Suddenly I Don’t Remember the Rules Any More*

crime-fiction-rulesThrough the years, there’ve been several sets of rules for detective fiction, among them S.S. Van Dine’s 20 rules, and Ronald Knox’s 10 rules. In some ways, it can be very helpful for the crime writer to have some guidance for creating a well-written story. This might be especially true for the first-time crime writer.

That said, though, we could also ask whether these rules really are relevant, especially for today’s crime fiction. Is it possible to write an excellent crime novel without each of those rules being followed?

Here’s one example. Both Van Dine and Knox wrote that the solution to a mystery should not be supernatural or otherworldly. They claimed that, to be credible, a mystery has to have a prosaic solution. Most readers seem to agree with this. In fact, one of the major ‘pet peeves’ that I’ve read is when a book lacks credibility, especially if there’s some sort of ghostly or paranormal solution. Some authors (Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, to name just two) have played with this rule. They’ve included characters who believe in the supernatural, for instance, or written stories where the culprit makes the murder look as though it has a supernatural explanation. But there’s nothing otherworldly about the real solution.

Closely related to this, both Van Dine and Knox claim that fictional detectives should not solve crimes through accident, intuition, or other means (Van Dine included unmotivated confession) besides logical deduction. And that was Arthur Conan Doyle’s main argument in creating Sherlock Holmes. He wanted a detective who solved crimes through logical, scientific means, not intuition. Crime fiction fans want their stories credible. That includes the means by which the sleuth gets to the truth. Too much coincidence takes away from that credibility. Seemingly magic intuition does, too. In real life, detectives solve crimes by making sense of evidence and putting the pieces together logically. That doesn’t mean they can’t have creative ideas. Great detectives do. But I think most of us would agree what we don’t want crimes to be solved through a series of happy accidents.

Another rule that both Van Dine and Knox mention is that the detective should not also be the killer. This, to these writers, is not ‘playing fair’ with the reader. What’s interesting about this rule is that there’ve been several novels (I won’t mention them because of spoilers) where the protagonist is, indeed, the killer. And some of those novels have gone on to great success and acclaim. Does this mean this rule isn’t relevant? What do you think? Have you read excellent crime novels where a detective is also the killer?

One rule that really is relevant (at least from my perspective – yours may differ) is that in whodunits, all of the clues have to be there for the reader to find. That is to say, both Van Dine and Knox refer to the need to give the reader the same opportunity as the detective has to solve the murder. I’m sure you can think of at least one novel you’ve read where you thought, ‘Well of course I’d have known who the killer was if I’d known that!’ I think most of us would agree that we want the author of a crime novel to ‘play fair’ and show us all the clues. In fact, the ‘Queen Team’ included asides to the reader in some of the Ellery Queen novels, to the effect that all of the clues are now in the reader’s possession. In a well-written whodunit, the clues may not be glaringly obvious, but they are there for the reader to find.

Van Dine has an interesting rule to the effect that there must be no love interest in a crime novel. He saw a romance angle as ‘cluttering up’ the intellectual exercise of solving a crime. On the one hand, I think most crime fiction fans would agree that too much emphasis on a romance can be a distraction. And, of course, every reader is different with respect to how much romance is ‘too much.’ That said, though, I can think of several highly-regarded crime novels that do include romances. One, for instance, is Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night. Fans of Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey series will know that his romance with detective novelist Harriet Vane is a story arc that ends with their wedding just before Busman’s Honeymoon. Romances are woven into some of Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn novels, too. And those are by no means the only examples. What do you folks think? Was Van Dine right that romance should not figure into crime novels?

One of the other rules that Van Dine (but not Knox) proposed was that there should only be one detective – one main character. This one arguably hasn’t held up. If you look at series such as Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse series, or Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series, or Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series (to name only three), you see how successful fictional partnerships can be. And a quick look at Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series, or Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg series, is all you need to see how well ‘ensemble’ series can work.

What about some of Van Dine’s and Knox’s other rules? Knox for instance, claimed that there shouldn’t be twins involved, unless the reader has been prepared for that. Van Dine said that there absolutely must be a corpse:

‘Three hundred pages is far too much pother for a crime other than murder.’

He also said that all crimes must have a personal motive, among other things.

What do you think of these rules? If they don’t apply, should there be other rules? If you’re a writer, do you follow ‘rules’ as you write your crime fiction?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s This Night.



Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Colin Dexter, Dorothy Sayers, Ed McBain, Elly Griffiths, Fred Vargas, Reginald Hill, Ronald Knox, S.S. Van Dine, Tony Hillerman

42 responses to “Suddenly I Don’t Remember the Rules Any More*

  1. I think it is very good to know all the ‘rules’ so as not to populate your story with too many breaks from tradition.
    I can’t really believe that intuition is not a factor. It is often the catalyst to going that extra mile (looking in that sealed box for example, avoiding danger and so on) in solving a crime. Without it, the character (detective) would seem one dimensional to me. While I understand the reasoning behind it, that detective work is a science, I would miss it. It kind of applies to being privy to all the facts too, as the reader may not have the expertise the investigator has, but feels there may be something there.
    As for two detectives? It would be interesting to see someone write a crime novel with two perspectives, wouldn’t it? Has it been done? Likely, but you would know better Margot!

    • You make such an interesting point about intuition, Lesley. Especially after having investigated a lot of cases, a detective is likely to have a sense about people, situations, evidence, and the like. ‘Gut feelings’ aren’t enough to solve cases, but I think in real life, detectives do pay attention to them.

      As for two different perspectives, Reginald Hill did that beautifully (at least in my opinion) with his Dalziel/Pascoe novels. He’s by no means the only example, either. There’s also Martin Edwards’ Lake District series, which features DCI Hannah Scarlett, and Oxford Historian Daniel Kind. And there’s Margaret Coel’s Vicky Holden/Fr. John O’Malley series, too, as well as Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway/Harry Nelson novels. And lots more. When it’s done well, it can work very effectively.

      But as for the rules? You have a point. Knowing them is worth the effort, whether or not one’s work follows each one.

  2. Pingback: Suddenly I Don’t Remember the Rules Any More* — Confessions of a Mystery Novelist… | Arrowhead Freelance and Publishing

  3. I think just about every great mystery writer has, from time to time, broken one or more of the rules. Without going into detail, for example, look how many rules Agatha Christie broke in some of her best novels! But there really has to be a reason for breaking those rules – a reason which leaves the reader nodding at the end of the book and saying, “I should have seen that coming.”

    • I couldn’t have said it better, Les. That’s exactly right. The author has to have a reason for going against those conventions, and it has to make sense (i.e. not just be a ‘filler’ or a convenience). You’re right, too. Christie broke many of those rules in her different stories, and they worked, often brilliantly. It’s a matter of consciously working out the plot.

  4. Tim

    Over-arching rule (advice to writers): Writer only what you would very much like to read, and never write anything (i.e., subject-matter, diction, themes, characterizations, etc.) about which you might be embarrassed later!
    Yeah, I guess that’s too simple.

  5. Keishon

    Excellent post, as usual.

    As a reader, I think there should be rules but I love it even more when an author breaks the rules like Jo Nesbo has done just to name one example (won’t say for spoilers). I have read one or two novels with the protagonist being the killer. Not a big fan of those. As a romance reader, romances in mysteries are a bonus but I’m to the point where I don’t want the relationship part to monopolize the story. Subtlety works for me. I guess these days, if your work entertains people, who cares if you followed the rules or not.

    I know a few readers who hated Shutter Island’s twist at the end but it didn’t bother me. I’m also not bothered about having all the clues to figure it out on my own. Explaining it all works for me (Dashiell Hammett). There are some rules we can lose like having the killer confess all at the end of the novel. That trope almost always makes my eyes roll. Sorry for blabbing.

    • Not blabbing, Keishon – an interesting perspective. And thanks for the kind words. I know just exactly what you mean by subtlety. I prefer nuances, myself, rather than a romance taking over the story, or for the matter of that, any element that detracts from the story.

      As to the rules, you make a good point that the real point of a novel is to tell the story and, hopefully, give your audience something they enjoy. If that’s accomplished, it’s less important if one or another rule is broken. In fact, so many authors (as you’ve pointed out) have broken the rules, and their stories have been memorable.

  6. Margot: I think there should be a rule that when an author is inspired by a real life crime or trial and models the plot on that inspiration that the author should give attribution to that crime or trial. It irritates me greatly when I see a story closely following real life without attribution. I watched an English TV crime series so faithful to the Canadian case of Paul Bernardo that I was telling Sharon, to her irritation, what was going to happen next in the show. Not a mention of the “inspiration”.

    • You have a well-taken point, Bill. It really is important to give credit where it’s due, and that includes the inspiration for a story. In fact, not attributing sources is one of the almost-unpardonable sins in academic writing, so I’m pretty sensitive to that, too. It really is annoying. I can imagine that you were none to pleased about it when you saw no mention of the Bernardo case as you were watching that TV series.

      • Margot, Agatha Christie based her 2nd Poirot mystery “Murder On The Links” on a murder case but there is no attribution in the book as to where it was inspired by, though I think Christie included this in her autobiography. Does it depend on “how much” is used from an outside source as to whether there should be an attribution in the Foreword of the book or not? If the story contains kernels from a real-life murder case, does it really have to be attributed in a Foreword of some kind? In Murder on the Links there’s no attribution, but in a book like Q Is for Quarry by Sue Grafton, it is. Is this decision to include a Foreword from an inspired real life crime based on the editor/publisher?

        • Oh, that’s an interesting question, Sbrnseay1! And I think you’ve hit on the way to decide how much (if any) credit to give to another person, a real story, etc.. The more direct and closely linked the relationship between the two, the more important an attribution is. And you make an apt comparison between The Murder on the Links and Q is For Quarry. This is really rich ‘food for thought,’ so thanks.

    • I don’t understand why an author who’s inspired by a real-life crime/trial from a newspaper or from TV wouldn’t credit where he/she was inspired by. The whole idea of being a writer and being inspired is to take something from outside of yourself and use it for your story. If the inspiration from another source is used it’s not as if there is no originality because in the end the writer still has to use his/her imagination to come up with characters, their names, and the story which will have what I would like to say 50% inspiration, 50 % originality. If a story uses the exact same names of the people associated with the real-life crime/trial and the exact same story ‘to a T’ from that source it’s not fiction anymore, it’s a non-fiction piece . . . . a documentary if you will. There’s nothing shameful or embarrassing about being inspired from an outside source. The BEST, well-known writers can be inspired from something outside themselves, include it in their story, and still use their own ideas and imagination and STILL say, “I was inspired by this, and yet this is MY story” . Now I don’t think that every published story a writer writes has to include a foreword of where the book was inspired by but that writer shouldn’t be embarrassed to mention it in a interview.

      • You’ve expressed this very well, Sbrnseay1. An author can, indeed be inspired by a real-life event (and give credit where it’s due), but still create. And a lot of authors do. For instance, Damien Seaman’s The Killing of Emma Gross is his fictional retelling of the story of a real murder. And he makes it clear what his inspiration was. In fact, he provides a timeline and some information about the real case. And yet, the story is his creative product.

  7. Really interesting post Margot. It is my theory that Christie was just taking these rules and ticking them off as she wrote her books. So many of them break the Knox’s rules I find it hard to believe she wasn’t doing it to annoy Knox lol

  8. I do so agree that whodunits should have all the necessary clues somewhere in the book. As a writer, I have to say it’s not always easy to hide such clues in inconspicuous places, but it is a lot of fun trying!

    • Oh, it is, isn’t it, Dawn? And, as you say, it’s so important to give the reader a fair chance to solve a whodunit. You’re absolutely right about that. It can be tricky, but it is essential.

  9. I enjoy a good mystery when the author is fair with me. When he/she shares every clue and gives me the possibility to guess the culprit by myself. If I don’t get that chance, I’ll very likely dismiss the myatery as a cheat.

    I’m on the fence about romance (as well as any personal life regarding the characters of the mystery). I do like it when the story isn’t just a mystery, when I get a feeling for all the characters because they are well-rounded people, not just suspects.
    But I find that tipping the balance and make those elements so prominent that they become disctracting is very very easy. I’ve just read a myatery where the romance clearly became more important after a while, and I didn’t enjoy it. I felt the author tricked me into ready a story I wasn’t really interested into.

    Great article, Margot, and I’ll bookmark it for future reference. I’ve always thought I’m not really able to write mystery (though I’ve consumend them since I was very little), but my new story really smells like it wants to be a mystery. I suppose I’ll have to try…

    • Thanks for the kind words, Jazzfeathers. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. You’ve brought up a very good point, too, about novels that don’t focus on their primary plot points. The reader can feel cheated. If we buy a crime novel, we expect to read about a crime and its investigation. If we buy a romance novel, we expect to read about people’s experiences being in love. The same is true for other genres. If another element takes over a story, then the reader didn’t get what s/he paid for, so to speak.

      I’m really interested in your new story, by the way. Whatever it turns out to be, I wish you well creating it, and I’ll be interested in reading it.

  10. When Van Dine said, “Three hundred pages is far too much pother for a crime other than murder”, Dorothy L. Sayers clearly broke that rule in ‘Gaudy Night’, which is not only one of her novel that doesn’t have a murder and a body, but it’s also one of her longest books clocking in over 400 pages! We usually expect a murder in a mystery novel and think it’s far more suitable in this format but I think if a writer can write one without a murder and make it work, why not? I think it’s quite a feat but it’s certainly not impossible to do. And sometimes it can get a little tiring reading of murder and corpses, especially if you read mysteries back to back. A little change is good.

    • It certainly is, Sbrnseay1. And if an author can really tell a compelling story without a murder and a body, as you say, then why not? It’s interesting that Sayers broke a few of these rules, and still wrote what people consider a very fine novel. Just goes to show that some rules are all well and good as guidelines, but don’t always need to be followed strictly…

  11. On the whole I agree with the rules. Yes to the corpse – I never find a mystery concerning fraud or theft interesting enough to hold my attention. Yes to no romance – I prefer my ‘tecs to be happy bachelors or spinsters, or perhaps in a stable long-term marriage. Yes to no supernatural stuff, and oh, yes, to no solving the crime based on an amazing piece of intuition! And yes, to the detective shouldn’t be the criminal. Yes – fair play is better than the incredible (and tedious) twist!

    Having said all that, I can think of exceptions to each rule that have worked well…

    • You make very good arguments, FictionFan. And I couldn’t agree more about solving crimes through mysterious flashes of intuition. I don’t mind if the sleuth has a good idea; a good detective will have them. But anything more than that pushes my ‘eye-roll’ button. In general, many of those rules make sense as guidelines. As you say, though, there have been exceptions that work really very well. I think it’s a matter of the author’s skills, and of the author’s ability to draw the reader in.

  12. Pingback: Writing Links 2/13/17 – Where Genres Collide

  13. Fab post, Margot! Christie got a lot of blow-back for breaking the rules in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, but it really shook things up in the genre. I loved it and taught the novel in my detective fiction class. I also used that novel, Conan Doyle’s work, and others in a scholarly article I wrote (ages ago) that discussed the subversive nature of detective fiction rules, especially when carried to postmodern excess in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (another fave of mine).

    Genre fiction often is denigrated for its “rules” or “formulas,” but such a structure is satisfying to fans of the genre, and there is a great deal of play within it (or with-out, when the rules are broken!). Thanks for this food for thought!

    • Thanks for the kind words, Kathy. You really make such a well-taken point about rules. Fans want them, and writers benefit from having them. That said, though, when they’re creatively broken, the result can be memorable (and you’re right about Christie, Conan Doyle and Douglas Adams!). It’s just a bit like dissonance in music. We want harmony, and it’s very important to excellent music. But, when creatively used, dissonance can work, too. It really comes down to the writer’s talent, and conscious use of those tools. And I’ll bet your courses were fantastic!

  14. I’m working on a long short story now that I’m calling a mystery but is not following any of the mystery rules. It’s such fun, I can’t even tell you. Of course, it may never get published, but it’s a pleasure to break free and write something very different.

    • It must be lots of fun, Pat. I’m very glad you’ve found a way to ‘stretch’ yourself. That process does an author good, I think, and helps one evolve. I hope your story will be published.

  15. I like the idea that there are rules, but also love the fact that authors break them. Anything for a good twist. Though one of the things I like best is good clues, well hidden.
    Fascinating discussion above on real life cases as inspiration…

    • I agree, Moira. The discussion is one of the things I love best about blogging. And you’re right about rules. It does help to have them. But I do admire authors who break them – and still come out with a fabulous story.

  16. I agree with many of the rules. However, there are exceptions, as you say. IMO, romance shouldn’t be the main focus if you’re writing a crime novel, but some romantic discourse, for example, can add a nice layer of conflict. Ugh! When a paranormal incident shows the resolution drives me crazy! IMO, that’s the easy way out. As a reader, I expect more from the authors I read. As a writer, I expect more from myself. No violating dues ex machina is, IMO, a rule that should never be broken. The others are negotiable. 😉

    • I agree, Sue, that there are some rules that should not be broken. Like you, I don’t like paranormal explanations for murders, etc., in my crime fiction. That said, though, I do think it can be clever when an author weaves belief in the paranormal into a story, so that it can misdirect. As to romance, everyone’s different about how much (if any) is ‘too much.’ Whatever one’s feelings about that, the focus of a well-written crime novel ought to be the crime and its investigation. Elements that don’t contribute to that focus, and to character development, can pull the reader out of the story.

  17. islandmoonrise

    Wow, far too many rules! And how stifling rules can be. I write and have one book that features an otherworldly detective and another that features a ghost (both pending) so Van Dine and Knox would both heartily disapprove. I guess they’re looking at a purist genre, but let’s face it, rules are there to be broken as long as you do it well. Great post Margot, very thought provoking.

    • Thank you, Islandmoonrise. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. You’re right that, between these two lists, there are a lot of rules. Some of them make sense, but not all of them do. The trick is to learn what they are – and how to effectively bend them when it suits the story.

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