How to Write a Murder Mystery

This blog is about neither Watson nor Holmes. In perusing my collection of mysteries I was rereading some of my favorite Philo Vance stories and came across the rules of the game as proposed by S.S. Van Dine (actual name Willard Huntington Wright). I thought I might share them. So this is for all the aspiring mystery writers out there.  S.S. Van Dine was the creator of detective Philo Vance. Below you will find his 20 rules for writing a detective story. (I admit I have edited it a bit by condensing some paragraphs.)

William Powell and Willard Wright

All old time movie fans will be familiar with Philo. Ten different actors would play Philo over the years but the best was undoubtedly William Powell and the best film the Kennel Murder Case. Warren William was second best.  (And the Gracie Allen Murder Case is a good rainy afternoon comedy.)

Twenty Rules For Writing Detective Stories

By S.S. Van Dine

The detective story is a kind of intellectual game. It is more – it is a sporting event. And the author must play fair with the reader. He can no more resort to trickeries and deceptions and still retain his honesty than if he cheated in a bridge game. He must outwit the reader, and hold the readers interest, through sheer ingenuity. For the writing of detective stories there are very definite laws – unwritten, perhaps, but none the less binding: and every respectable and self-respecting concocter of literary mystery lives up to them.

Herewith, then, is a sort of Credo, based partly on the practice of all the great writers of detective stories, and partly on the promptings of the honest author’s inner conscience. To wit:

  1. The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.
  2. No willful tricks or deceptions may be played on the reader other than those played legitimately by the criminal on the detective himself.
  3. There must be no love interest in the story. To introduce amour is to clutter up a purely intellectual experience with irrelevant sentiment.  (Sound familiar Sherlock Fans?)
  4. The detective himself should never turn out to be the culprit. It is false pretenses.
  5. The culprit must be determined by logical deductions – not by accident or coincidence or unmotivated confession. To solve a criminal problem by the latter fashion is like sending the reader on a deliberate wild goose chase.
  6. 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.
  7. There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel,  and the deader the better.  No lesser crime than murder will suffice.
  8. The problem of the crime must be solved by strictly naturalistic means. Such method of learning the truth as slate writing, Ouija-boards, mind-reading, spiritualistic séances, crystal-gazing, and the like, are taboo. The reader can’t compete with the spirit world.
  9. There must be but one detective – that is, but one protagonist of deduction – one deus ex machina.
  10. 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.
  11. Servants – such as butlers, footmen, valets, game-keepers, cooks, and the like – must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. It is too easy a solution.
  12. There must be 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.
  13. Secret Societies, camorras, mafias, et al., have no place in a detective story. Here the author gets into adventure fiction and secret service romance.
  14. The method of murder, and the means of detecting it, must be rational and scientific. That is to say, pseudo-science and purely imaginative and speculative devices are not to be tolerated.
  15. 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 been staring him in the face.
  16. A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side issues, no subtly worked-out character analysis, no “atmospheric” preoccupations. Such matters hold up the action.
  17. A professional criminal must never be shouldered with the guilt of a crime in a detective story. Crimes by house-breakers and bandits are the province of the police department – not of authors and brilliant amateur detectives.
  18. A crime in a detective story must never turn out to be an accident or a suicide.
  19. The motives for all crimes in detective stories should be personal. International plottings and war politics belong in a different category of fiction.
  20. 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 used too much.

 

a. Determining the identity of the culprit by the brand of a cigarette butt.

b. Bogus spiritualistic séance to frighten the culprit

c. The dummy-figure alibi.

d. Forged fingerprints.

e. The dog that does not bark in the night.

f.The final pinning of the crime on a twin or look alike.

g. The hypodermic syringe and the knock-out 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.

Hope you find Wrights comments useful. I think they are definitely worth pondering

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One Response to How to Write a Murder Mystery

  1. John says:

    This sounds like a pretty specific set of rules for writing a murder mystery. It’ll be interesting to compare these rules with books I’ve read to see how strictly they’ve followed them.

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