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Author Topic: Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories  (Read 6979 times)

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Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories
« on: October 03, 2006, 04:28:52 PM »

Tuesday, October 30, 2001 10:50 AM

In the anthology, PHILO VANCE MURDER CASES by S.S. Van Dine [Scribners 1936], Van Dine had an article "Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories" beginning on page 74. The copyright page attributes copyright to W.H. Wright (Willard Huntington Wright is Van Dine's real name) and lists years 1929, 1930, 1933 and 1936 (the book contained the Scarab, Kennel and Dragon murder cases released in the years mentioned in the copyright ('29, '30 and '33 respectively) and some articles one of which was the above since this book came out in 1936, I am assuming this is the first occurrence of the essay).

Those rules are:

1) The reader should have equal opportunity as the detective to solve the crime.

2) No tricks can be played to mislead the reader unless it's also done to the detective by the criminal.

3) No love interest.

4) The detective nor one of the official investigators can turn out to be the criminal

5) The bad guy must be found by logical deduction; not luck, accident, un-motivated confessions.

6) It must have a detective who also solves the crime (by detection).

7) It must be a murder mystery ("...the deader the corpse the better....").

8) The solution must come by "naturalistic means". I.E. no ouija-boards.

9) Only one detective; not a team.

10) The bad guy has to be someone who played a prominent part of the story.

11) The culprit can't be a servant (none of this, "The butler did it").

12) Only one murderer. The bad guy could have a help or "co-plotter", but only one is going to get the ax in the matter.

13) No secret societies or "...mafias, et al...." The murder, too, needs a sporting chance to out wit the detective.

14) The method of the murder must not be beyond the plausible. No super-natural means or the introduction of a fictional device or element ("--super-radium, let us say--" is not fair).

15) Truth of the problem must be apparent. The reader should be able to pick the book upon completion and see that the solution was in fact starring at him all the time.

16) The detective "novel" but be just that, no side issues of "...literary dallying..." nor can there be "...'atmospheric' preoccupations..." These devices interfere with the purpose of detective fiction "...which is to state a problem, analyze it..." and solve it.

17) The culprit must be an amateur, not a professional criminal.

18) The solution must never be an accident or suicide.

19) Motives for the crime must be personal, not political or professional.

20) Don't use any of the following devices...they've been done or constitute "cheating":

a) comparing the butt of a cigarette with that of the a suspect (not the suspect's butt;
the suspect's brand of cigarette :) ...sometimes paraphrasing leads you into trouble)
b) Using a seance to frighten the culprit into revealing himself
c) No phony finger prints.
d) don't use a dummy figure to establish a false alibi
e) learning that the culprit was familiar because the dog didn't bark.
f) No fair having "the twin" do it
g) Don't use knock-out drops
h) If the murder's in a locked room, it has to be done BEFORE the police have actually broken in.
i) Word-Association test for guilt is overdone
j) The solution is in a coded message which takes the detective until the end of book to figure out. That's a no-no.

Bob Mueller
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