Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth. – Arthur Conan Doyle, Sr.
I haven’t written a detective story, but I think it would be fun to try my hand at it someday. After all, I think they’re fun to read or to watch on TV. Like working a crossword without peeking at the answers, trying to figure out the “whodunit” part before it’s revealed is the main attraction for me.
As with any genre, there are rules about what you can and cannot do. I recently ran across a list of twenty "laws" on writing a detective story by S.S. Van Dine (pseudonym for Willard Huntington Wright). He died in 1939 before DNA and other sophisticated methods were used for crime solving, but his is an interesting list. I thought I’d share a few of his guidelines with you.
The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My favorite, though, is his last credo listing “…a few of the devices which no self-respecting detective story writer will now avail himself of.” According to Mr. Van Dine, “To use them is a confession of the author's ineptitude and lack of originality.”
The devices are: (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.
If you write detective stories, do you follow Van Dine’s credos? Do you have your own set of rules? When reading a detective story, what sort of device irritates you?
For Van Dine's entire list, visit Gaslight.
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Tags: Arthur Conan Doyle, S. S. Van Dine, Willard Huntington Wright , writing detective stories, Indie Books Giveaway,