Over the years, the rules and conventions of the mystery genre have changed, and they’re still evolving. In the process of questioning a couple of the current conventions, I looked back at some old ones: the “ten commandments” of detective fiction set out by Ronald Knox in 1929, and the Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories that S.S. Van Dine published in the American Magazine in September 1928. Van Dine’s list is long, so I’ve placed it at the end of this post. Here are Knox’s commandments:
- The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.
- All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
- Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
- No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
- No Chinaman must figure in the story.
- No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
- The detective himself must not commit the crime.
- The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.
- The “sidekick” of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
- Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.
I imagine you’re laughing at some of these. Number five is glaringly dated, of course, an artifact of the biases and stereotypes of Knox’s times. The rule about the sidekick’s intelligence is irrelevant as well as comical, since mystery fiction seldom includes sidekicks anymore. Most recent books lack secret passages, also, so limiting the number isn’t an issue. And in the rare book that has them, the author might legitimately use more than one. I recently enjoyed M.L. Eaton’s When the Clocks Stopped, a well-crafted book that breaks that rule as well as the supernatural one. Historically, the Romney Marsh area of England, where the story is set, had a lot of smugglers and secret passages, and this aspect of the past shows up when a village seems to be haunted. This novel breaks one of Van Dine’s rules as well—there simply must be a corpse— providing plenty of mystery without one.
Van Dine’s rule number three—there must be no love interest—hasn’t held up as well as the corpse rule has. In almost every current mystery series, the main character’s love life is woven into overall arc of the books. In the past, the protagonist might be an eccentric like Nero Wolfe or Hercule Poirot, making a love story unlikely, and focusing the plot on the puzzle of “whodunit.” Those books are great, but the genre would have stagnated if writers had kept trying to reproduce that model of a mystery.
A convention in many recent mysteries breaks both Knox’s first rule—showing the criminal’s thoughts—and Van Dine’s second: “No willful tricks or deceptions may be played on the reader other than those played legitimately by the criminal on the detective himself.” I’m referring to the anonymous bad person’s point of view. All the other characters in the book have names, faces and identities, but then the author delivers information about a crime through scenes featuring a character who is only a pronoun. I’m not a fan of this device, even though some excellent writers have done it. James D. Doss wrote some creative variations on this kind of scene by using the point of view of a prairie dog, a deer, or a mouse. With Ute mysticism and vivid descriptions of nature integrated into his plots, and his mastery of the omniscient third person, he could pull it off, and it flowed more naturally for me than the faceless criminal’s viewpoint.
A convention that seems to be almost a rule now is the confrontation-and-confession. The criminal has the protagonist at gun point, or knife point, or on the edge of a cliff at gunpoint or knife point. He could kill her. But he delays. She gets him to talk. He brags about how he executed those last little details of his crime that she couldn’t figure out. He might even tell her why he did it. This buys her time to either come up with a way to disarm him, or for her colleagues—the cavalry—to come in.
Sometimes when I read a scene like this, it this drives me crazy. Sometimes I read one and it works. As a writer, I look for ways to get around it or to make it different and more natural. Of course, since I break the corpse rule and don’t have murders in my books, there’s never going to be a killer holding Mae at gunpoint, but I do have characters who do bad things, and I have to wrap up the mystery of how and why they did them. I asked fellow mystery writers what they thought of the confession convention, and I learned that I’m not alone in trying to reshape it.
One writer said she’d found the convention so unrealistic she didn’t use it, but then her editor told her to revise the book and put it in. The editor’s logic: It’s like a ritual, a catharsis, and readers may feel short-changed without it. They want to know motives, have a climactic scene, and have closure on the mystery.
Writers want to deliver that without using the same ending over and over, and without stretching their readers’ suspension of disbelief to the point that it crashes. When do we have satisfying endings, believable suspense, a kind of mythic pattern of danger and redemption, and when do we have a cliché?
One fellow writer who calls herself a recovering lawyer said that in real life the bad guy tells his lawyer, not the sleuth who caught him. Another mentioned that before they’re caught, criminals sometimes boast to drinking buddies and family members. Anyone who thinks he or she got away with something clever may feel the need to share it. Criminals convicted of one crime may tell cell mates about another crime that was never solved, feeling they have nothing to lose. In fiction, the bad guy (or gal) more often feels proud and safe boasting to the sleuth he thinks he’s about to kill. This urge to display one’s success is one of the motives writers have used to make this convention—sometimes—effective and believable.
A writer who had attended several citizens’ police academies said she’d learned that criminals often confess once they realize there’s a convincing amount of evidence against them, but they seldom do so with the insight into their motives that we get in these mystery novel confessions. Many of us law-abiding folks don’t know why we do what we do. We lie to ourselves, fool ourselves, and rationalize and justify. It’s more believable when the fictional criminal does that, too, if and when he explains his motive.
My favorite response to my question about the confession-confrontation was from a writer who said she and her husband see it done all the time on TV and find themselves yelling at the screen, “Stop talking and shoot the guy! For gosh sake!”
Van Dine’s rules:
- The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.
- No willful tricks or deceptions may be played on the reader other than those played legitimately by the criminal on the detective himself.
- 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 someone a bright penny for a five-dollar gold piece. It is false pretenses.
- The culprit must be determined by logical deductions—not by accident or coincidence or unmotivated confession. To solve a criminal problem in this latter fashion is like sending the reader on a deliberate wild-goose chase, and then telling him, after he has failed, that you had the object of his search up your sleeve all the time. Such an author is no better than a practical joker.
- The detective novel must have a detective in it; and a detective is not a detective unless he detects. His function is to gather clues that will eventually lead to the person who did the dirty work in the first chapter; and if the detective does not reach his conclusions through an analysis of those clues, he has no more solved his problem than the schoolboy who gets his answer out of the back of the arithmetic.
- 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 bother for a crime other than murder. After all, the reader's trouble and expenditure of energy must be rewarded.
- The problem of the crime must he solved by strictly naturalistic means. Such methods for learning the truth as slate-writing, Ouija-boards, mind-reading, spiritualistic séances, crystal-gazing, and the like, are taboo. A reader has a chance when matching his wits with a rationalistic detective, but if he must compete with the world of spirits and go chasing about the fourth dimension of metaphysics, he is defeated ab initio.
- There must be but one detective—that is, but one protagonist of deduction—one deus ex machina. To bring the minds of three or four, or sometimes a gang of detectives to bear on a problem, is not only to disperse the interest and break the direct thread of logic, but to take an unfair advantage of the reader. If there is more than one detective the reader does not know who his coeducator is. It is like making the reader run a race with a relay team.
- The culprit must turn out to be a person who has played a more or less prominent part in the story—that is, a person with whom the reader is familiar and in whom he takes an interest.
- 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.
- There must be but one culprit, no matter how many murders are committed. The culprit may, of course, have a minor helper or co-plotter; but the entire onus must rest on one pair of shoulders: the entire indignation of the reader must be permitted to concentrate on a single black nature.
- Secret societies, camorras, mafias, et al., have no place in a detective story. A fascinating and truly beautiful murder is irremediably spoiled by any such wholesale culpability. To be sure, the murderer in a detective novel should be given a sporting chance; but it is going too far to grant him a secret society to fall back on. No high-class, self-respecting murderer would want such odds.
- The method of murder, and the means of detecting it, must be rational and scientific. That is to say, pseudo-science and purely imaginative and speculative devices are not to be tolerated in the roman policier. Once an author soars into the realm of fantasy, in the Jules Verne manner, he is outside the bounds of detective fiction, cavorting in the uncharted reaches of adventure.
- The truth of the problem must at all times be apparent—provided the reader is shrewd enough to see it. By this I mean that if the reader, after learning the explanation for the crime, should reread the book, he would see that the solution had, in a sense, been staring him in the face—that all the clues really pointed to the culprit—and that, if he had been as clever as the detective, he could have solved the mystery himself without going on to the final chapter. That the clever reader does often thus solve the problem goes without saying.
- A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no "atmospheric" preoccupations. Such matters have no vital place in a record of crime and deduction. They hold up the action and introduce issues irrelevant to the main purpose, which is to state a problem, analyze it, and bring it to a successful conclusion. To be sure, there must be a sufficient descriptiveness and character delineation to give the novel verisimilitude.
- A professional criminal must never be shouldered with the guilt of a crime in a detective story. Crimes by housebreakers and bandits are the province of the police departments — not of authors and brilliant amateur detectives. A really fascinating crime is one committed by a pillar of a church, or a spinster noted for her charities.
- A crime in a detective story must never turn out to be an accident or a suicide. To end an odyssey of sleuthing with such an anti-climax is to hoodwink the trusting and kind-hearted reader.
- The motives for all crimes in detective stories should be personal. International plotting and war politics belong in a different category of fiction — in secret-service tales, for instance. But a murder story must be kept gemütlich, so to speak. It must reflect the reader's everyday experiences, and give him a certain outlet for his own repressed desires and emotions.
- And (to give my Credo an even score of items) I herewith list a few of the devices which no self-respecting detective story writer will now avail himself of. They have been employed too often, and are familiar to all true lovers of literary crime. To use them is a confession of the author's ineptitude and lack of originality. (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 séance 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.
Thanks are due to my fellow members of Sisters in Crime who answered my question about the confrontation/confession scene.