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Literary mysteries: The 20 rules for writing a detective novel

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Raymond Chandler, middle
Mystery novelist Raymond Chandler, center, at a party in London in 1958. Chandler wrote hard-boiled novels during the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.
Evening Standard | Getty Images

For Literary Mysteries, The Thread tackles your book questions, big and small. Ask a question now.

This week's question: Are there rules for writing a great detective story?

S.S. Van Dine thought so. He was the author of the Philo Vance detective novels, which were tremendously popular when published but have since faded into obscurity. (Van Dine is actually a pseudonym for Willard Huntington Wright, an art critic who hid his hard-boiled habit behind a pen name.)

Van Dine wrote mysteries during the Golden Age of Detective Fiction — the 1920s and '30s. That era turned out greats such as Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Dorothy Sayers, Dashiell Hammett and more. 

In 1928, Van Dine put forth a set of 20 rules, saying, "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."

S. S. Van Dine's rules for writing detective stories

Van Dine's rules are available in full in "Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories." What follows are 10 to give you a test of his theory.

1) "The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described."

If the reader doesn't have the chance to solve the mystery on his or her own, it doesn't pass muster. 

2) "There must be no love interest." 

Nothing muddies an investigation like love.

3) "The detective himself, or one of the official investigators, should never turn out to be the culprit." 

The detective-as-murderer is a post-modern twist Van Dine did not approve of.

4) "There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better. No lesser crime than murder will suffice." 

Van Dine felt that arson, theft and treason weren't sufficient to keep a reader interested. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would probably beg to differ.

5) "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 seances, crystal-gazing, and the like, are taboo." 

Scrap the supernatural, Van Dine said, the detective must use their good old fashioned brain power.

6) "A servant must not be chosen by the author as the culprit." 

No more "The butler did it!"

7) "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."

Van Dine calls foul on the "it wasn't really murder!" play.

8) "Secret societies, camorras, mafias, et al., have no place in a detective story." 

Sorry, Dan Brown.

9) "The culprit must turn out to be a person who has played a more or less prominent part in the story." 

No plucking a minor character from the background and putting him in handcuffs. 

10) "A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no 'atmospheric' preoccupations."

Van Dine had no time for fancy prose — he wanted the crime and nothing but the crime.

Chime in. Rules are made to be broken, aren't they? Which of Van Dine's rules would you break and which would you keep? Tell us below or on Twitter @thethreadmpr.