Breaking the Rules: Writing Detective Stories

Although honestly I do not have much exposure to the detective fiction genre as a whole (especially in English), but I understand why I like it. It isn’t just about the suspense, but more on how the audience or readers get a shot at figuring things out. It isn’t just about giving a murder scene and clues plus some plot twists and drama led to a perpetrator which was previously passerby A or side-character’s relative. It present’s clues and rationale on interpreting them, which engages with the reader, making detective fiction a standalone genre from the regular thriller or mystery fiction.

I brought this up because I was on my way on writing up a long novel of sorts on my own, but found out that I did not have enough substance to back up my ideas in a logical storytelling flow. So I decided to scrap the idea and start finding ways to piece them together, and I decided figured a piece-by-piece detective fiction series would give me the most space to grow.

As I did some browsing, I came across this article on rules about writing detective fiction. This sort of reminded me that one of the flaws of detective fiction is that it has too much rules to abide to in order to stay true to the genre as a whole. I recall reading a Japanese (translated to Chinese) book about the major stereotypes of detective fiction and how most mainstream Japanese detective series eventually fall into these stereotypes with consistency. In my opinion, it is time we start leaning on the edges and start crossing these outdated lines. Do not be mistaken as I am not here to blindly knock over all of the rules mentioned in the article, but rather give a direct opinon on whether this rule holds true or otherwise, and why.

The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.

I am mostly in agreement to this statement, as one of the most important aspects of writing is to actually engage with the audience. However if this rule implies that the detective’s line of thinking has to be clearly explained before the climax of the case, then I might have to disagree. One of my favorites is to lay down clues that are not exactly relevant to actually distract the reader, makign them develop a healthy amount of skepticism as well.

No willful tricks or deceptions may be placed on the reader other than those played legitimately by the criminal on the detective himself.

I don’t know what to think about this as I have issues trying to understand the significance of this rule and the implications if not followed. Looks too vague to be taken to heart.

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.

In my opinion the business in hand is not about the former either, but rather about the method and attitude of getting to the bottom of something. Issues like love interest can be brought up to bring more complications to the story, how the characters involved are going to deal with it can become great examples for daily issues.

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. It’s false pretenses.

Maybe it is a matter of definition, but if there are more than one detectives, why not?

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.

I have no issues with this, but I am not a fan of absolutes. I would rephrase this into something along the lines of having logical deductions take precedence, if anything,

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 arithmeti

I cannot imagine how a story is going to unfold otherwise, so yes.

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 reader’s trouble and expenditure of energy must be rewarded.

This is pretty controversial, I believe mysteries beyond murder can be much more interesting then murder itself as there are much more worse things then death. I am not sure if I have seen a detective story break this stereotype, but it would be fascinating to read or watch any detective story that breaks this bland generalization.

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 se’ances, 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

I am obviously much inclined to agree with this. However, I would think that supernatural elements can be part of the deduction process only if the fictional world has a well established physical rule for the supernatural aspects (for instance, if you involve magic, come out with a set of rules for how magic is applied and its limitations). The idea is to avoid a deus ex machina which automatically becomes the answer for everything.

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 doesn’t know who his codeductor is. It’s like making the reader run a race with a relay team.

I don’t really agree with this although the rationale is pretty solid. I have came across pretty good stories which involves multiple protagonists working together to make up for a lack of a single great detective.

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.

This is a pretty good rule in general. However, this is obviously not a good rule if the story involves capturing a culprit who is on the run.

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.

Solid rationale, but as with most rules if this is followed too often this can make things too predictable for the reader. I would rather not stick to this, but it is a good rule to keep in mind.

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.

I was about to go on about how primitive this is but I decided that this is worth sticking to, at least for medium length stories. Otherwise, I find having 2 major but disconnected culprits a healthy shift from the average story.

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.

Good rule, but having a secret society can enhance the setting of the whole story, although making every aspect of the culprit(s) and clues leading back to them is not the best idea.

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.

Again, I don’t see how adventure cannot go hand-in-hand with detective fiction as long the physical rules are clearly stated and well presented.

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.

This is perhaps the rule to stick to if one wishes to reach the pinnacle of writing detective fiction. This is one of the more lengthy yet absolute ones, but it is more then sound and reasonable. Any self-respecting writer should strive their best to live by this.

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.

After going through the past 15 rules, I just realized that these rules are oriented for pure no-strings detective fiction. On my part, I prefer fiction that delivers more than the raw epiphany of solving problems, but topped with lessons, perhaps humorous, satirical or even philosophical.  Anything to inspire and engage with the readers in more ways then just rewarding with the ecstasy of getting to the bottom.

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.

Not sure why is this mentioned only at the end, I would have honestly ranked this as the number one rule to stick to. No one is interested in the matters of puny bandits or housebreakers.

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.

I can see where this is coming from but honestly, it isn’t anti-climatic if suicide or accident has already been outlined clearly during the investigation process.

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 reader’s everyday experiences, and give him a certain outlet for his own repressed desires and emotions.

I am on the fence with regards to this. As a whole this seems perfectly corret, but it could be arguable that even international plottings and war politics are personal at the root of it. It is just a matter of how much one is willing to go and classify issues and put them in levels generalizable to everyone. But yes, any sotry that wishes to engage with the audience HAS to be emotional in nature, to appeal to the emotional aspect of others. After all, this is fiction we are talking about, not faking a criminal news article.

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 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.

I don’t think I need to elaborate. These are all common plot elements that went out of fashion quite some time ago. Although rather then a set of rules, this is more of the writer’s own opinion about what he/she thinks is boring and repetitive. It is time writers come out with more variety of these, or rather, avoid variations of these. 

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