dealing with correlated themes (citing for all, the mythical CSI series, the original with William Petersen in the role of Gil Grissom to clarify matters!), while the overcrowded internet doesn’t skimp on criminal emotion at every click.
However, one can’t deny that this literary genre (we’ll dare to call it that, what harm will it do?) has demonstrated an unsuspected resistance to repeated attacks. Its strength originates from its being closed tight like a clam, conserving its peculiarities intact (perhaps thanks also to the supporting work by Van Dine!). Its firm structuring and style will, as far as I’m concerned, be the winning weapon that guarantees its survival and public success for many years to come.
That doesn’t mean that some of the rules, set out eighty years ago by the American writer, don’t have a somewhat obsolete quality, it’s also pointless denying that others have been completely out-dated by the natural evolution of human feelings (and hence by the criminal practices engaged in, and hence by the investigation methods used!). We have to admit it! There’s nothing bad or presumptuous about maintaining such a position; above all, nothing detracts from the author’s greatness. In the same way, nothing stops the old teachings from existing alongside the new rules, which are intended to plug the leaks in that slice of time since they were formulated.
What follows is a liberal re-write, (ex novo, in reality!) of 20 rules for writing detective stories, according to my extremely modest understanding. What is put forward is a personal view of elements of detective fiction and doesn’t have any universal ambition (neither is this a contradiction in terms, in case anyone thinks so!). For these very reasons and for the respect that is always owed to those far worthier than ourselves, I will indicate, where necessary, any strong stance taken with regard to the Van Dine original.
A detective novel will therefore be much more valid when the author knows that:
1. A detective novel is a detective novel; it’s not an adventure, spy, or romantic novel, neither is it a philosophical treatise or a literary work that will change the world. Furthermore, a detective novel, by its very nature, is always written from a starting point and NEVER from a finishing point (another aspect is the valid plots inserted in different literary situations, for example, the wonderful criminal plot in The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco). This means that if a crime novelist considers him or herself a well rounded writer, they will have to prove themselves through other works. In the same way, enlightened literary critics, in possession of the truth of things, should avoid feeling insulted and urging the expert populace not to take crime writers seriously; this promptly occurs every time there is renewed interest in their works! God forbid!!
2. A good detective novel doesn’t have any other meaning; so it’s pointless singing the author’s praises for highlighting significant social problems of today or for its subtle semantic qualities. A good detective novel must be judged, solely and exclusively, on the quality of its criminal plot and on the fluidity with which it is built into the story.
3. If it is true that detective novels can be written by anyone, it is also true that not everyone can write a detective novel. To opt for a similar style signifies confessing to be a symptom-free carrier of a mental perversion (viewed positively, we must say that such a perversion is always accompanied by an indispensable genial streak) that is expressed by this (by the style, to make things clear, not by becoming a serial killer hunted by Interpol!). This is a conditio sine qua non; refrain therefore, ye literati desirous of dignifying the genre (driven mainly by financial need!), talented authors ready to prove yourselves, crime journalists justifying your deeds by relating first hand experience, and the like!
4. Atmosphere is an irreplaceable element of this type of fiction. This mainly means that a detective novel, in order to be one, must take hold of the reader from the first page, seducing and reassuring him so he feels at home. On this point, I don’t agree with the instructions provided by Van Dine in rule 16. To justify my thoughts, I cite some of the genre’s greatest works of all time: And then there were none, Mousetrap, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Murder on the Orient Express, etc. In these novels, the atmosphere becomes an active element of the plot; it’s not by chance either that these were written by Agatha Christie, a masterful exponent of similar techniques (that are developed in experienced writers). Not to put too fine a point on it, throughout the works of this great English author, the capacity to create an atmosphere achieves at times a sublimity beyond the written style: for a detective novel lover, you only have to hold one of her books in your hand to feel at home!
5. A detective novel cannot exist without a good criminal plot! Call it what you wish, a crime novelist (it doesn’t matter how famous, it doesn’t matter how venerated he/she is!) who demonstrates a chronic incapacity to plot a perfect and ad hoc criminal mechanism, isn’t worthy of the title.
6. Readers and investigators must enjoy the same opportunity of solving the mystery. All clues must be (plainly) presented and described. This rule is very similar to Van Dine’s first rule. The difference is the adverb plainly that I’ve put in brackets. In fact, I consider that to protect itself from the previously mentioned invasion (television, cinema, internet), the detective novel must be able to defend itself with its own weapons, its specific characteristics, its writing style. The structural quality of a detective novel therefore rests on its capacity to provide clues (without transforming it into a misleading weapon!), thus giving attentive readers, and only them, the possibility of discovering the culprit with relative ease.
7. The solution to a detective novel must be unequivocal; there MUST only be one truth upon which the facts are based. This is also a key condition when judging the quality of the plot.
8. The solution to a detective novel must always be within the grasp of a capable reader.
9. The culprit can be any one of the characters, regardless of their role. Furthermore, there can be more than one culprit in the same novel. Here I find myself at odds with Van Dine’s rules 10, 11, 12 and 17. In my opinion, the requirements of the story and the criminal plot justify these indications; one could give many examples of masterpieces in this genre that rely on the use of similar strategies (Murder on the Orient-Express to name only one).
10. A detective novel can have several investigators. For instance, this happens when the police investigation runs parallel to that of the amateur detective. However, it is advisable that there should be only one hero-character in whose capacity for reasoning readers can place their trust.
11. There has to be a dead body! Indeed, on most occasions a single corpse is not sufficient!
12. There is no corpse without a crime! In other words, the story told MUST have at least one dead person who is the victim of the anti-hero’s manoeuvrings.
13. Murders committed by criminal organisations have no place in the pages of a detective novel. Peculiar to this genre, and also the main element that gives it its fascinating quality, is the focus on the instinctive motivation for the crime. A detective novel reminds us that we are all potential assassins! Not only this: the more the character in question is beyond suspicion, the greater the possibility he (or she) is the culprit!
14. On the understanding that the culprit could be a minor character (see rule 9), the principle characters should be presented straight away, better still, they should be listed on a special page prior to the start of the story. The attentive reader, preparing to read a detective novel, should be regarded as a chess player about to start a game: naturally he needs to have all the pieces, but then it will be up to him alone to checkmate the killer!
15. Originality is also an essential element in a criminal plot. A writer can use strategies that are already familiar, whatever they may be, but a plot is not valid if it doesn’t contain a particular feature of its own that distinguishes it from all preceding works.
16. The hero-character’s investigative methods must always be supported by a broad capacity for logical reasoning and for an approach to the empirical fundamentals of the case, that is based on his experience (not only of criminal but also, and above all, of everyday things!).
17. The sporting anti-hero is another peculiarity of detective novels. By this I mean that a hero that makes measurable investigative methodology his first line of attack will be countered by an anti-hero capable of plotting a criminal plan with a scientific slant. The scientific base is provided by the experiment’s reproducibility (no transcendental tricks here!).
18. The denouement of the story must always be the privilege of the hero-investigator.
19. The denouement can NEVER be partial. An attentive reader must ALWAYS be able to finish the book, with the minimum satisfaction of having had explained, not only the rationale behind every clue and its real valid status, but also that behind every misleading change (there has to be one! Otherwise it would be too easy!). In short, all the cards have to be laid on the table (there’s never been a more appropriate place than this!).
20. A detective novel is above all a challenge from the author to the reader! It follows that attentive readers cannot limit themselves to pointing to one or other character as the certain killer. The chances of being correct are naturally very high, given the limited number of characters! There is no doubt, however, that a respected sleuth is distinguished from an amateur detective, not so much because they are invariably capable of finding the culprit, but because they are always able to explain, in detail, how the events took place. When we consider that matters can be brought to completion in one and only one way (see rule 7), that says it all!
Rina Brundu Eustace
January 2006, Dublin
All rights reserved ©