Saturday, August 4, 2007

Crime writing by the rules

As a reader and part-time writer of crime fiction, I'm familiar enough with most of the rules of the genre -- for example, your story had better have a corpse in it. But if you'd pressed me on it, I would have listed maybe five such rules. Turns out there are 20, at least according to this list, first published in 1928 by mystery-writing legend Willard Huntington Wright. (Don't know WHW? Then you don't know jack.)

Actually, by today's standards, just about five of the rules still seem to be in force -- including the one about the corpse. Some of the others might be a little dated. No. 11, for example:

"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."

Oooh-kay. No servants. What else should the aspiring mystery writer guard against? Rule No. 20 is a handy guide to keep by the desk:

"I herewith list a few of the devices which no self-respecting detective story writer will now avail himself of. ... 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 se'ance 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."

Hey, is this a list of no-no's, or really great ideas? I've never even heard of "the dummy-figure alibi." Although I will own up to considering a few of the other devices listed above, at some point or other. So that's why those stories didn't sell...


Patricia Harrington said...

Well, I have to tell you that I love some of those "no-no" mystery writing rules. I've employed a few of them and felt darn good about doing so. In fact, one of those you posted is going to end up in Murder Visits Antigua. What the hey! It is a Golden Age mystery. FYI, I linked over from a posting at the GA forum group. So you have a growing audience, it seems.

Best to you!

Pat Harrington

Dave Knadler said...

Yes, it's not really about following the rules -- everything old becomes new again somewhere down the road. It's all in the presentation, right?

Thanks for dropping by, Pat. I'll keep an eye out for "Murder in Antigua."

Uriah Robinson said...

"There is nothing new under the sun. It has all been done..."
Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet.

I wonder how many of the plots in those Golden Age Detective stories are rehashed in a modern setting by crime writers. But there is probably a 60 year statute of limitations on plagiarism.

Dave Knadler said...

There's a reason they call it the Golden Age. Those plots -- like the classic locked-room mystery -- are just fun,in all their infinite variations.

Next up for me: an attempt at the dummy-figure alibi!

Peter said...

Do you know about Father Ronald A. Knox's lighthearted list of rules from 1929? Josef Skvorecky wrote a book called Sins for Father Knox in which each story violates one of the rules, and Skvorecky invites the reader to guess where each rule is broken. (He gives the answers at the back of the book.)
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home" each rule is broken.

Dave Knadler said...

I was unaware of that list, and I can't get the link to go anywhere -- but the Skvorecky book sounds fun. Is it hard to spot the broken "rules"?

Peter said...

I don't remember if I committed the rules to memory before I read the stories. In some, I failed to spot the breach. In at least one case, I found it. But the stories are fun regardless. They feature the characters from Skvorecky's stories about Lt. Boruvka, which are worth reading.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home" each rule is broken.

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