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Category Archives: Mystery Quotes

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Some things have changed since S.S. Van Dine gave us his 20 rules for detective fiction writing. Some things have not. The rational behind many of these rules still hold true while some are hilariously dated and reveal the bias from the time they were written.

“Twenty rules for writing detective stories” (1928)

(Originally published in the American Magazine (1928-sep),
and included in the Philo Vance investigates omnibus (1936).

by S.S. Van Dine
(pseud. for Willard Huntington Wright)

THE DETECTIVE story is a kind of intellectual game. It is more — it is a sporting event. And 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 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 seances, 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 seance 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.

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After having immersed myself in locked room mysteries I have come to the conclusion that most of the deceptions involve an accomplice – who usually ends up dead. In one entertaining story, The Triple Lock’d Room by Lillian de la Torre – the locked room had been searched prior to leaving the terrified victim alone to sleep and no one was found to be hiding. No one full size that is as the murderer turned out to be a dwarf type person masquerading as a child. Spaces a child could fit in where not searched and therefore the killer escaped detection. This picture, from a 1926 Chatterbox reminded me of the story, though it has nothing to do with it.

On the subject of locked rooms, I like what Michael Collins has to say in No One Likes to Be Played For a Sucker. “The locked room is an exercise in illusion – a magician’s trick. Otherwise it’s impossible, and the impossible can’t be done, period. Since it had been done, it must be a trick, a matter of distracting attention, and once you know what you’re really looking for, the answer is never hard.”

 

That Edgar Allen Poe sure knew how to size up a guy. Here’s a marvelous quote from his famous short story The Purloined Letter.

The speaker is an eight year old boy who is always winning at a game of marbles where you guess whether the person is holding an odd or even number of marbles in their closed hand. He figured out how his opponents would play based on their astuteness. When asked how he identified the other’s intelligence he replied :

“’When I wish to find out how wise, or how stupid, or how good, or how wicked is any one, or what are his thoughts at the moment, I fashion the expression of my face, as accurately as possible, in accordance with the expression of his, and then wait to see what thoughts or sentiments arise in my mind or heart, as if to match or correspond with the expression.”

No mystery reader is worth their salt if they haven’t read at least two of Donald Westlake’s Dormunder books and two of his Parker books written under the name of Richard Stark. Of course that’s a dirty trick because you won’t be able to read just two.

Donald Westlake (1933 – 2008) was a brilliant author of over one hundred books. Wikipedia says: Donald Westlake was known for the great ingenuity of his plots and the audacity of his gimmicks. His writing and dialogue are lively. His main characters are fully rounded, believable, and clever.”

About Parker:

“Whatever Stark writes, I read. He’s a stylist, a pro, and I thoroughly enjoy his attitude.”—Elmore Leonard

“Richard Stark’s Parker novels … are among the most poised and polished fictions of their time and, in fact, of any time.”—John Banville, Bookforum”—

“Parker is a true treasure. … The master thief is back, along with Richard Stark.”—Marilyn Stasio, New York Times Book Review”—

About the Dortmunder books – This is what Westlake has to say:

“Those 4 guys in the late 60’s who attacked a jewel merchant on New York’s West 46th St. on the sidewalk, so they could steal his jewel-filled station wagon, which they abandoned 2 blocks later because none of them could drive a stick shift. Where would I be without such people?” – Donald E. Westlake

But one of my favorite Westlake books ever is a stand-alone. If you pick it up, plan on uncontrollable laughter and staying up all night reading.

The Zero Effect is one of my favorite movies ever – one of the very few I have watched more than once and it is just loaded with good advice on writing mysteries. Check out the following quote for instance.

“Now, a few words on looking for things.  When you go looking for something specific, your chances of finding it are very bad, because of all the things in the world, you are only looking for one of them.  When you go looking for anything at all, your chances of finding it are very good because of all the things in the world,  you are sure to find some of them.  And the most important rule:  Often the thing you are looking for is right in front of your nose.”

–  Richard Stark & Jake Kasdan The Zero Effect

The movie stars a dynamic cast with Bill Pulman, Ben Stiller, Kim Dickens and Ryan O’Neal.

“But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.

If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.”  Raymond Chandler exert from The Simple Art of Murder (1950)

“I got the bill for my surgery. Now I know what those doctors were wearing masks for.”  James H. Boren

From that wonder fountain of suspense fiction comes this little mystery gem. Plot pursuers take note: there’s nothing like a good way to dispose of the body.

“There is nothing quite so good as burial at sea. It is simple, tidy, and not very incriminating.” Alfred Hitchcock (English Film Director, 1899 – 1980)

One of my favorite quotes. If only it could be taken to heart.

“Once in cabinet we had to deal with the fact that there had been an outbreak of assaults on women at night.  One minister …suggested a curfew;  women should stay home after dark.  I said, “But it’s the men who are attacking the women.  If there’s to be a curfew, let the men stay at home, not the women…”  –  Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir

“I felt like poisoning a monk.”  –  Umberto Eco, on why he wrote the novel ‘The Name of the Rose’.