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October 17, 2015

A few months ago I took a week-long seminar at Brandeis University on the subject of Hollywood westerns.  During one session we had a discussion about writing screenplays and novels.  The class leader mentioned that there was an on-line list of ten rules for writing fiction, so naturally after reading that list I checked the internet for ten rules for writing detective fiction.

I found many lists on this topic, including Raymond Chandler’s “Ten Commandments for Writing a Detective Novel,” S. S. Van Dine’s “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories,” Niall Leonard’s “How to Write the Perfect Crime Story.”  You get the idea–there are numerous tips for creating the perfect mystery novel.  Some are still in vogue today, many years after they were created, while others are not.  Here’s a look at three of them:

  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.  This precept has been violated countless times in detective fiction, most notably (spoiler alerts) more than half a century ago in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and today in Gone Girl.
  2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.  Given the popularity of vampires and spirits on mystery shelves today, I’d say this is another rule that has gone by the wayside.
  3. If you get bogged down, just kill somebody.  Unfortunately, this rule is followed way too often.  Apparently some authors think that there cannot be a pause in the action or they will lose the reader, so another body is thrown into the mix.

Obviously, what is apparent is that there really aren’t rules or tips that automatically will create a riveting detective/crime novel.  The beauty of the genre is that a talented author may subscribe to all of these rules or none at all when writing.  Whether the author chooses plot over character development (Christie) or makes “place” central to the story  (P. D. James) or barely mentions it is of less significance than her/his skill in creating a mystery that will hold the reader’s interest.  We readers are very fortunate that there are so many writers, past and present, who are able to do this.


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