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Bibliophile discusses Van Dine’s rules for writing detective stories

Writers have been putting down advice for wannabe writers for centuries, about everything from how to captivate readers to how to build a story and write believable characters to getting published. The mystery genre has had its fair share, and one of the best known advisory essays is mystery writer’s S.S. Van Dine’s 1928 piece “Twenty rules for writing detective stories.”

I mentioned in one of my reviews that I might write about these rules. Well, I finally gave myself the time to do it. First comes the rule (condensed), then what I think about it.

Here are the Rules as Van Dine wrote them. (Incidentally, check out the rest of this excellent mystery reader’s resource: Gaslight)

The rules are meant to apply to whodunnit amateur detective fiction, but the main ones can be applied to police and P.I. fiction as well. I will discuss them mostly in this context, but will also mention genres where the rules don’t apply and authors who have successfully and unsuccessfully broken the rules.

1.The reader and detective must have equal opportunity for solving the mystery, i.e. all clues must be plainly stated and described.

Agree. This really goes without saying. There is nothing as enraging for a mystery fan as to be deprived of a fair chance at solving the mystery, which is why I have a dislike for detectives who appear to be psychic. (Really psychic detectives belong in a different genre where these rules don’t apply). For more on this subject, see my review of John Dickson Carr.

2. The writer must not play any tricks on the reader, but the criminal can play tricks on the detective.

Agree, for the most part. This is common sense, and again, few things are as annoying as being played for a fool by the author. More under rule 4.

3. No romance.

Agree and disagree. While a romance is a romance and a mystery is a mystery, there is no reason why the two couldn’t go together, as long as the romantic and mystery elements are pertinent to each other, for example when a detective (or more likely a helper) falls in love with a suspect and it affects the investigation or the detectives themselves are building a relationship like in a book I will review soon. Many mystery authors have broken this rule with impunity and got away with it. It is easy, however, to see why Van Dine set down this rule, because a story where the romance keeps tripping up the mystery can annoy and frustrate the reader exceedingly.
For romance to work in a mystery, the romance must be only a small element of the story, and always pertinent to the narrative. If it is a considerable part of the story it constitutes genre-crossing and should be marked as such and warnings provided to readers who prefer their mysteries unpolluted by romance.

4. The criminal must never be the detective himself, or one of the official investigators.

In general I agree, but one of Agatha Christie’s better mysteries turns on this point. However, once she had done it, it became a cliché and it is unlikely that it will ever be done as well again. Also, it undeniably breaks Rule no. 2.

5. The criminal must be found out by logical deduction — not by accident, coincidence or unmotivated confession.

I agree, which is why I didn’t like the John Dickson Carr novels I read for the challenge. Too many coincidences.

6. There must be a detective, and he must detect.

Agree. It wouldn’t be a detective story otherwise. It is possible to write a mystery without a sleuth, but it’s hard to make it a good one which is why there are not many of them. I have read quite an entertaining mystery where the police investigation took place off-stage and all the main characters did was speculate, but it didn’t really break the rule because the reader was cast in the role of detective.

7. The crime must be murder. Any other crime is not worth writing a whole novel about.

Agree for the most part. It is possible for the crime to be something else, but it is hard to keep a reader’s attention when there’s no murder, unless the crime is that much more interesting and ingenious. None of the Elizabeth Peters novels I reviewed earlier feature murders, and I think she got away with it just fine.

8. No supernatural solutions can be used.

In terms of pure whodunnit mystery, I agree. Cross-genre supernatural mysteries can be quite good, but they are outside the scope of the rules. See also Rule 1.

9. There must only be one detective.

Agree and disagree. I have read some good mysteries where the crime was solved by team effort, but the team was always a small one, no more than four people, usually just two (Tommy & Tuppence for example). In general, I prefer there to be one detective, but I don’t mind helpers unless they are as annoyingly clueless as Christie’s Hastings and Doyle’s Dr. Watson.

10. The criminal must be someone who has played a part in the story, i.e. the reader must be familiar with him.

Agree. It’s not fair to lead the reader through all the clues and then suddenly bring in a totally unknown character and convict him of the crime. Of course, the criminal doesn’t necessarily have to appear in person until he is caught, but he must at least be mentioned several times and discussed by the other characters.

11. The criminal must not be a servant. It is a too easy solution. He must be a decidedly worth-while person — one that wouldn't ordinarily come under suspicion.

A bit presumptuous, I think. Although “the butler did it” has become a cliché, there really are not that many stories where any servant did do it. I do agree that it is perhaps a bit difficult for some readers to believe that someone who has the brains to plan and carry out a clever murder should be a mere servant, but it can be done believably, and not just by making them be "worth-while persons" posing as servants. If you don’t believe me, watch Gosford Park (I know it’s a parody, but parodies are often excellent examples of the things they parody).

12. There must be only one criminal, no matter how many murders are committed. There can be a helper, but the responsibility must be the criminal’s alone.

Agree, mostly. I think it makes a diverting red herring to have the detective confuse the crimes of one criminal with the crimes of another, or even have the victim have committed a crime and the murderer to be suspected of it, but of course the main story must be about one criminal only.

13. Secret societies, camorras, mafias, et al., have no place in a detective story.

Agree. This is really a restatement of Rule 12. Once it’s a group of criminals working together as equals, it has become a thriller or a caper story, unless the criminal is a maverick from such a group, working alone and the group merely acts a cover for him, or if the mystery focuses on the leader of such a group (the assumption being that once the leader is caught, the whole organisation will fall apart).

14. The method of murder and the means of detecting it must be rational and scientific, i.e. no pseudo-science, purely imaginative or speculative devices.

Agree. A writer who can not do this should be writing supernaturals or science-fiction, not straight detective fiction.

15. The truth of the problem must at all times be apparent — provided the reader is shrewd enough to see it.

Agree. This is inherent in Rule 1.

16. No deviations must be made from the story. This includes long descriptions that have nothing to do with the story, side issues, character analysis, atmospheric descriptions. However, there must be a sufficient descriptiveness and character delineation to give the novel verisimilitude.

Agree, mostly. Although I do like atmosphere in mysteries it must not dominate the scene, like it did in The Rule of Four. Digressions have been done successfully in several mysteries I have read, but they have always turned out to have a purpose in the end.

17. The criminal must never be a professional, always an amateur.

Agree. Once the killer is a professional hit-man, the story has become a thriller. Having a burglar commit a murder is a cheap solution.

18. The crime must be a real crime, not an accident or suicide that looks like murder.

Agree. It is a recipe for a disappointed reader to do this. I do think it's fine if the villain accidentally kills himself while trying to murder someone else. Really a sub-cause to Rule 2.

19. The motives for the crime(s) should be personal.

Agree. Once the crime is impersonal, it means it was committed by a professional. A refinement on Rule 17.

20. The following devices have been overused and should not be used again:

*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.

I think Arthur Conan Doyle was the first to write about this, although it was actually pipe tobacco and not a cigarette. Other writers took it up ad nauseam.

*The bogus spiritualistic se'ance to frighten the culprit into giving himself away.

Never read about one of those, but Georgette Heyer parodied this device beautifully in one of her crime novels.

*Forged fingerprints.

R. Austin Freeman did this brilliantly in The Red Thumb Mark, but I agree in general that once you’ve read one such story the concept immediately goes stale. After all, how many methods can there be for forging fingerprints?

*The dummy-figure alibi.

Doyle again, although I’m sure others did it before him. He used it to make some criminals think Sherlock Holmes was in his office when he was, in fact, somewhere else. Others have used it to create lame alibis for criminals.

*The dog that does not bark and thereby reveals the fact that the intruder is familiar.

Did anyone beside Doyle do this? (dear reader, if you can tell me, I’d appreciate it).

*The final pinning of the crime on a twin, or a relative who looks exactly like the suspected, but innocent, person.

This is ringing bells. I think it’s another Doyle, but it’s been a couple of years since I last read the Holmes stories. This is a device that has rarely been done justice since Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors.

*The hypodermic syringe and the knockout drops.

Both are clichés, but at least the sleeping potion is still being used successfully.

*The commission of the murder in a locked room after the police have actually broken in.

Dear reader, do you know of such a story? If so, please let me know because I’d like to read it.

*The word association test for guilt.

Popular when detective writers began taking psychoanalysis into consideration. I have never actually read a fictional crime story where it was used, so don’t feel capable of commenting on it.

*The cipher, or code letter, which is eventually unravelled by the sleuth.

One more Doyle (plus Freeman and many others). What is a coded letter doing in a murder mystery anyway? Don’t they belong in spy stories?


ebbye said…
I love this, it gives such clarity! I really like your comments on each rule as well!
Now I am trying to think of books which broke the rules and worked and books that adhered to these rules and worked - interesting
W. Scott Smoot said…
For the rule about "no secret societies," I wonder if "Murder on the Calais Coach" (aka Murder on the Orient Express - a wonderful movie!) would be said to break this rule?

The twin rule was broken in a book I've read in the past five years. The victim was a twin. Don't remember the author, sorry.

Does anyone still read "Ellery Queen?" He had a twin HOUSE meticulously duplicating another. That seemed ridiculous to me when I read it at age 12, though I have to admit we do have a twin houses on an old fashionable street of Atlanta, built by old money and old money's sister.
Bibliophile said…
Good thought. I don't think so, since it was a temporary group that was only formed for the purpose of this one revenge murder. It does come close to breaking the "only one criminal" rule, but only if you see them all as criminals and not as one mastermind and many helpers.

Van Dine only mentions criminals in the twin rule, but I have read several stories where the victim was a twin or double of the person everyone thought had died (including the Ellery Queen novel I just finished reading), and I am happy to add it to the list of don'ts.

The double house sounds intriguing and over the top. Do you remember which story it appeared in? (Incidentally, the abovementioned Queen novel, The American Gun Mystery, has one of those "groan!" solutions that hardly work the first time they're tried, let alone again.)
W. Scott Smoot said…
The twin house was in "The Lamp of God," a novella collected in a two-volume set of "Best Mysteries" from the Mystery Book Club. I see it on other peoples' shelves - lots of us who must have sent in a dollar for six books and our initiation into adult detective fiction ca. 1970.

I live in Atlanta, where I see novelist Terri Holbrook from time to time. She's a Georgia native whose protagonist is a woman from Georgia whose charming English husband turns out to be an eco-terrorist, cornered and blown apart in the small parish church in the small English village where they were raising their daughter -- and that's the back story on the first page of the series!

She does a superb job of writing depth of character and place.

When I met her, I introduced myself as a teacher who has always wanted to write a detective novel. She said she was a writer of detective novels who couldn't wait to complete her contract and become a teacher. That's life.

If you can get a copy of her books, I recommend them. (I've seen them on Amazon, but not in stores for a couple of years). The second one (The Grass Widow) was my favorite, partly because each chapter begins with a later variation of the town's biggest scandal from the 30s.

Another reason I like The Grass Widow most may be because I know a bit of back story for it, too. The woman, an outcast in England, visits Georgia, where she's also an outcast. Her aunts and cousins, all female, live on the old family farm with the patriarch. He dies.

Terri told me that she had a deadline to meet, and no idea, when she recalled that her grandfather had died in a home while four women were living with him, and she suddenly thought how each of them had a motive to kill him.

She thought they'd like the way she'd turned it into a rip-roaring mystery novel. Instead, they stopped speaking to her. She wonders if she didn't hit on the truth?
Bibliophile said…
Thanks, Scott. I'm going to take a peep if I ever come across that Queen tale.

Terry Holbrook sound like an author I'd like to read. Thanks for the story - it put a smile on my face.
Anonymous said…
*The dog that does not bark and thereby reveals the fact that the intruder is familiar.

Did anyone beside Doyle do this? (dear reader, if you can tell me, I’d appreciate it).
I actually once saw this used in reverse, although they might've been trying to parody. In Clue: The Movie, in the very beginning, a man drives up to the supposed Boddy mansion, and he has to give bones to the guard dogs because they keep barking at him and won't let him into the house. He later introduces himself to the dinner guests as the butler. If he were indeed the real butler like he said he was, the dogs would not have acted aggresively towards him because they would be accustomed to his presence. However, most viewers have forgotten the dog incident by that point.
Seeing as it was a movie based on the board game Clue, I'm not sure if the moviemakers were trying to parody that crime-solving method, or even if they used it on purpose. I just found it rather interesting, all the same.
Bibliophile said…
Clue. Now there's a memory from my childhood. I watched the movie recently and the dog think didn't click, but since the movie is supposed to parody the crime genre I think the dog thing was probably deliberate. Thanks for pointing it out, Anonymous.
Anonymous said…
This is still well known enough trope to be a popular children's book Mark Haddon's Curious incident of the dog in the night time, where the dog's death is what gets investigated. It's one of the most quoted bits of Sherlock Holmes, often used to reference any evidence which is important because of the lack of an event.

Beyond that it still matters in many police procedurals, where how the dog behaved is questioned as a matter of course. I know I've seen it more than one on the ubiquitous Law and Order and Criminal Minds.

Also, Red Dragon by Thomas Harris used the disappearance of the dog as a clue for the detective to realize that the killer had been stalking the family over a period of time.
Bibliophile said…
Thanks for commenting, Anonymous. You make some interesting points. Also, I loved The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time.

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