Friday, April 17, 2015

Adventure classics -- Writing mysteries: rules to follow, or not

Searching the Dallas Public Library’s catalogue Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Yellow Room, the mystery under discussion this month, I discovered another “yellow” detective novel, Gaston Leroux’s 1908 The Mystery of the Yellow Room. Really, two mysteries involving rooms of the same color?

The Dallas copy of Leroux’s story was part of a multivolume set of detective-mystery novels published by Scribner’s in 1928. It came with an additional bonus, a preface by S.S. Van Dine (pseudonym of American critic Willard Huntington Wright), in which he listed what he considered the most important detective novels of his time. In addition to Leroux, the writers were Arthur Conan Doyle, Israel Zangwill, R. Austin Freeman, A.E. W. Mason, Philip MacDonald and Freeman Wills Crofts.
image: wikimedia commons

I knew Doyle, of course. And Leroux I’d come across previously, as the author of the original Phantom of the Opera. For the rest, all I could wonder was, who are these people? Then I realized, none of them were women, although detective fiction’s golden age mysterians Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers had been scribbling for years before Van Dine wrote his preface. Possibly even stranger, all except Leroux were British, at least sort of British (Crofts was Anglo-Irish).

After unearthing Van Dine’s 20 famous rules for writing detective stories, I began to find clues to his inclusions and exclusions from the hallowed list. Published originally in 1928, the same year he wrote his preface to Scribner’s mystery series, his rules are now widely available online. I liked the updated version at but here’s the my brief version:

1.      State all clues
2.      Don’t trick the reader
3.      No love interest
4.      Don’t make the detective the murderer
5.      No accidental solutions
6.      There must be a detective
7.      There must be a corpse
8.      No supernatural solutions
9.      Only one detective
10.  Culprit must be a major player
11.  Culprit must be a worthwhile person
12.  Only one culprit
13.  No wholesale culpability
14.  Murder method and detection must be rational
15.  All clues must be provided
16.  No extraneous material
17.  No professional criminals
18.  No accidental deaths or suicides
19.  Motives must be personal
20.  Finally, Van Dine lists a number of too-frequently used devices to avoid, i.e., no nonbarking dogs, etc.

These aren't bad rules, but if followed too closely they’re strangling. Leroux, for example, breaks several. So does Doyle. Maybe Mr. Van D cut them some slack for having written prior to the issuance of his revelations. And no doubt, Van Dine detested the success of women writers such as Christie, who stomped rule number 4 to bits with 1926's Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and would break even more rules with Murder on the Orient Express in 1934.
Fortunately for fans of the genre, the most gilded decade of the Golden Age of detective fiction was still to come, often from non-British writers who didn’t always hew to Van Dine’s rules, writers such as Dashiell Hammett with The Maltese Falcon (1930), the first appearance of Georges Simenon (1931), and Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939). RIP, Mr. Van Dine.
(Next Friday, Adventure classics looks at that other “yellow” mystery, Gaston Leroux’s The Mystery of the Yellow Room.) 

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