Monday, December 13, 2010

Methods Not to Use When Writing Detective Stories

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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Thank you for stopping by today. I hope to see you next week.

Tags: Arthur Conan Doyle, S. S. Van Dine, Willard Huntington Wright , writing detective stories, Indie Books Giveaway,

20 comments:

Enid Wilson said...

No. 2 will rule me out. I love a bit of romance in my books.

Fire and Cross

Joanne said...

Interesting list, and they do seem timeless, too. I'd love to see a contemporary whodunit author comment on these, to see if they still hold merit. My guess is that they do.

Stephen Tremp said...

I love the Doyle quote ... I hate it when an author pulls something out of thin air at the last moment to save the good guy, like giving him a special power not communicated to the reader until the final pages.

Darcia Helle said...

Good old-fashioned detective novels are hard to come by these days. I think that the science sometimes gets in the way. We're mired in DNA and various forensics, which can weigh a book down and take the focus away from the detective's skills.

Carol Kilgore said...

I don't write detective stories, but I do write mystery, crime, suspense, and romance. So #2 is out the window for me and other mystery writers. But there are plenty in the 'no romance' category as well. Above all, play fair with the reader still holds true.

Hutch said...

Great info, thanks. I'm trying to dvelope a series detective, just have to stick to one story instead of coming up with all these ideas.
As to the list of devices, some seem to rear thier heads in a few detective shows.

Arlee Bird said...

I think these are more rules for the classic stories of the genre and some have been broken for modern stories--especially the ones about the romantic interest. But they are probably excellent guidelines to follow overall.

Lee
Tossing It Out

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

Enid, I must not have read any ‘pure’ detective books, because a love interest seems to be, at the very least, an important subplot in the ones I read.

Joanne, I’d like to find out how contemporary authors feel about Van dine’s list, too.

Stephen, I agee. Tricks like that make me want to thrown the book across the room.

Darcia, I think you made a good point. Technology has certainly changed the way crimes are solved, which has to reflect on how detective novels are written.

Carol, I thought the way he wrote about no romance was funny, but I did find it surprising.

Hutch, I guess TV writers have their own set of rules which probably amounts to “anything goes.”

Lee, I guess these days, regardless of the genre, readers want a little more romance.

The Golden Eagle said...

I've tried detective stories a few times; they're fun to start, especially when the problem's still unresolved. It's the resolving that's hard. :P

Hart Johnson said...

Yeah-I think that no love thing is for the hard boiled PI ones. Stories are more interesting with romance, or at LEAST a little sexual tension! My only mysteries have amateur sleuths, so they are clueless as to why a dog not barking isn't a GREAT clue! teehee--seriously though--very interesting what he seems to have thought was totally over done at the time. And on several points I will agree.

Jen Chandler said...

These are pretty good hints for hard-boild detective works. I prefer cozies m'self. A dash o'romance is just fine by me but I'd like the murder to be front and center.

~Jen

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Aren't there a lot of famous mysteries that feature a love story? Guess those people didn't listen. Shame on them for laughing all the way to the bank, too.

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

The Golden Eagle, well at least you know where your weakness lies!)

Hart, I enjoy books with amateur sleuths. They usually have more humor in them.

Jen, I enjoy cozies, too, because they don’t get as technical as many other modern detective stories.

Alex, I can’t really think of a mystery that doesn’t feature a love story. Maybe they simply weren’t as popular in that time period or maybe Van Dine wasn’t comfortable writing those type of scenes.

Helen Ginger said...

I sort of think those devices are no-nos because they've been used so many times in the past that they're now cliches. Come up with a new, unique twist or device. (And that's easier said than done, although now we have a lot more resources to lean on than in the past.)

The Old Silly said...

These are excellent guidelines. I also agree with Enid, though, romance can have a place in a good Detective story. I'm writing a comedic whodunit right now, a sequel to Owen Fiddler, titled, Detective Snoop. I can use some of these pointers - thanks!

Rayna M. Iyer said...

I remember reading a similar list that Issac Asimov had prepared for detective science fiction- one of the things he listed was- the cases should be solved by information now available, or provided during the book. So you can't have the detective taking otu a device invented in 2357 and solving the case with that.

Reading your post almost makes me want to attempt a mystery myself.

Carla said...

I don't write detective stories, but this has certainly made me interested! It sounds so fun--thanks for sharing!

Patricia Stoltey said...

I love detective and cop stories, but it's harder to write them than it is to write amateur sleuth tales. Too many readers know too much about procedures, so you can't wing it.

There's an ex-cop in my critique group, however, so he's keeping me on the straight and narrow in the few cop scenes I have in my WIP. How lucky is that?

Christina Rodriguez said...

He's rather spot on about the romance, from my point of view. It's a surprisingly rare writer who can weave that well into a detective story.

loveable_homebody said...

Hi Jane!

I agree with all of these credos and I hadn't really considered them before. I haven't read much mystery, but I do think these rules should apply to shows like Law and Order. It's really the best way to reduce cliches and other predictable devices.

This is a great blog. I'm glad I found you!

-Ashley

Jane's Ride - Novelist Jane Kennedy Sutton's journey through the ups and downs of the writing, publishing and marketing world