Imagination is freedom in ink.
There is nothing more liberating than being pulled up to a blank page, where the only limit to worlds, plot, and character is our imagination. The blank page is a lot of things – anticipation and potential afraid — but it’s not one thing: a restriction. It is therefore not surprising that some authors are not a fan of rules, viewing them as an overwhelming limitation of creativity that belongs better to directing a group (classroom, soccer team) in an activity than to those on our pages. I was thinking like that too.
But here’s the thing: I write mystery novels. And writing puzzles is a team sport.
I’m not talking about Holmes and Watson’s friends. It’s much more important than that. The author and the reader are the team. The mystery writer has to play along with the reader, until we solve the crime together. Otherwise we’ll just tell you everything, or worse, cheat By playing unfairly. If you ever felt the urge to throw a book at the wall blatantly because of that unfair Twist, you know what it’s like when an author works against you and no With You are. And working together means knowing we’re playing the same game: we need to sing from the same hymn book, play plays from the same blackboard, and borrow from the same metaphors. It requires – you guessed it – grammar.
You may know that Agatha Christie and her contemporaries in the Gilded Age formed a group they called the Detection Club – to meet and discuss mystery novels and their craft – complete with a membership oath to play by the rules (no puzzles to be solved)”Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God‘) with readers. Ronald Knox took it a step further and codified The Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction in 1929. Reading it now, it’s easy to appreciate two things: 1) it’s mostly commonsense stuff; and 2) in the 100 years since they were written, mystery novels have reinvented themselves enough times to outpace them. So they are both valid forever And outdated at the same time.
With that in mind, I would like to offer a completely unscientific assessment of authors who pass or fail specific rules according to the 1929 standards. These are not reviews or criticisms, just observations as they apply to the rules.
Also, warning: spoilers ahead.
Like, seriously. attention. spoilers. Come back now if you hate this kind of thing.
Rule 1: The criminal must be a person mentioned in the first part of the story, but it must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.
passes: The Adventures of Sherlock HolmesArthur Conan Doyle – Watson’s honest chronicle of Holmes’ adventures leaves little doubt as to his innocence, as we see the case through the eyes of the impartial observer. All in all, the first part of this rule holds the best of modern times: Most authors are strictly bound to present all honest suspects by the halfway point.
Fail: James Patterson, Miscellaneous – Introduction from the villain’s perspective is pretty much the equal for a lot of crime stories these days, and Patterson fails at that rule with aplomb, using the villain’s perspectives to heighten the tension of a game of cat and mouse. .
Rule 2: All supernatural or metaphysical agencies are of course excluded.
passes: Mr. MercedesStephen King – It’s odd that King marked a “pass” on the supernatural rule, but King’s foray into serious crime fiction is procedural, with retired detective Bill Hodges revealing a horrific attack, and King needn’t stretch his supernatural muscles, instead finding horror in evil. The real life.
Fail: Watching endsStephen King – I’m a Wayfarer And King fails at this, with this novel (the third and final novel in the Bill Hodges series) taking the next step and bringing supernatural horrors into his procedural world. While I read the books that played relatively straightforward before introducing some mayhem in the third act (Lauren Beuke’s thumbs up Broken monsters And shining girls Among them), this is the only one a series I can think of this kind of shift over the course of all three books.
Rule 3: No more than one room or secret passage is allowed.
passes: take out the knives, monastery. Rian Johnson – A “trick window” that reveals a secret door is used heavily in this murder mystery thriller, which plays with convention by simultaneously sticking to and updating them.
Fail: Devil and dark water, Stuart Turton – A classic homage to Holmesian mysteries, set on a cruise on the high seas where a ghostly murder mystery takes place, the ship in question is full of hidden passages and a dark atmosphere as good and bad characters run wild about the ship. I’m pretty sure Turton breaks and adheres to almost all of Knox’s rules in his fantastic subversive novels.
Rule 7: The informant himself may not commit the crime
passes: Jack Richer Series, Lee Child – If one thing is for sure, it’s that Lee Child’s formidable creation of justice will never be the victim of a brutal third act. It will go against his entire personality and moral code.
Fail: Unspecified, Agatha Christie – when? I hear you gasp, Are you letting Agatha Christie down? Yes, I really am. Christie has been known to push boundaries with her novels. I’ve removed the specific title here because I’m not completely disrespectful to spoilers, but suffice it to say that Christie’s Certain Novel completely flipped the genre with its very clever twist. In fact, it is rumored that he inspired Knox to write this very rule.
Rule 9: The detective’s stupid friend, Watson, must not hide any thoughts that pass through his mind; His intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
passes: The word is murder, Anthony Horowitz – In Horowitz’s fantastic meta-mysteries, of which this was the first, the idea is that the same author writes a series of non-fiction books about a retired detective inspector he blogs about, Hawthorne. Horowitz has a sense of humor to bestow himself with the role of Watson, and sticks to this rule tenaciously: getting a lot of mileage from the fact that Horowitz often barks up the completely wrong tree of suspects and theories, allows Hawthorne to be his solutions all. Most dazzling.
Fail: The girl is gone, Gillian Flynn – While this wasn’t the birth of the Unreliable Narrator, it was certainly the coming of age, making such twists and turns a staple of the genre’s still lifes. Flynn’s characters are layered, complex, conniving, dishonest, and smarter than the reader. It is my pleasure to take you on a tour.
I hope this exercise proves two counterintuitive theories at the same time: that sometimes you can’t beat a classic, and that some rules are made to be broken. And if that interests you, it’s a reminder that I write mystery novels, and if you want to be on my team: come play.