Friday, August 12, 2005

I must admit that I've been thinking of several other series as well as the Charlie Chan movies as I've been posting these rules!

Lilllian
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(Courtesy of www.pandorabox.com)
TWENTY RULES FOR WRITING
DETECTIVE STORIES
BY S.S. VAN DINE
[Part Three]
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 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 burder story must be kept gemutlich, 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 and 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 seance to frighten the culprit into giving himself away.
(c) Forged finger-prints.
(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 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 unravelled by the sleuth.
* * *
William Powell, the first and best
Philo Vance, courtesy of

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