Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories, by S.S. Van Dine (1928): Some thoughts

In the last couple of days I’ve been following a discussion in my favourite Facebook group, Golden Age Detection (you can find it here, although you may have to join the group to see anything). As you’ve probably already guessed, group members were discussing Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories, an article from the September 1928 edition of The American Magazine.  

Although I’ll quote extensively from this article, you can find a copy of it here and I recommend the full article to your attention.  The rest of this piece will assume that you have indeed gone and read it.

why-men-drinkIn the process of considering the various arguments, I realized that although I’d certainly read Van Dine’s 20 Rules, it had been so many years that I’d forgotten the article entirely. I thought it would be interesting to have another look at it and share the results here.

The first thing that comes to my mind is, in an introductory paragraph before he approaches the rules themselves, Van Dine outlines what he’s trying to do. And there are two things that are fairly crucial here. One is that he’s talking specifically about the “detective story” and the other is, as he says in the opening sentence, that “The detective story is a game.” In fact, he compares it to my favourite game, bridge.

Gaudy_nightNow, I’ll just ask you to agree with me that “detective story” has a very particular meaning, and it’s differentiated from other similar concepts like “crime story”, “spy story”, etc. First, a detective story must, ipso facto, contain a detective. I think you’ll agree that there must be a crime within the story that is investigated (“detected”) by that detective, and by and large that crime is murder. For the most part that crime is solved in the course of the story by the detective, and the criminal is brought to justice. This all seems very simple and straightforward, but I’ve learned in the past that when you’re dealing with slippery ideas it’s best to define your terms. Certainly there are detective stories not concerned with murder (Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers comes to mind) and occasionally a criminal gets away or “cheats the hangman” by committing suicide, etc. But for most detective stories, there’s a detective and a murder and a solution and a criminal.

e837293de9a79e7c468db088cea80a1a--cluedo-table-plansWhether or not detective stories are a “game” is something that I’ve seen discussed, and participated in discussing, practically to the point of screaming when the topic arises. So I will merely say that many, many people consider detective stories to have the nature of a game, a kind of battle of wits; but I don’t believe the definition of “detective story” should be restricted in this way, so as to entirely outlaw non-ludic approaches.

What follows purports to be “laws” governing the creation of a detective story. When I started looking at these 20 rules of Van Dine’s, I thought “Hmm, some of these aren’t rules.” And indeed, some of them aren’t. Quite a bit of the content of Van Dine’s article is two other things: (1) material that will enable you to discern if something is a detective story or not, and (2) material that lets you know which elements of detective stories Van Dine doesn’t like, or thinks are overdone.

Here’s a transcription of my notes as I read through the 20 Rules. You might want to open a copy of Van Dine’s original article in another window and follow along.

  1. Mostly correct, although it assumes that detective stories contain detectives, mysteries, and clues. I’d suggest the reader must have AN opportunity to solve the mystery before the detective announces the solution and should be in possession of all necessary information; deductions are another matter entirely.
  2. I’m not entirely sure what this means, but I suspect it has to do with mysteries that feature an unreliable narrator, like at least one Agatha Christie novel that I bet all my readers are muttering the name of at this point. Whatever Van Dine means, I’m not sure I care to bar anything from the detective story, and I like stories with an unreliable narrator.
  3. 51Cil1Cm-yLJust plain wrong, and plainly merely a dislike of Van Dine’s. If the A plot is a murder mystery, the B plot can be anything the author desires, and I think Patricia Wentworth demonstrates that romance works quite well.
  4. Ditto, although Rule 1 applies.
  5. Mostly correct, although Trent’s Last Case is an example of where this premise can fail. There’s an entire school of humorous detective story writers that would disagree also.
  6. Agreed, at least with the first sentence. The rest is either obvious or a statement of the kind of book Van Dine likes to read.
  7. I agree there usually should be a murder, although I offer Gaudy Night again. I am pleased to see Van Dine note that Americans (remember, this was published in The American Magazine) wish to bring the perpetrator to justice. The quote is from Act 1, Scene 5 of Hamlet and might be rephrased as “Murder is always horrible.” I think personally a lot of mystery writers and detective story writers tend to forget that murder is horrible, and I’d like us all to remember that; we’re a bit desensitized these days by television programmes that are thinly disguised torture porn.
  8. HangmanI completely agree, although I have no issue with stories that raise the spectre of supernatural activities as long as they are debunked completely by the end. Vide John Dickson Carr and Hake Talbot.
  9. Just plain wrong, and plainly merely a dislike of Van Dine’s. He assumes that his way of telling the story is the only way. I believe, however, that it’s a tenet of good fiction writing in a general sense that there should be a single protagonist, or a single individual with whom the reader identifies. So this is a generalized quality of good writing and not merely of good detective stories. For the rest of it — I give you The Moonstone, with its multiple narrators.
  10. Absolutely correct, although “in whom he takes an interest” might be overstating the case.  John Dickson Carr, in The Grandest Game in the World, put it as “any character whose thoughts we have been allowed to share.” I also disagree with that stricture; I wrote about it three years ago in a review of New Graves at Great Norne by Henry Wade. See also Rule 11.
  11. 1682156-inline-inline-2-a-real-life-butler-weighs-in-on-downton-abbeyWrong, wrong, wrong; merely Van Dine’s personal dislike, and snobby and elitist to boot. If Rule 10 is correct, Van Dine is saying here that servants cannot play a prominent part in the story; the way this reads, Van Dine thinks servants or menials are not “worthwhile” and capable of offering a spirited chase to the detective (or, perhaps, that they don’t have thoughts worth sharing). That’s a statement of his ideas about social class, but it should have nothing to do with detective stories.
  12. 95dec7a7d8f170fa5f4024758664a26fPossibly correct, in terms of guiding the “indignation of the reader,” but why bother making this rule? Half of the output of Freeman Wills Crofts disproves it, to name but one author.
  13. Correct; what Van Dine is saying here is that detective fiction is neither adventure fiction nor secret-service romance. It’s just a definitional issue. I gather he doesn’t care for those sub-genres.
  14. Correct, with the same stricture as I applied to Rule 8.
  15. I agree with at least the first sentence, although I think that the number of people who actually solve Golden Age mysteries before reading the final chapter is much, much smaller than Van Dine seems to think. The last sentence of this goes way beyond the evidence he’s offering and although it seems reasonable, I’d like to sit down and argue this out with a couple of well-read friends. Yes, there are readers who spurn the “popular” novel but read detective stories. But to assert that this is because of the possibility that the reader can possibly solve the mystery before the fictional detective is far, far too all-encompassing a statement to suit me. Frankly, I think it’s far more likely that they — we — read Golden Age detective stories because they eschew emotional content and we prefer that kind of emotion-free story. It may be a bug and not a feature.
  16. UnknownIt’s certainly true that Van Dine wrote his own books as if he agreed with this extraordinary statement; they mostly lack atmosphere and description (although Benson turns on subtly worked-out character analysis and Bishop and Dragon rely on creepy atmosphere for part of their charms). It rather makes me sad to think that he thought so little of the intelligence of readers and/or the writing abilities of his fellow writers that he thought it impossible to write a book with descriptive passages, character analyses, and atmosphere that would still perform all the functions of a detective story. Instead he prefers to pigeonhole detective stories and make them equivalent to a “ball game or … a cross-word puzzle”. I really dislike this idea; I want more. In fact I want as much atmosphere and description and characterization as I can get, along with the mystery, and I feel that many writers who wrote after Van Dine give it to me.
    My understanding is that many Golden Age detective story writers felt that in-depth characterization was inappropriate because it gave the reader a way of bypassing the correct “game” structure and instead allowed them to pick the murderer by his/her psychological profile — or, simply put, that the murderer was the person whose character the author most wanted you to understand. Well, as Van Dine himself notes, there are people who get their “answer out of the back of the arithmetic” and whether or not detective stories are a game, they’re not playing properly.  Too bad, but let’s not cater to that lowest common denominator.
  17. Just plain wrong (had he not read the Father Brown stories featuring Flambeau?) and I suppose a personal prejudice. There’s at least one novel by Anthony Berkeley that turns this on its head.
  18. 37dec98c957979fa20eadf6394380fc2Although I agree for the most part, I can think of at least one Sherlock Holmes story that disproves this idea conclusively and, frankly, there’s no reason for it to be a “rule”. If Van Dine is playing a game, and if the logical chain of events leads to accident or suicide and is fairly before the reader, how can this be wrong?
  19. Again, this is Van Dine distinguishing between detective stories and secret-service tales and war stories. The part that interests me is the two final sentences here; I think the emphasis on gemütlichkeit is misplaced, given Rule 7’s emphasis on the horror of murder. The last sentence is quite astonishing and I’m not sure I quite understand what Van Dine was getting at. If there are readers who have everyday experience with puzzle mysteries, I think I’m happy not to be one of them. And as an outlet for “repressed desires and emotions”? I think anyone who uses detective stories as that kind of outlet needs psychiatric help. Is he suggesting that people read detective stories because they want to commit crimes in their everyday life — or even solve them? Perhaps I’ve misunderstood; no doubt my readers will lead me to the light in their comments.
  20. imagesI must note right off the bat that Van Dine threw this in to make the numbers up to 20 Rules; he says so. That being said, this is nothing more than a list of ten things that Van Dine thinks are out of style. and in no sense a “rule”. It amused me to consider that (a) is so different in 2018 that, if you did manage to find a cigarette butt on the scene of a crime, not even considering DNA evidence from saliva, there are so few people who actually smoke these days that your criminal would stand out like a sore thumb. I’m not sure what (g) is referring to. For the remainder of these I can actually think of at least one specific story to which Van Dine would object; one is Poe’s Thou Art The Man. I’ll leave that exercise for the reader, for fear of spoilers.

I’m not sure if this next suggestion will strike fear into the hearts of my readers, or perhaps make them guffaw at how far out of my depth I am, or perhaps merely raise a dubious eyebrow, but I’m now working on my own set of rules, as yet undetermined as to number. I hope to bring that to you in the very near future.  Your suggestions are welcome.

 

 

My favourite puzzle mystery writers (part 2)

Here’s a couple more of my favourite puzzle mystery writers. It seems that most of these writers worked mainly in what’s known as the Golden Age, the 1930s and 1940s; as I said, this style of novel is very much out of favour these days. Its surviving relative is perhaps the cozy, although most cozy mysteries are not much on logical rigour.

Hake Talbot
This writer’s reputation rests pretty much on a single novel, Rim of the Pit. It’s a story that takes place in rural Canada, stars roguish gambler Rogan Kincaid, involves the legend of the wendigo, and features mysterious and apparently inexplicable events galore. The puzzle that’s at the heart of the novel is extremely difficult to work out — it helps if you’re a professional magician, and that’s all I’ll say on that score. There is a professional debunker of spiritualists in the book and he’s kept very busy. One of the things I most enjoyed about this novel was that, like John Dickson Carr, Talbot manages to infuse the proceedings with a strong air of the weird and strange, and makes it plausible that the events of the book could possibly have been instigated by some kind of supernatural being. Of course, to truly count as a mystery, there has to be a human at the bottom of it, and it is certainly so here. Rim of the Pit has always been a difficult book to obtain, although it has been published in paperback (including mapback) a couple of times; be prepared to spend some money to get a copy of this. Note that the illustration is from the most recent publication by Ramble House, although as near as I can tell the map on the back has been lifted from the 1940s Dell mapback edition.
Not quite so successful, and infinitely more difficult to obtain, is the author’s other claim to fame, The Hangman’s Handyman. I think it took me twenty years to track down a copy of this that I could afford, and I was forced to sell my first copy almost immediately; it was too expensive for me to hang on to. It’s recently been reprinted by Ramble House as well and you can get it at a tenth the price of the first edition at around $20. The Hangman’s Handyman is the name of a killer current that swirls around the coastline of a mysterious island; the obligatory creepy mansion plays host to a supernatural force called the odh that kills people and rots their bodies overnight. Rogan Kincaid figures it all out and gets the girl.

Edmund Crispin

Edmund Crispin
The nine detective novels featuring Oxford don Gervase Fen will be a delight to the reader. I can do no better than quote Wikipedia (I may have even contributed these phrases): they have “complex plots and fantastic, somewhat unbelievable solutions, including examples of the locked room mystery. They are written in a humorous, literary and sometimes farcical style and contain frequent references to English literature, poetry, and music.” Crispin’s reputation rests largely on The Moving Toyshop, but I cannot say I agree with the popular taste on this one — it is far less inventive than others. My own favourite is Love Lies Bleeding, where the setting is a private (“public”) school and the victim a schoolmaster named Love, but other excellent entries are Holy Disorders, Frequent Hearses and The Long Divorce. Frankly, they’re all very enjoyable, and I don’t really understand why people like The Moving Toyshop so much, it seems to me to be the weakest. Crispin (a composer of film music) is at his best when he composes around a central theme with multiple fantastic variations, and this novel has very little in the way of side excursions. (Also it will be easy to solve if you are a fan of early Ellery Queen, whereas the others are extremely difficult under any circumstances.) Gervase Fen is a kind of Sherlock Holmes on LSD, constantly making bizarre literary references and going off on wild tangents, and this reader at least enjoys being distracted effectively from the central murderous events by his antics. Twenty-five years after last setting down his pen, and shortly before his death from, among other things, chronic alcoholism, Crispin emerged with The Glimpses of the Moon (1977), which is far more farcical than his other work but also contains at its core a brilliantly complicated puzzle that will have you slapping your forehead when you finally realize what happened to the victim’s missing arm. The novels can be read in no particular order, but I often recommend chronological, which would have you starting with The Case of the Gilded Fly.

Anthony Boucher

As I’ve commented here, I’m not reading very many actual physical murder mystery books these days.  Indeed, many of the ones that have passed through my hands recently were *not* read for pleasure but skimmed for ideas and/or to analyze where they went wrong.  So I will not be treating you all to a scathing review of the work of, say, Leslie Meier.  For one thing, it wouldn’t really be all that scathing.  Ms. Meier writes simple cozies and I am emphatically not her target audience, so why should I take offense at being treated like a dummy if that’s what her readership — which I take to be considerable — actually wants from her?  I was merely curious about how she manages to sell what she manages to sell, and how well she writes, and so on.  So I picked up three of them at a garage sale and skimmed them to see the voice she was using, and the underlying structure, and the opening lines, and how she handled the introduction of characters, etc. Possibly it will be considered scathing to say that she is a “competent” writer. But I think it’s just a case of what an old queen of my acquaintance used to call NOSD — “not our sort, dear”. If you like her work, feel free to keep liking it.  I will continue to avoid it, but not for any vituperative reason, merely that it’s not to my taste.

But a friend recently returned to me a copy of The Case of the Seven Sneezes (1942) by Anthony Boucher, and THAT was worth re-reading for pleasure. Yes, I’d given him the edition whose cover you see here — I love Dell mapbacks. (Look them up in Wikipedia if you’re not aware of them.) Boucher’s mysteries are relatively scarce in paperback and one or two of them are darn near impossible to find, notably The Case of the Seven of Calvary. But they are decidedly worth tracking down if you are a fan of the classic puzzle mystery.

Mr. Boucher was many, many things in the writing field and good at all of them.  He was a superb reviewer of mysteries, he wrote them himself, he was also a science-fiction writer of note, and a great anthologist.  He was also responsible for an enormous body of work writing radio scripts and you can probably find the Sherlock Holmes radio programmes with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as MP3s, freely available, if you go searching for them.

His mysteries are fascinating examples of the puzzle mystery and one or two of them are even locked room mysteries, or “impossible crime” mysteries.  (Again, if you’re not up on this sub-genre, I recommend Wikipedia.) This particular novel takes place on a tiny island and, in the classic pattern, all entry to and exit from the island is controlled in such a way that the suspects are limited to only the people on the island at the time — no extraneous characters can possibly be responsible or even accomplices.  Someone was killing cats and people at a wedding reception 25 years ago and seems to be repeating the pattern in the present day (which is in the 1940s, as I recall without having the book at hand).

I admit that this sort of book held much, much more delight for me in the past than it does these days. As a younger reader, I found myself able to overlook certain mawkish elements like cardboard-y characters and silly plot twists — at one point in this particular novel, a man escapes certain death by stabbing because his heart is on the wrong side of his body, which is a little too much like a cheap radio script for my tastes — in favour of the sheer inventiveness and creativity that Boucher brought to his work, and large quantities of cutting-edge daring. To the modern reader, some of the inventiveness and creativity may go unnoticed and the daring may be overlooked. For instance, in TCOSS,  there is a character (Alyx) who is, essentially, what used to be called a “nymphomaniac” (in present-day terms, a sex addict).  It’s she who is depicted on the cover, threatening to cry rape and tearing her stocking to add verisimilitude. Well, that you can see on daytime TV these days.  But in the 1940s, OMG, that was shocking. Dangerously close to unpublishable. People just did not talk about sex in mysteries of the 1940s in such an open way. They also didn’t speak of these things in terms of psychological syndromes. In this novel, Boucher actually lays the groundwork for the realization of the reader that not only is the nymphomanaical Alyx a sex addict, but she is that way for reasons connected with traumatic events in her past.  Again, that seems simple to the modern reader, but that was not the type of conclusion that people were encouraged to draw in the 1940s.  Think of Carmen Sternwood, for instance. It was only at the level of Raymond Chandler’s writing that this sort of sexual pathology was acceptable.  In the pulps, I think the best explanation for the lack of that kind of verisimilitude is that (a) there was a kind of self-censorship to stay within the obscenity laws of the time, and (b) I suspect there was a common understanding among pulp writers that the audience just wouldn’t get it.

But I digress.  One of the reasons that I enjoy Boucher’s work so much is that he has, simply put, a great sense of humour.  It’s not especially evident in this specific novel, but it permeates his work like an undercurrent.  His detective, Fergus O’Breen, is not especially realistic, but constantly lulls the reader into a sense of mild amusement with his brash comments and general approach.

The main reason, though, is the thought that went into the plotting. Obviously it would be terrible to reveal whodunit, for instance, and I have no intention of doing that here. But Boucher’s level of intricate plotting is equaled by very, very few writers — people like Christianna Brand, Anthony Berkeley, Ellery Queen, Hake Talbot.  The amount of thought that goes into constructing such a plot is monumental.  I can’t say you will never figure this one out, because I actually did (but based on a principle that is unfair to this great writer, since it’s more based on my knowledge of the way mysteries work than anything else).

Incidentally, the “marooned on the island” theme is of course common to the country-house mystery genre of this period; if I were teaching this novel, I’d suggest that students would “compare and contrast” this to, say, Ellery Queen’s The Siamese Twin Mystery and/or The Spanish Cape Mystery, or Hake Talbot’s The Hangman’s Handyman.  Especially now that I’m not one of the few people in the world who’s read that last one, since Ramble House has re-published it. Or, of course, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. You can find examples of the closed circle throughout this sub-genre, but this one of Boucher’s is especially well-done.  Sometimes OTT, but a good, solid, enjoyable read that will probably surprise you at the end.