Reasonable Words: Twenty Rules for Detective Stories

A great review of some Victorian mystery novels in the LRB (in particular the deliciously convoluted “Notting Hill Mystery“)  tipped me off to this advice from mystery writer S.S. Van Dine.

“The dectective story is a kind of intellectual game. It is more — it is a sporting event. And for the writing of detective stories there are

The Moonstone
T.S. Eliot called it the first and best detective novel–not the first it turns out, but still one of the best. I gobbled it up in high school instead of doing my algebra homework.

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 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 placed on the reader other than those played legitimately by the criminal on the detective himself.

3. 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.

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.

8. 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.

9. 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.

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. 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.

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. 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.

14. 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.

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.

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.

17. 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.

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 hoodwink the 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. (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.”

These all make so much sense, and yet one of my all time favorite detective books fails on most of them, perhaps because the putative detective is a hapless librarian.

Critical Words: Adam Mars-Jones

A sharp-penned LRB regular makes short work of Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi. Here’s the lead:

Screen Shot 2013-06-27 at 1.26.16 PM

If Taiye Selasi’s debut novel was as fascinating as its acknowledgments pages the book would be a triumph. Acknowledgments in books have gone the way of Oscar acceptance speeches in recent years, with ever more exhaustive tributes – though in the case of a book no prize has yet been awarded. Selasi’s list contains more than 150 names, and begins: ‘I am so very grateful to God, and (in alphabetical order, from the bottom of my heart) Andrew Wylie …’ It’s an unusual version of alphabetical order that gives Andrew ‘the Jackal’ Wylie pride of place and the proper proximity to God. (If Wylie was actually a god he would be Anubis, near the top of the list without any fancy footwork.) In fact the tributes here are arranged by alphabetical order of first name or, more eccentrically, title. There’s a run of family accolades: ‘Dr Juliette Tuakli my beloved mum, Dr Lade Wosornu my brilliant father, Dr Wilburn Williams my dearest dad’. Three parents, and all of them doctors. If there isn’t a novel in that then there’s no justice – but it isn’t this one.

The rest is behind the pay wall, but you can read John Lanchester on Spanish banks or Michael Wood on “Behind the Candelabra” for free.

Silly Words: George Carlin’s Literary Advice

Because we could all use a laugh today: George Carlin’s “Join the Book Club Today!” K-Tel meets Book of the Month:

His voice has that unctuous “buy now” quality evoking bad local TV ads, and such great titles! My faves: “Fill Your Life With Croutons” and the “The Wrong Underwear Can Kill.”

There is a fun list of vanity press books at TVtropes.org Just the titles are enough to make you smile at the enduring truth from Ecclesiastes “of making many books there is no end.”

Latawnya The Naughty Horse Learns To Say No To Drugs
The Shadow Mouse of Everjade
Night Travels of the Elven Vampire

As yet, though, Amazon has no evidence of George Carlin’s promised “Why Jews Point.”

Quotable Words: TLS reviewing Gass, Quoting Stein

Screen Shot 2013-05-03 at 9.37.20 AM
Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences by Kitty Burns Florey

From a review of William Gass’ new novel “Middle C” in the TLS, (may be behind the paywall, sorry).

In “The Music of Prose”, Gass quotes Gertrude Stein: “I really do not know that anything has been more exciting than diagramming sentences.”

As compact an entry point to literary modernism as you could ask for!

Reasonable Words: Stephen Sparks on Marcel Schwob

Screen Shot 2013-05-03 at 9.12.21 AMFrom 3:AM MAGAZINE, “What Ever It Is, We’re Against It,” a blog that buzzes around literature and philosophy, happy to sting both, a fine piece by writer and bookseller Stephen Sparks about the perpetually forgotten Marcel Schwob (23 August 1867 – 12 February 1905). His name is new to me, and seemingly somebody Borges would have had to create had he not lived. Astonishingly learned, a library denizen, he had one tragic love affair, a disastrous sea voyage, and managed to pump out a few books, also leaving behind a tantalizing list of unfinished works.

Sparks quoting Schwob’s credo on art.

Contrary to history, art describes individuals, desires only the unique… consider a leaf with its intricate nerve system, its color variegated by shade and sun; the imprint of a raindrop; the tiny mark left by an insect; the silver trace of a snail; or the first mortal touch of autumn gold. Search all the forests of the earth for another leaf exactly like it. I defy you to find one.

The piece closes with a summary and appreciation of The Book of Monelle, one of the works Schwob did manage to publish during a short, painful life. It sounds amazing.

Guilty Pleasures: Hatchet Jobs

Wuthering Heights
Time will tell, and sometimes the author (or at least the book) gets the last laugh, “Here all the faults of Jane Eyre (by Charlotte Brontë) are magnified a thousand fold, and the only consolation which we have in reflecting upon it is that it will never be generally read.” -James Lorimer, North British Review, 1847, on Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë”

In addition to bringing us the Bad Sex in Literature Award (I think John Updike won their equivalent of the Irving G. Thalberg lifetime achievement medal), the Brits have also created The Hatchet Job of the Year award, promoting “integrity and wit in literary journalism.” The eight finalists include some “laugh out loud on the subway” moments.

The Guardian has an article as well as a slideshow with choice water balloon bits:

Utter drivel

Cod philosophy

repellent arrogance

(Although, to be fair, who on earth would read AN Wilson’s Hitler book? And many poets don’t seem to be able to get it together for a novel. If your usual occupation is painting Fabergé eggs, you’re probably going to fail at painting a barn.)

Will anybody equal last year’s winner, Adam Mars-Jones take down of Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall?, which he faults for, among other things, dangling undigested literary references like “tin cans behind a tricycle.” Mars-Jones also has a nice bit about taking on writers outside your punching class:

There are some writers you shouldn’t challenge if you can help it – as Flannery O’Connor remarked about Faulkner’s superior power, “nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.”

Reasonable Lists: Not New Books of the Year

Screen Shot 2013-01-05 at 9.33.48 PM
Ko-ko’s “I’ve got a little list” (in Jonathan Miller’s frankly rather missable production of The Mikado).

Despite my love of lists, I realize I haven’t had one here in a while. Easy remedy: here is a nice one from the Guardian, Not New Books of the Year. (Found via Tyler Cowen’s Marginal Revolution blog, which my economist friends scoff at but I quite like.)

A couple of Faulkners, Thomas Mann, (hmm, should Masterpiece ready their production facilities? maybe he’s the new Jane Austen), and my beloved William Maxwell‘s So Long, See You Tomorrow. My “new old” discovery of the year was Elizabeth Taylor (the novelist and short story writer, not the Hollywood Diva.) Droll, mordant, and veddy, veddy English.

Do you have a “new old” discovery of the year? Write a comment, if so.

Word on Writing: Penelope Fitzgerald

Screen Shot 2012-12-14 at 10.51.24 AM
Novelist Penelope Fitzgerald

I have tried, in describing these books of mine, to say something about my life. In my last two novels I have taken a journey outside of myself. Innocence takes place in Italy in the late 1950s. The Beginning of Spring in Moscow in 1913. Most writers, including the greatest, feel the need to do something like this sooner or later. The temptation comes to take what seems almost like a vacation in another country and above all in another time. V. S. Prichett, however, has pointed out that “a professional writer who spends his time becoming other people and places, real or imaginary, finds he has written his life away and become almost nothing.” This is a warning that has to be taken seriously. I can only say that however close I’ve come, by this time, to nothingness, I have remained true to my deepest convictions—I mean to the courage of those who are born to be defeated, the weaknesses of the strong, and the tragedy of misunderstandings and missed opportunities, which I have done my best to treat as a comedy, for otherwise how can we manage to bear it? –British novelist Penelope Fitzgerald, 1916-2000, who published her first novel at age 60. From her book of essays, The Afterlife.

I got Innocence out of the Cambridge Public Library, after liking, but not being terribly engrossed, by another of hers, The Bookshop. One moment in Innocence caught me, as novels sometimes do: all at once I’d made a connection to the book and its characters as vividly as if this story were part of my lived experience and concerned people I had always known. On my list of books I’ll never forget.

Beautiful Sentences: The TLS

If book reviews are a guilty pleasure of yours, as they are for me, The Times Literary Supplement is a high quality, high value supplier. Beautiful sentences, bracing opinions.

To wit a couple of nice bits from recent issues:

1) a (likely very just) takedown of Tom Wolfe’s latest doorstop:

Back to Blood is certainly vast, and full of generous description of social existence in the “Immigration City” of Miami. Yet it also is largely lacking in artistic merit, empathy and any vestige of beautiful writing.

In the beautiful writing category: check out this lead paragraph from a review of a new novel by Ronald Frame. It’s the reviewer, rather than the novelist, I want to hear more from…

Miss Havisham’s story is well known and briefly told: well known since briefly told by Herbert Pocket to the teenaged Pip in Chapter 22 of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. Over their first meal together, between tactful hints to the low-born Pip not to put his knife in his mouth or to use his spoon “over-hand”, Herbert recounts Miss Havisham’s back-story. Resented by her wastrel stepbrother, betrayed and jilted by her con-artist lover before either Herbert or Pip were born, the proud heiress of a brewing empire stalks their imaginations as she does ours: the ageing recluse, shunning daylight, in her rotting wedding gown amid her rotting bridal feast. Miss Havisham has become a byword for trauma: the psychological wounding that compels its victims to tour painfully round and round the scene of the psychic crime, never able to move on, never coming to terms with what Derrida called the “unexperienced experience”. In Dickens, she is a vivid grotesque whose intensity and hypnotic power are in no small measure a function of her absolute pulsating stuckness in a single moment, a single sunless setting. The same is true of the innumerable versions and revisions of the Havisham story, from David Lean’s film Great Expectations (1946) and Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), to Carol Ann Duffy’s poem “Havisham” (1998) and, most recently, screen performances by Gillian Anderson and Helena Bonham Carter. Few figures in literature or film are so singular, so completely identified with one location, one set of props and costumes, one palette of lighting, one repertoire of gestures, one vengeful desire (“Beggar him”, she tells her ward, Estella). She is a living, livid scar.

Brought to mind a theatrical presentation of GE I was in at my Montessori-lite middle school. All the kids in my year were boys, so a boy played an eye-rolling, somewhat campy, and yet  ever-so-creepy Miss Havisham.

How do you organize your books?

The Kansas City Public Library facade: does one use LC or Dewey for facades?
Fun piece from Geraldine Brooks on how she organizes her book collection. (A task I’ve officially given up on beyond keeping the poetry away from the cookbooks.)

Brooks organizes them based on whether the authors would like each other:

Claire Messud and Alice Munro? I’m sure they’d get on. But Norman Mailer and Anne Michaels? I think not. Best move the poetic and exquisitely sensitive Michaels next to Andre Makine — a much better match. Mailer can slide back along the shelf to sit beside D.H. Lawrence. If nothing else, they can always brag to one another about their sex lives.

No Twain next to Austen I guess. But R.K. Narayan and V.S. Pritchett would be fast friends I bet.