According to van Dinetalking about detective fictionthe
mysterious event must be nothing less than a murder:
There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel
lesser crime than murder will suffice. Three hundred pages is
far too much pother for a crime other than murder. After all,
the readers trouble and expenditure of energy must be rewarded.
SS van Dine
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. SS van
In fandoms where you need to know the plural of the word apocalypse,
a single murder may not be sufficient. In that case, the event
must be something sudden, unexpected, unexplained and, above all,
abnormal, something that has the same ultimate crime
status in your alien- and/or demon-ridden fandom world as murder
has in the real world.
It must be sufficiently
seriousand mysteriousto warrant investigation.
It must be sufficiently serious to drive the investigator
take risksperhaps break laws and/or endanger himself and
othersin dogged pursuit of the solution.
It must be sufficiently serious to convince the reader
that the investigators behaviour is reasonable. (The reader/viewer
will be carried along by the momentum of the story as the investigation
escalates one step at a time, but I think its also the gravity
of the initial event that predisposes us to accept reckless behaviour
from the investigator).
If the mysterious event is violent, how explicitly should you
describe it? There are two issues to consider:
should you make the method, in terms of the mental and physical
pain endured by the victim?
Having decided on the method, how explicitly should
you make the description: should you describe the murderers plans,
his or her state of mind, the physical details of the method,
the victims suffering, the physical effects of the attack, the
trauma of the person who finds the body, the trauma experienced
by the investigator, as he or she becomes immersed in the crime?
Ultimately, the level of explicitness is a matter of your own
personal preferencewhatever you feel is necessary to the
story. It will be influenced by the level of normality you have
already established. In an English villageother than Midsummera
carving knife in the chest may be sufficiently shocking; on the
Miami waterfront, with Horatio Caine and his shades on the case,
something far more grotesque will be required!
For a fan fiction writer, explicitness also raises the difficult
question of warnings. Mystery stories are designed to thrill
the reader by generating and sustaining a level of menace, but
some readers find menace more distressing than actual violence.
My own approach to warnings is threefold:
Rating. I give the story the highest rating possible
(NC-17 or the equivalent). Some people believe that a rating of
R is sufficient for violence, and that NC-17 should be reserved
for sex, but I believe that violence merits a higher rating than
Warning. I warn for murder. In the
recent debate, people seemed less concerned with general warnings
of this type than with warnings for specific triggers,
but a murder label at least signals that the story will include
violence and threat.
Summary. In the summary I typically
include the phrase murder mystery or thriller.
For van Dine,
There must be but one detective
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
Its like making the reader run a race with a relay team.
SS van Dine
Ive already mentioned The Cure for all Diseases.
The first half of that book is written from two points of viewtwo
alternating first person narrativesfrom which the reader
has to construct a coherent account. Once the investigation gets
under way, however, the reader has to deal with no less than seven
different points of view and, for various reasons, is the only
person who is party to all of them. Far from dispersing the interest,
as van Dine suggests, this makes the reader an active but frustratingly
mute part of the investigation, and cranks up the tension to an
almost unbearable level.
The detective(s) in love. In addition, for van Dine,
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. SS van Dine
I mentioned before that some of these rules are routinely invertedwell,
Im going to invert this one, and put bells on it, and say, But
a mystery can really spice-up a love story!
My own first story began as a (very boring) romance; when I wove
a murder into the existing chapters the effect was like waving
a magic wandthe fluffiness enlivened the investigation,
the investigation enlivened the fluffy bits. If you are writing
about an established couple in an ongoing relationship, and you
want to add some drama without resorting to adultery or separation
or any of the poorly conceived plot devices you see used in soaps,
a mystery story is a gift.
Character flaw of the month. Detectives, especially British
TV detectives, seem to attract character flaws like fly paper
attracts flies. The writers seem to use flaws as a shorthand,
meaning, the job is stressful and takes a toll, we havent
got time to show that properly but we can show you Jane
Tennison drinking. Flaws may also be grafted onto an otherwise
normal character to make him or her seem more human.
The danger is that the character flaws can overwhelm the plot
and turn the mystery into a poorly written character study. A
well-written ordinary person is interesting. Making the detective
into a compulsive gambler, liar, womaniser, drinker and, above
all, a narcissist, like Fitz in Cracker, does not make
him more interesting. It makes him boring.
A detective needs to be intelligent, but he or she can never
be more intelligent than the writer. If youre writing a
beautiful character, you can close your eyes and be
beautiful; if youre writing an athletic character, you can
close your eyes and be athletic; but you can never
close your eyes and be more intelligent. Intelligence cant be
faked, and if we try to fake it, our characters will just look
This is why, for me, TV!Frost is more convincing than TV!Morse.
Frosts methods are crude, but Frost is shrewd, and the viewer
never doubts that hell recognise the clues when they surface,
and make the necessary deductions. And I think thats because,
when the writers write Frost (or Lewis) they are not trying to
show intellect, they are just being smart and savvy themselves.
What about the clues? Our experts both insist that every
clue the reader will need in order to solve the mystery must be
stated in the story.
The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly
produced for the inspection of the reader. Ronald Knox
The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective
for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and
described. SS van Dine
Van Dine and Knox are describing the sort of mystery in which
all the clues are clearly stated but lateral thinking is required
to find the solution that connects them. Modern mysteries tend
to have more naturalistic solutions, and the clues need to be
hidden in plain sight.
To hide clues in plain sight, you can
Reveal them piecemeal, and in an illogical order (but always
have a good fictional reason for delaying the revelation).
Mention a clue and then change the subject (but not
so abruptly that you draw attention to the thing youre trying
Misdirect the reader or viewer with red herrings.
The important thing to remember is that you dont need to deceive
all of the people all of the time. There is nothing a mystery
reader likes better than to find the clues and solve the mystery
ahead of the characters, provided the clues dont seem too
Dont plan too far in advance. The clue-handling technique
I personally use (and which is endorsed by at least one mystery
writer I heard talking on the radio but whose name I didnt
catch) is dont plan too far ahead. As my anonymous source
said, If I dont know whats going to happen, the
reader certainly wont. What I tend to do is,
Use the first chapter to set the scene; place the murder at the
end of the chapter.
For the first half of the story, aim for at least one
mysterious development per chapter and dont worry too much about
anything beyond that chapter.
Half-way through the story, start looking at the clues
and solving the mystery.
If readers leave feedback that anticipates the solution
I have in mind, I may adjust the plot, even choosing a different
One disadvantage of this method is that, if youre posting a
the story as a work in progress, you cant go back and alter anything.
But you do have total control over what youre writing now. If
the first solution you think of doesnt fit the clues, you can
set it aside and think of another solution. (If the first solution
is really good, you can always use it in another story).
Whodunnit? SS van Dine, as you might expect, has a lot
to say on the subject of whodunnit!
There must be but one culprit, no matter how many murders
have no place in a detective story
To be sure, the murderer
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
A professional criminal must never be shouldered with the
A really fascinating crime is one committed by a pillar
of a church, or a spinster noted for her charities.
The motives for all crimes in detective stories should be
a murder story must
reflect the readers
everyday experiences, and give him a certain outlet for his own
repressed desires and emotions. SS van Dine
And, most of all,
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. Its false pretenses. SS van Dine
The detective must not himself commit the crime. Ronald
The person who famously broke this ruleor very nearlyand
made herself famous doing so, was Agatha Christie, in The Murder
of Roger Ackroyd.
Roger Ackroyd is a Poirot story in which the murderer
turns out to be the narrator (and Poirots assistant). The reader
has been inside his head for the entire story, and he has given
us all the clues, but hes hidden them so cleverlyso blatantlyit
would take a psychic to spot them on the first reading. And, to
pile insult upon injury, he spends the last chapter pointing out
exactly where, in his narrative, he hoodwinked us:
All true, you see. But suppose I had put a row of stars after
the first sentence! Would somebody then have wondered what exactly
happened in that blank ten minutes?
Its unexpected, its clever and its very unsettling. No wonder
some of the critics were so incensed by the story!
When we come to the end of the story, and normality is restored,
how much angst should we explore?
For me, its a matter of balance. The investigation will have
taxed the detective mentally and physically, and modern mystery
writers tend to show something of the consequences, but when a
reader comes to the end of one story, what he or she really wants
is to start reading the next.
If you have a cracking idea for your next story and are itching
to write it, no reader is going to criticise you for having your
characters pick themselves up, brush themselves down, and start
solving the next mystery.
SS Van Dine: Twenty Rules of Detective Fiction
Originally published in the American Magazine (1928)
1. The reader must have equal opportunity with
the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly
stated and described.
2. No wilful tricks or deceptions may be placed on the
reader other than those played legitimately by the criminal on
the detective himself.
3. 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.
4. 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. Its false pretenses.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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 readers trouble and expenditure
of energy must be rewarded.
8. 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 seances, 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.
9. 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
doesnt know who his codeductor is. Its like making the reader
run a race with a relay team.
10. 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.
11. 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
wouldnt ordinarily come under suspicion.
12. 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.
13. 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.
14. The method of murder, and the means of detecting it,
must be 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.
15. 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.
16. 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.
17. 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.
18. 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.
19. The motives for all crimes in detective stories should be
personal. International plottings 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 readers everyday experiences,
and give him a certain outlet for his own repressed desires and
20. 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 authors 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
seance 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.
Monsignor Ronald Knox: The Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction
Originally the Preface to Best Detective Stories of 1928-29
1. The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of
the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has
been allowed to follow.
2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as
a matter of course.
3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance
which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.
6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever
have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
7. The detective must not himself commit the crime.
8. The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly
produced for the inspection of the reader.
9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal
any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must
be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless
we have been duly prepared for them.
Knox was a regular radio broadcaster. In 1926, he caused widespread
panic by broadcasting a supposedly live report of a revolution
sweeping across London, complete with a programme of music interrupted
by the pounding of mortar fire, and eye-witness accounts of fighting
and lynchings. This was twelve years before Orson Welles
version of The War of the Worlds.