Showing posts with label S.S. Van Dine. Show all posts
Showing posts with label S.S. Van Dine. Show all posts

08 July 2017

Whodunits: Pet Peeves


Whodunits sometimes seem like the Rodney Dangerfield of the mystery world: They don't get no respect. When people want to make fun of mysteries, they usually make fun of whodunits (probably because these people don't actually read mysteries, so they think all mysteries are whodunits). Even people who do read and enjoy mysteries often look down on whodunits, seeing them as hopelessly formulaic and old fashioned, as not nearly as smart or daring as their cool noir cousins. How often are unabashed whodunits nominated for Edgar awards? To be honest, I can't answer my own question, because I don't keep careful track of such things. But most of the Edgar winners and nominees I've read aren't whodunits. (I've wondered if some of them were really any sort of mystery--but that's a subject for another post, one I'll probably never write.)

Well, I'm unsophisticated enough to admit I love a good whodunit. Most of my favorite mysteries are traditional whodunits--and most of them were written many years ago, back when more people took whodunits more seriously. When I come across a new whodunit that tells an absorbing and believable story, plays by the rules, and still manages to deliver some surprises at the end, I'm both delighted and impressed. And, partly because I love well-done whodunits so much, I get seriously irritated by ones that don't play fair, ones that make things too easy for the detective (and the writer). Here are some of my pet peeves. I won't claim they're anything more than pet peeves, won't try to argue I'm objectively right. I'm simply going to list some things that get on my nerves. Maybe they get on your nerves, too.

  • Unrealistically chatty suspects and witnesses: Most law-abiding people feel some obligation to answer a police officer's questions. Even so, and even if they're not guilty of the crime, they might withhold facts they find embarrassing or painful, as well as facts they think might arouse false suspicions. If a private detective or an amateur sleuth is asking the questions, people are under no obligation to answer. Some people might be so talkative (or so lonely) they welcome any opportunity to spill secrets, but it's hard to believe many people would be that way. Wouldn't most people question the detective's motives, worry about getting in trouble or offending someone, or simply not want to spend the time? Private detectives and amateurs who try to bully people are out of line--they don't have the right to demand that anyone say one word to them. If a private detective or an amateur sleuth showed up at my door, asking for information about a friend or family member, I'd have some questions of my own to ask, and I wouldn't reveal anything unless I got satisfactory answers.

  • Overheard conversations: During the course of a story, a detective might catch a lucky break or two. But detectives should solve crimes by detecting, not by watching clues fall into their laps. If the detective just happens to overhear two suspects conversing and picks up vital information, I'm skeptical; if the detective overhears more than one helpful conversation, I usually stop reading. (An overheard conversation is more palatable if the detective goes to some trouble to overhear it--goes to a restaurant where two suspects always meet for lunch on Tuesday, puts on a wig, poses as a server, practices a French accent, and so on. Then I'll attribute any information the detective picks up to ingenuity and effort, not to dumb luck.)

  • Convenient coincidences:They're as bad as overheard conversations. The detective, too frazzled to keep deducing, goes for a run in the park and happens to spot two suspects sitting on a bench, holding hands and locked in intense conversation--but both have sworn they don't know each other, have never met. Now the detective can confront them with their lies and get them to break down. Or the detective decides to leave a party, puts on a suspect's coat by mistake, and finds a conclusive clue in the pocket. The detective hasn't earned the insights such incidents yield, so I'm not impressed--I'm incredulous and more than a little annoyed. As Ronald A. Knox says in "A Detective Story Decalogue," "No accident must ever help the detective." It was a good rule back in 1929, and it's still a good rule nearly a century later.

  • Culprits picked out of a hat: All the suspects have means, all have opportunity, and all have motives--very different motives: One will inherit a fortune from the victim, one is an angry ex-husband, and one is a business associate who went bankrupt when the victim didn't honor a contract. Several clues point to each. In the last scene, one case-cracking clue proves the would-be inheritor is the culprit, and all evidence about the victim's unhappy marriage and unethical business practices is irrelevant. If the final clue had been different, the culprit would have been different. That's one way of surprising the reader, but it's an easy, artless way. When I read that sort of whodunit, I feel as if all the effort I've devoted to weighing the evidence in ninety percent of the story was wasted. I thought I was working on a puzzle, but it turns out I was working on three separate puzzles. The puzzles don't interlock, and only one was completed--only one mattered. Any pleasure I might have found in being surprised is eclipsed by irritation.

  • Loose ends: As the previous pet peeve made clear, I'm not a fan of mere red herrings. I prefer whodunits in which all clues, no matter how much the detective may misinterpret them at first, ultimately point directly or indirectly to the solution. But if writers can't resist the temptation to throw a mere red herring into the plot, they should at least have the decency to explain it at the end. Years ago, I read a well-written whodunit that had an intriguing plot and some interesting, complex characters--but also had one big problem. I mentioned the book to an old college friend who also loves mysteries. "I think you might enjoy it," I said, "except for one thing." "I know," she said. "I've already read it. You never find out who the baby's father was!" Yes, that was the problem. The murder victim was a young, single woman, and the autopsy revealed she was several months pregnant when she died. So the protagonist's initial investigation focused on three men who might have been romantically involved with the victim and might have fathered the unborn child. Eventually, the protagonist realized the motive for the murder had nothing to do with the pregnancy and focused on other suspects. And the writer never bothered to tie up loose ends by saying who the father was. I understand that it's good to end a mystery at a dramatic moment. I know many readers--and many editors and critics--don't have much patience with the old-fashioned scenes in which suspects gather in the parlor to hear the detective go over all the evidence and gradually zero in on the culprit. But I don't think that's any excuse for leaving loose ends dangling--and leaving readers wondering.  

  • Withholding secrets: Awakened in the middle of the night when the phone rings, the detective listens to what an unidentified caller says, jots down some notes, and goes back to sleep. Later, the detective looks through the victim's appointment calendar, takes out the notes from the phone call, underlines something, and nods sagaciously. But the reader doesn't learn anything about what was said in the phone call or what was written in the appointment calendar until the final scene, when the detective reveals that the bits of information each yielded connected in a surprising way, making the culprit's identity clear. How can readers keep up when the detective knows things they don't? Golden age writers declare such ploys unacceptable. "The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery," S.S. Van Dine says in "Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories" (1928). Knox agrees: "All clues must be plainly stated and described. The detective must not light on any clues that are not instantly produced for the reader." And the oath taken by members of the Detection Club (including Knox, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and E.L. Bentley) asks inductees to "solemnly swear never to conceal a vital clue from the reader."
I could go on. I love good whodunits so much that I have lots of other pet peeves about lazy ones. I'd better stop here, though. I may have already reinforced the stereotype that whodunits are hopelessly formulaic and old fashioned, governed by rigid rules set down nearly a century ago. But some of the rules Van Dine, Knox, and others proposed no longer hold writers back (if they ever actually did). The rules saying whodunits shouldn't have a "love interest" have faded from significance, for example, as have the ones forbidding "subtly worked-out character analyses." The rules whodunit purists still cite with approval are the ones that helped shaped the genre, and they boil down to two simple principles: Be reasonably realistic, and play fair. A whodunit, when it's done right, presents detectives, writers, and readers with difficult but possible intellectual challenges. We're cheating if we make our detectives' job too easy, and we're cheating if we make our own job too easy, too. We shouldn't shower our detectives with unearned clues. And while misleading and surprising readers are essential parts of our job, we shouldn't accomplish them by bombarding readers with completely irrelevant red herrings, or by withholding vital information until the last possible moment. We should treat the whodunit form with more respect. If we do, maybe, just maybe, others will respect it more, too.

Do you have pet peeves about whodunits, or about other kinds of mysteries? I'd love to hear them.

08 May 2016

Professional Tips– S S Van Dine


I’d planned a different column for today, but due to a technical glitch, we were unable to get an important part of the article working, the audio mechanism. We’ll try again at another date. In the meantime, enjoy the following advice by the author of the 1920s-30s Philo Vance series, S.S. Van Dine, pseudonym of Willard Huntington Wright.

Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories

by

S. S. Van Dine

Stern Winter loves a dirge-like sound. — Wordsworth
The detective story is a 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 reader's 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 mysteries lives up to them.

Herewith, then, is a sort of Credo, based partly on the practice of all the great writers of 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 wilful 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. The business in hand is to bring a criminal to the bar of justice, not to bring a lovelorn couple to the hymeneal altar.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  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; 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 arithmetic.
  7. 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. Americans are essentially humane, and therefore a tiptop murder arouses their sense of vengeance and horror. They wish to bring the perpetrator to justice; and when “murder most foul, as in the best it is,” has been committed, the chase is on with all the righteous enthusiasm of which the thrice gentle reader is capable.
  8. The problem of the crime must be solved by strictly naturalistic means. Such methods for learning the truth as slate-writing, ouija-boards, mind-reading, spiritualistic séances, 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.
  9. There must be but one detective– that is, but one protagonist of deduction– one deus ex machine. 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, who, at the outset, pits his mind against that of the detective and proceeds to do mental battle. If there is more than one detective the reader doesn't know who his co-deductor is. It's like making the reader run a race with a relay team.
  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. For a writer to fasten the crime, in the final chapter, on a stranger or person who has played a wholly unimportant part in the tale, is to confess to his inability to match wits with the reader.
  11. Servants– such as butlers, footmen, valets, game-keepers, cooks, and the like– must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. This is begging a noble question. It is a too easy solution. It is unsatisfactory, and makes the reader feel that his time has been wasted. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person– one that wouldn’t ordinarily come under suspicion; for if the crime was the sordid work of a menial, the author would have had no business to embalm it in book-form.
  12. 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.
  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. 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 (with its ubiquitous havens, mass protection, etc.) to fall back on. No high-class, self-respecting murderer would want such odds in his jousting-bout with the police.
  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 in the roman policier. For instance, the murder of a victim by a newly found element– a super-radium, let us say– is not a legitimate problem. Nor may a rare and unknown drug, which has its existence only in the author's imagination, be administered. A detective-story writer must limit himself, toxicologically speaking, to the pharmacopoeia. 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.
  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, 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. And one of my basic theories of detective fiction is that, if a detective story is fairly and legitimately constructed, it is impossible to keep the solution from all readers. There will inevitably be a certain number of them just as shrewd as the author; and if the author has shown the proper sportsmanship and honesty in his statement and projection of the crime and its clues, these perspicacious readers will be able, by analysis, elimination and logic, to put their finger on the culprit as soon as the detective does. And herein lies the zest of the game. Herein we have an explanation for the fact that readers who would spurn the ordinary "popular" novel will read detective stories unblushingly.
  16. 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; but when an author of a detective story has reached that literary point where he has created a gripping sense of reality and enlisted the reader’s interest and sympathy in the characters and the problem, he has gone as far in the purely ‘literary’ technique as is legitimate and compatible with the needs of a criminal-problem document. A detective story is a grim business, and the reader goes to it, not for literary furbelows and style and beautiful descriptions and the projection of moods, but for mental stimulation and intellectual activity– just as he goes to a ball game or to a cross-word puzzle. Lectures between innings at the Polo Grounds on the beauties of nature would scarcely enhance the interest in the struggle between two contesting baseball nines; and dissertations on etymology and orthography interspersed in the definitions of a cross-word puzzle would tend only to irritate the solver bent on making the words interlock correctly.
  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. Such crimes belong to the routine work of the homicide bureaus. A really fascinating crime is one committed by a pillar of a church, or a spinster noted for her charities.
  18. 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 play an unpardonable trick on the reader. If a book-buyer should demand his two dollars back on the ground that the crime was a fake, any court with a sense of justice would decide in his favor and add a stinging reprimand to the author who thus hoodwinked a trusting and kind-hearted reader.
  19. 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.
  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 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.
    1. 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.
    2. The bogus spiritualistic séance to frighten the culprit into giving himself away.
    3. Forged finger-prints.
    4. The dummy-figure alibi.
    5. The dog that does not bark and thereby reveals the fact that the intruder is familiar.
    6. The final pinning of the crime on a twin, or a relative who looks exactly like the suspected, but innocent, person.
    7. The hypodermic syringe and the knockout drops.
    8. The commission of the murder in a locked room after the police have actually broken in.
    9. The word-association test for guilt.
    10. The cipher, or code letter, which is eventually unravelled by the sleuth.
What are your thoughts?