Rules for Golden Age Mystery Writing: Thank God It’s Not 1928 Anymore

Welcome to a post from the Argh Draft Vault. This was saved as a draft on Dec. 18, 2013, and I’ve rewritten it to post now due to popular demand. (Well, a couple of you asked for a mystery post.) I was struggling with You Again when I first wrote this, my version of a Golden Age mystery (a bunch of people trapped in a house, people start dying, you know that one), so I looked at the classic rule lists from S.S. Van Dine, Ronald Knox, the Detection Club, and Raymond Chandler. Chandler’s list is solid. Everybody else? Thank god it’s not 1928 anymore, especially if you were a servant, Chinese, or twins. Here’s the post; it’s 6400 words long, mostly because Van Dine is wordy, so get a cup of a tea and cookie, this is going to take awhile:

About ten years ago [now twelve], I started a book called You Again, my homage to Golden Age mysteries, in spite of the fact that I am lousy at writing mysteries. Since then, that damn book has been sitting on my shoulder like Poe’s raven, croaking, “Neverdone” at me, so I’m taking another shot at it. This time, though, I’m looking more closely at my source material, especially the Golden Age Mystery rules, some of which are helpful and some of which are appalling. (S. S. Van Dine is not somebody I’d have lunch with.) Below are four different mystery rule lists with my comments, followed by own list (because everybody wants to know what a non-mystery writer thinks about writing mysteries).



S. S. Van Dine (aka Willard Huntington Wright) wrote the Philo Vance mysteries:

“I might have been a bit presumptuous, y’know,” said Vance, “but when the lady was extolling the deceased’s popularity, I rather thought she was overdoing it a bit. There was an unconscious implication of antithesis in her eulogy, which suggested to me that she herself was not ardently enamored of the gentleman.”

“And what put the notion of firearms into your mind?”

“That query,” explained Vance, “was a corollary of your own question about barred windows and Benson’s fear of burglars. If he was in a funk about housebreakers or enemies, would he be likely to have firearms at hand–eh, what?”

The Benson Murder Case

Yeah, Philo has not worn well. Here are van Dine’s rules:

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

I think this is a basic. Part of the fun of the mystery is the puzzle, and the reader should have all the pieces. It’s okay to disguise them but not to omit them.

2. No wilful tricks or deceptions may be played on the reader other than those played legitimately by the criminal on the detective himself.

This is something I’m rabid about: no gotchas. The reader has to be able to trust the writer; lying to her or tricking her is a cheat that destroys that trust.

3. There must be no love interest in the story. To introduce amour is to clutter up a purely intellectual experience with irrelevant sentiment. The business in hand is to bring a criminal to the bar of justice, not to bring a lovelorn couple to the hymeneal altar.

Oh, please. Romance is to mystery what peanut butter is to chocolate. I’m good with barring the “hymeneal altar” though; that sounds gross.

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.

I think in general this is good, but I wouldn’t set it in stone. Christie did this well, even if she did outrage a nation. The real problem is the POV violation; the reader needs to know what the POV character knows.

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.

See #2, the “No Gotchas” rule.

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.

This seems obvious. A mystery must have a detective who detects in the same way that a romance must have lovers who love. Since our respect for the detective depends on how well she detects, she better be aces with clues and analysis.

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. Americans are essentially humane, and therefore a tiptop murder arouses their sense of vengeance and horror. They wish to bring the perpetrator to justice; and when “murder most foul, as in the best it is,” has been committed, the chase is on with all the righteous enthusiasm of which the thrice gentle reader is capable.

Setting aside the “Americans are generally humane” bit (I think that can be called into question both globally and nationally), I think we’re into semantics here. There can be detectives in ghost stories, detectives in capers, but if we’re talking about murder mysteries, then yes, there has to be a murder, or at least an inconvenient accident that people then commit crimes to cover up. Let’s say “serious, community threatening crime” which includes murder.

8. 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 sÈances, 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.

This is one I’m going to violate because You Again has ghosts (and Alice and Isolde) so they’re actually characters in the story. I’m not about to bar the supernatural; it’s too much fun. But it can’t provide the solution; that has to come from the detective’s analysis.

9.There must be but one detective–that is, but one protagonist of deduction–one deus ex machine. 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, who, at the outset, pits his mind against that of the detective and proceeds to do mental battle. If there is more than one detective the reader doesn’t know who his co-deductor is. It’s like making the reader run a race with a relay team.

Again, I think this is too reductive. One protagonist, yes, and that protagonist is probably the detective, but the role of community in modern storytelling is too important to ignore. The key here is that there’s one character the reader attaches to, and that character is the reader’s partner in the game. All the other characters who are helping bring the aid to both of them, so the story is still focused.

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. For a writer to fasten the crime, in the final chapter, on a stranger or person who has played a wholly unimportant part in the tale, is to confess to his inability to match wits with the reader.

I think this is crucial. If you think about it, a murder is a crime against community, creating a wound, a crack in that world, not just because the people in it have lost a piece of their group, but also because there’s a murderer among them, so they draw away from each other, poisoned by suspicion and fear. They can’t reform as a group until the toxin is removed by the identification and punishment of the killer. If the criminal isn’t one of them, the threat becomes random and bogus, and the story loses its center.

11. Servants–such as butlers, footmen, valets, game-keepers, cooks, and the like–must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. This is begging a noble question. It is a too easy solution. It is unsatisfactory, and makes the reader feel that his time has been wasted. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person–one that wouldn’t ordinarily come under suspicion; for if the crime was the sordid work of a menial, the author would have had no business to embalm it in book-form.

S.S.Van Dine, elitist prig. “You know what I hate? Murder by menial. It’s so distasteful, unlike the classy defenestrations done by the upper class.”

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.

I’m with him on this one: one antagonist. Focus your conflict, people.

13. Secret societies, camorras, mafias, et al., have no place in a detective story. Here the author gets into adventure fiction and secret-service romance. 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 (with its ubiquitous havens, mass protection, etc.) to fall back on. No high-class, self-respecting murderer would want such odds in his jousting-bout with the police.

“No high-class, self-respecting murderer . . .” S.S., are you even listening to yourself? Jesus.

14. The method of murder, and the means of detecting it, must 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. For instance, the murder of a victim by a newly found element–a super-radium, let us say–is not a legitimate problem. Nor may a rare and unknown drug, which has its existence only in the author’s imagination, be administered. A detective-story writer must limit himself, toxicologically speaking, to the pharmacopoeia. 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.

I think this is just an extension of the no-gotcha, play-fair rule. Unless you’ve set up the method thoroughly so it’s part of the plot, just poison the suckers with cyanide or push them down elevator shafts. Much less explaining to do.

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. And one of my basic theories of detective fiction is that, if a detective story is fairly and legitimately constructed, it is impossible to keep the solution from all readers. There will inevitably be a certain number of them just as shrewd as the author; and if the author has shown the proper sportsmanship and honesty in his statement and projection of the crime and its clues, these perspicacious readers will be able, by analysis, elimination and logic, to put their finger on the culprit as soon as the detective does. And herein lies the zest of the game. Herein we have an explanation for the fact that readers who would spurn the ordinary “popular” novel will read detective stories unblushingly.

This is the hardest part of writing ANYTHING: fulfill expectations while surprising the reader so that the second time she reads the story, it’s all brand new. Having said that, S.S.’s assumption that the ordinary popular novel makes reader blush is another brick in the wall of his delusions of superiority. After all, this is the guy who wrote Philo Vance, the character Raymond Chandler called “the most asinine character in detective fiction.” Or as Ogden Nash put it, “Philo Vance/Needs a kick in the pants.” As does S. S.

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; 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.

I agree with this in general, although I think the most interesting part of this (and several of his other rules) is the idea that the mystery novel is a game, a puzzle, instead of a story first and foremost. I realize that Golden Age mysteries were often read that way, but the ones that have lasted (and the Philo Vance mysteries have not) are the ones where their writers took storytelling and character development seriously. But yes, keep your eyes on the prize: less “it was a dark and stormy night” and more “she shoved her mother off the widow’s walk.”

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.

I think he’s just phrased this wrong. It should be, “The murderer should be an important character in the book, not somebody who just stopped by for a bash.” I think “the least likely suspect” is an outdated approach, although still better than “the most likely suspect.” Also outdated: the idea that the detective must be an amateur, showing up the plodding professional constabulary.

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.

Two dollars. Those were the days. I think today you can get by with an accident or a suicide if it pushes other characters into illegalities to cover it up, such as the Reginald Hill mystery where the victim died by accident and then others made it look like murder for financial gain. The real problem with an accidental death is that there’s no antagonist: if nobody’s committed a crime, there’s no opposite number for the detective.

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.

I think motives should always be personal, but then I think all motives are. [“Gemütlich” here seems to translate to “cosy” or “relatable;” the cosy mystery as opposed to the thriller or gritty police procedural.)

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.

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.

S.S. would freak at CSI.

The bogus spiritualistic sÈance to frighten the culprit into giving himself away.

That is cheesy.

Forged finger-prints.

They did that on White Collar and again on Limitless, and it was brilliant. Wrong again, S. S.

The dummy-figure alibi.

I think this is where people think they’re watching the suspect but actually he’s put a dummy in his chair to give himself an alibi. My question is, “This works?”

The dog that does not bark and thereby reveals the fact that the intruder is familiar.

Do not fuck with Sherlock Holmes, S.S.

The final pinning of the crime on a twin, or a relative who looks exactly like the suspected, but innocent, person.

Now I have a burning desire to write twins.

The hypodermic syringe and the knockout drops.

Why? They work.

The commission of the murder in a locked room after the police have actually broken in.

I love that one. Stop being such a pooper, S. S.

The word-association test for guilt.

This works? More important, how would you get that into evidence? “Your honor, I said ‘scarlet’ and she said ‘I killed him in the library with the lead pipe.'”

The cipher, or code letter, which is eventually unravelled by the sleuth.

I love a good code. At this point, he’s just being arbitrary. So the hell with S S Van Dine, let’s move on to . . .


So S. S. Van Dine was a putz. Ronald Knox’s list a year later is better, as is his fiction (although Knox has that turn-of-the-last-century racism thing undercutting him):

“You see,” put in Gordon,”the detectives in the book always have such luck. The murderer generally has a wooden leg, and that doesn’t take much detecting. The trouble in real life is the way murderers go about unamputated. And then there’s the left-handed men, how conveniently they come in! I tried detection once on a old pipe, and I can show you from the way the side of it was charred that the owner was right-handed. But there are so many right-handed people.”

“In most cases,” said Carmichael,”it’s only nerves that make people think they’re left-handed.”

The Viaduct Murder

Here are Knox’s rules:

1. The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.

Again, POV. If you’re in the criminal’s POV, you know what he or she is thinking, and it’s a cheat if the reader doesn’t know it, too. Unless you’re Agatha Christie.

2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.

I like ghosts.

3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.

A Clue game has four secret passages, but I can see where after one, you’d call in a building inspector and find a floor plan.

4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.

I agree: go with sharp shoves or a nice common poison. Otherwise you have all that damn exposition to deal with.

5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.

Ronald Knox: Racist. Okay, what he really means is don’t use cliches (evidently there were a lot of murderous Chinese littering the corridors of Golden Age detective fiction which is just odd), but still, racist.

6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.

That’s just basic storytelling; no deus ex machina, including unsupported insights.

7. The detective himself must not commit the crime.

Agatha Christie begs to differ, but it is a POV problem.

8. The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.

This is basic third limited POV: If you’re in the protagonist’s point of view, you have to see what she sees. I do object to “declare.” The detective can keep her mouth shut, the writer just has to make sure the reader knows what she knows.

9. The “sidekick” of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.

Who is this average reader of whom you speak? And why does the BFF have to be slightly below average? Okay, the Watson is usually the stand-in for the reader, the guy/girl on the street, and if he or she is a POV character we’re back to the reader knowing what he or she knows. I think this is just POV.

10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

And now I must write twins. (Did you see that Grimm episode that had quadruplets? Knox would have had fits.)

And then there’s

The Detection Club

“The Detection Club was formed in 1930 by a group of British mystery writers, including Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ronald Knox, Freeman Wills Crofts, Arthur Morrison, John Rhode, Jessie Rickard, Baroness Emma Orczy, R. Austin Freeman, G. D. H. Cole, Margaret Cole, E. C. Bentley, Henry Wade, and H. C. Bailey. Anthony Berkeley was instrumental in setting up the club, and the first president was G. K. Chesterton. There was a fanciful initiation ritual with an oath probably written by either Chesterton or Sayers, and the club held regular dinner meetings in London.”
From Wikipedia



These are the rules that Christie, Sayers, Chesterton and the others cobbled together at a dinner one night in 1930, probably in an attempt to clean up after Van Dine and Knox.

1. The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.

Get that antagonist out there and working for you early. However, I don’t think the crime has to be committed in the first pages. Just get the whole cast on stage as soon as possible.

2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course. To solve a detective problem by such means would be like winning a race on the river by the use of a concealed motor-engine.
Again with the “no ghosts” thing. I think they’re objecting to a deus ex machina more than ghosts.

3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.

That’s it. I’m putting in a secret passage.

4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.

Really so much simpler for everybody if the murderer just shoves somebody off something high.

5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.

Again, I think this means “Avoid cliches,” but it’s still racist as all hell.

6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.

I’d change that to “any protagonist in any story after the first page,” but yep.

7. The detective must not himself commit the crime.

This was four years after Christie did that. I wonder if they shouted her down, or if she just laughed and showed them her royalty statements.

8. The detective must not light on any clues are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.

POV again, plus fair play.

9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.

No on the dumbed-down Watsons; they’re a lot more fun if they’re smart. See Lucy Liu’s Watson on Sherlock, James Hathaway on Lewis, and Dalziel in the Hill mysteries. The “must not be concealed” is POV again.

10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

I’m definitely writing twins.

And just for fun, here’s the oath taken by all members of the Detection Club:

“Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God? “

I don’t know what Jiggery-Pokery is, but I’m going to place some reliance on it. Plus feminine intuition is just paying attention to people, including menials and Chinamen. :p

And finally we have the Big Kahuna of Noir, Raymond Chandler:


“Tall, aren’t you?” she said.

“I didn’t mean to be.”

Her eyes rounded. She was puzzled. She was thinking. I could see, even on that short acquaintance, that thinking was always going to be a bother to her.

“Handsome, too,” she said. “And I bet you know it.”

I grunted.

“What’s your name?”

“Reilly, I said. “Doghouse Reilly.”

“That’s a funny name.” She bit her lip, and turned her head a little, and looked at me along her eyes. Then she lowered her lashes until they almost cuddled her cheeks and slowly raised them again, like a theater curtain. I was to get to know that trick. That was supposed to make me roll over on my back with all four paws in the air.

The Big Sleep


1. [The story] must be credibly motivated, both as to the original situation and the dénouement.

This is just good characterization.

2. It must be technically sound as to the methods of murder and detection.

This speaks to the reader’s trust in the writer, the idea that there is an intelligent authority in the text.

3. It must be realistic in character, setting and atmosphere. It must be about real people in a real world.

Chandler wrote noir, and it would be hard to find a more stylized and constructed world than the mean streets his detectives walked down, but I think the key here is that once you’ve constructed your world and introduced it to the reader, it has to stay internally consistent. If your world has vampires in it, then that’s the realism of that world. So maybe rewrite this one as, “Don’t violate the integrity of your story world.”

4. It must have a sound story value apart from the mystery element: i.e., the investigation itself must be an adventure worth reading.

This is where I started to love Chandler. A puzzle is not a story. There has to be a ride in there, a conflict that swoops and escalates and takes the reader with it. A mystery is first and foremost a story; the puzzle is just part of the structure.

5. It must have enough essential simplicity to be explained easily when the time comes.

“You’re probably wondering why I called you all together . . .” The best mystery endings are simple, the final piece falling into place and revealing the whole without explanation.

6. It must baffle a reasonably intelligent reader.

Never dumb down. I never do because I always assume my reader is smarter than I am, but in general, construct a mystery that’s complex enough to be baffling and at the same time rational and logical enough to come together easily in the reader’s mind when it’s revealed.

7. The solution must seem inevitable once revealed.

This is so crucial in any story, I think. You want the final reversal to surprise expectation, and leave the reader saying, “Of course, this couldn’t happen any other way.” This, by the way, is damn hard.

8. It must not try to do everything at once. If it is a puzzle story operating in a rather cool, reasonable atmosphere, it cannot also be a violent adventure or a passionate romance.

Pick a lane. It isn’t that you can’t have a romance in a mystery novel, it’s that you have to decide if it’s a mystery with a romance subplot or a romance with a mystery subplot.

9. It must punish the criminal in one way or another, not necessarily by operation of the law….If the detective fails to resolve the consequences of the crime, the story is an unresolved chord and leaves irritation behind it.

This goes back to catharsis. A story almost always begins with a stable world being jarred into instability through injustice of some kind, and the ensuing plot is the protagonist’s attempts to restore that justice. In a mystery, it’s pretty clear cut: somebody’s committed a crime against society by murdering one of its members, and that person must be caught and brought to justice before the social order can be restored and the community returned to stability. No punishment for the crime, no justice, no stability, no catharsis.

10. It must be honest with the reader.

Never lie to your reader. Ever. She’ll never trust you again.

And just to make things fair, here’s my two cents:

Jenny Crusie copy

Sophie Dempsey didn’t like Temptation even before the Garveys smashed into her ’86 Civic, broke her sister’s sunglasses, and confirmed all her worst suspicions about people from small towns who drove beige Cadillacs.

(I don’t do rules. Tools maybe. Really more guidelines. Suggestions. Oh, hell, do what you want. It’s your story.)

(Also keep in mind: I’m a lousy mystery writer. So you know, grain of salt.)

1. Get your detective on the first page. The corpse can come later, but you want your reader attaching to her partner in solving the puzzle right off the bat.

2. Establish your detective’s skills and personality through action, not through statements from her or other people about her. Character is action, first and foremost; it’s a lot more fun to watch somebody being clever than to be told she’s clever.

3. Establish your murderer’s skills through the clues that show his or her actions; your reader needs to know that Our Detective is up against somebody smart and ruthless, if possible smarter and more ruthless than she is.

4. One of the keys to any mystery lies in the character of the victim (unless the crime was random, in which case, good luck plotting that sucker). Therefore the character of the victim must be established through his or her actions or words or the words of those who knew him or her. The one exception is the mystery in which the identity of the victim is unknown, but that never lasts long.

5. The detective must have a good reason for pursuing the case, especially if he or she is not a professional. That reason almost always comes from character: because she is the kind of person she is, she takes the murder personally and must act.

6. Those three characters form the triumvirate of your story: The victim whose character causes him or her to move into the path of the murderer, the murderer whose character causes him or her to commit the worst crime known to humanity, and the detective whose character causes him or her to implacably hunt down and defeat the murderer. Understanding the relationships among these three will help focus your plot.

7. The discovery of each clue should move the plot forward, with crucial clues a major factor in the turning points. That is, as the story escalates, so should the clues, revealing deeper levels of the puzzle (“This is not as simple as we thought!”) and greater danger, especially as the clues move the detective closer to the murderer.

8. The clues and the characters’ reactions to the discovery of the clues should reveal not only the character of the murderer, but also the characters of everyone affected by the murder. If possible, the discovery of the identity of the killer should mean different things to the different major characters, so each clue should spur each of them to a different reaction and possibly a different course of action.

9. The macguffin in a murder mystery is the identity of the killer; a corollary to that is the discovery of evidence to convict the killer. The reason most detectives in murder mysteries follow a trail of clues to the murderer’s identity instead of discovering the identity and then trying to find proof is that the reveal is generally the climactic moment. It’s convenient (but not mandatory) if the final clue to the killer’s identity and the final piece of evidence that will convict him or her is one and the same.

10. The clues have to be on the page. The reader must know everything the POV character knows. No gotchas. However, the meanings of these clues and this knowledge don’t have to be spelled out or even emphasized. A mystery writer is like a magician, directing the reader’s attention elsewhere while pulling the rabbit out of the hat without concealing the existence of the rabbit or the hat.

11. Any subplot such as a love story must be integral to the mystery, complicating and echoing the main plot. One of the reasons mystery and romance go so well together is that they’re both dangerous premises that involve discovering the true identity of someone who has disrupted the status quo. Find the parallels to your main plot in your subplots and make the same scenes work for both of them to keep your story focused.

12. Remember that all your characters know that there’s a murderer loose. The person who wanders about the garden alone at midnight had better be meeting somebody vital or he or she is Too Stupid To Live. Ditto for the detective who takes time off to flirt while the bodies pile up.

13. Once the final mystery is over (usually the identity of the murderer), the story is over; any denouement should be brief and mainly deal with the return of the story world to stability.

14. Get your entire cast introduced in the first quarter of the book, including and especially the murderer. This is the society the murderer transgresses against, so merely describing the environment won’t do it; setting is people, too.

15: Henry James, author of that great country house story The Turn of the Screw, said “Plot is characters under stress.” The tighter and more claustrophobic the story world is, the more stress its characters are under. This is one of the reasons the country house cut off from the rest of the world is such an attractive setting. A story world that is “modern America” is too broad to create the kind of focused tension you want in mystery. Narrow it to the confines of a workplace, a family, a neighborhood, a small town, that isolated country house; the smaller the world, the greater the transgression of the crime and the stronger the need to re-establish stability. (See also, “Ark Movie” from the Ebert List of Movie Terms.)

16: Establish the hierarchy within the world that the detective will have to navigate. Who has the power to stop the investigation or block paths of inquiry? Who blusters, who manipulates, who plots, who lies, who weeps? In the context of worldbuilding, think of characters as barriers or gateways in the maze of the plot

17. Establish how this world works. A character who refuses to give information might be seen as an enemy unless she’s part of a world that bars medical practitioners from divulging anything about their patients; a medical practitioner who volunteers to divulge confidential information about a patient in that world might be seen as suspicious and untrustworthy. What are this world’s rules, spoken and unspoken?

18. A detective is traditionally an outsider, entering a world to restore stability. But because she’s an outsider, her entry into that world creates more instability. How does your detective interact with that world? Does she stand apart and observe or is she drawn into it? How is her investigation hampered by not being part of that world? How is it hampered if she’s drawn into it?

19. Never forget that you’re telling a story first and solving a puzzle second. A coherent story world filled with well-developed characters trumps a fiendishly clever puzzle every time. Better yet, write both.

20. Any mystery can be improved by putting twin Chinese housemaids in a secret passage carrying a poison unknown to man with the recipe for the antidote written in code by a ghost. Also, up yours, S.S. Van Dine.

And now, over to you, Argh People. Anybody have a rule/suggestion/guideline that Van Dine, Knox, the Detection Club, Chandler, and I missed? Have at it in the comments.

51 thoughts on “Rules for Golden Age Mystery Writing: Thank God It’s Not 1928 Anymore

  1. I already had me tea, darnit. So I read SS and 2 things come to mind.

    A: 7. “Americans are humane.” – that’s like Thor 2 when they enter the abandoned building and Darcy says, “It’s ok, we’re Americans!”

    Jane’s incredulous, scorn-laced response was, “Is that supposed to make them like us?!”

    B. Do not mess with Sherlock Holmes.

    Am going back to read the rest. I wish I had a cup o’ tea and a biscuit.

  2. When I got to Crusie, I decided to stop for a cup of tea. And four biccies. You’re worth it.

    With mysteries, what about red herrings and misdirection in terms of plot? How far is too far that it may end up being a gotcha?

  3. “A Clue game has four secret passages, but I can see where after one, you’d call in a building inspector and find a floor plan.”

    So twin Chinese housemaids with undetectable poison in TWO secret passages after which you get the building inspector because having a building inspector in a haunted house would be GOLD. Thank you for that. Actually a building inspector seems like she should be a crucial part of almost any mystery: lights that flicker (bad electricity), unstable Internet, plumbing issues and bats in the attic….

    Also can you imagine Christie, Sayers and Chesterton all in the same room? My heart beats a little faster just thinking about it.

    1. One of my favorite anecdotes is about Sayers and Allingham meeting on a train and talking about the difficulty of getting their stiff-upper-lip detectives together with their plucky-but-patient heroines. Allingham told Sayers that she’d had to conk Albert Campion on the head to get him to make the final move on Amanda, and Sayers thought that was great.

      I thought it was a great move, too, actually. Albert and Amanda had been engaged for years (four? five?), and he wasn’t doing anything to get to the altar. So the opening of the book is him waking up in a hospital ward with temporary amnesia, trying to figure out what’s going on since he’s in a bed and there’s a cop at the door ready to arrest him. Then this redhead shows up and gets him out of the room, and she’s so efficient and so briskly affectionate he figures she must be his wife. When several pages later he realizes they’ve been engaged forever, he thinks, “What the hell have I been waiting for?” and then she breaks off the engagement. He gradually regains his memory over the course of about twenty-four hours so the whole amnesia thing isn’t too beyond the pale, but it’s that plot method of making him approach his life and his relationship as a stranger that really jumpstarts the romance again and gets Allingham out of the corner she’d painted herself into.

  4. Virtually everything you said, Jenny. You rock.

    Except POV and Unreliable Narrators.

    The Unreliable Narrator in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd may have shocked the bejasus out of everyone, but only half the nation was teed off. The other half was delighted. As Dorothy L Sayers said in Christie’s defence, “It’s the reader’s business to suspect everybody.”

    The concept of UN is pretty ubiquitous now, and I don’t believe we have to know everything the POV character knows. Because it’s the reader’s business to notice what the narrator ISN’T saying.

  5. All the twin comments just made me think of that early episode of Elementary where they set up the twin thing, then knocked it down. And then … but that would be a spoiler. Loved that episode.

  6. What cracks me up is Chandler’s #5. The Big Sleep is one of the most convoluted stories ever. I love it and have seen it at least half a dozen times and I still couldn’t explain who did what to whom. Of course that’s the movie. Maybe the book is more clear?

    1. There’s a graphic novel version of Eliot’s _The Waste Land_ that is ALSO _The Big Sleep_ and has the death that Chandler couldn’t explain to the director, when The Big Sleep was filmed. The graphic novel has footnotes on its footnotes. By Martin Rowson.

  7. I think the “Chinaman” thing is another way of saying no secret societies or gangs — I think the cliche “Chinaman” in those stories is in a triad. So it is racist, but that’s the stereotype it’s going for… and your “twin Chinese housemaids” recalls the other 1930s US cliche of having Asian servants.

    We are interested in people of all classes and all ethnicities and nationalities, and we see them as people, characters. They… weren’t. (Well, Sayers in fact was capable of seeing servants as people, see Gaudy Night.)

    1. “The Chinaman” in 1920s bad novels, rather like “The Hindu cultist” in 1880s bad novels, saves the author both plotting and characterization because they’re automatically and kind of stupidly evil.

      Nowadays the servants from the colonies often look like the people with the most justified and insoluble grievances*, but it would be pretty hard to write a book with a sympathetic Chinese or Hindu murderer and not trip over the evil-races trope, even with gobs of presentism.

      * Maybe _The Moonstone_ notices that the English were thieves and blasphemers? Can’t remember.

  8. Thank you! Very timely, since the next book on the writing schedule is #1 [I hope] in a mystery series. Love your #20…I don’t think I can fit it in this book, though I’m going to have one h… of a time keeping it out. 🙂

  9. I can’t remember where, but I know I’ve read many, many, many times that the dead body is supposed to show up on the first page of mysteries (much like the h/h are supposed to meet on the first page in a romance).

    I always thought that advice about dead bodies on the first page made no sense. At least not in a stand-alone or the first book in a series for the reason you mention. ESPECIALLY if the first scene is in the soon-to-be-corpse’s POV, and I hate him/her, so I don’t even get to the last page where he/she is killed, and also when I don’t hate him/her, and I get to the last page of the scene only to have this character I’m interested in reading about die.

    But the advice is out there in writers’ groups and I’m not sure where else, perhaps “how to write a mystery” type books. Because I’ve seen it a lot.

    I wonder if it’s at least partly because of differing emphases on the puzzle and the community. Prizing the puzzle perhaps leads to believing that the dead body is the most important element of the story; prizing community leads to the sleuth and his/her community as the most important elements.

    My favorite cozy mystery author, Donna Andrews, tends to have the dead body show up fairly late (as much as 100 pages into the story), but her books are really more about the community than the puzzle. In fact, I don’t really much care whodunnit, as long as I get to hang out with her community. Her protagonist always has a goal other than solving the murder (like holding a yard sale or organizing a Halloween event) that moves the story forward in parallel with the solving of the murder, so it’s not like characters are just wandering around aimlessly until the body is found.

    1. I think the dead-body-on-the-first-page bit is for puzzle books, where the plot is more of a game than a real story. I think mysteries that are more about story and character take their time getting to the murder so the reader can settle into the world and the community. But that’s a huge generalization.

  10. Thank you for this – it was well worth the reading time, even cookie-less. I love your #18, about the detective character furthering the instability of the world.

    The only thing I’d expand on is making the villain multi-dimensional. You mentioned smart and ruthless; in other posts, you’ve talked about making the antagonist human, and I think that really enhances any mystery story.

      1. Thank you, Kelly, for reminding me. I laughed my head off watching it. That movie was a very entertaining parody of the best mystery writers and characters. It certainly would have made Mr. Dyne furious.

  11. Now, even though I’m not a writer, nor do I have a burning desire to be, I want to write a mystery with twin Chinese housemaids in a secret passage carrying a poison unknown to man with the recipe for the antidote written in code by a ghost. Because this must be written. Somehow.

    Re your rules: these are common sense rules any decent writer should at least start with. I might add-keep your protagonist true to him/her self. I read a book recently where the main character had, by the end of the book, completely turned from his core defining beliefs, and in my opinion, pretty much eliminated his goals for life, and his future looked like a wasteland to me. No goals, no truth to strive for. Just … Nothing. Kinda pissed me off, truth to tell.

  12. Thanks for this brilliantly researched and executed post, as well as your clear and concise suggestions, Jenny. I echo the question another reader posted above, regarding the use of red herrings and where’s the fine line BTW these and “Gotcha!”

    And as you felt compelled to write about Chinese twin maids and their secret passageway(s), I’m now inspired to write something featuring a band called “Jiggery-Pokery,” whose main income stream comes from composing soundtracks for porn. 🙂

  13. Fantastic post, absolutely marvelous. I’d like to add one thing, but it is not a rule. More like my personal preference. I dislike it when the detective becomes the next target of the murderer and has to juggle her investigation with dodging the danger. For some reason, many modern cozies are written this way. The detective is trying to solve the murder to prevent her own demise. I think such an approach dilutes the original mystery. I prefer the intellectual solutions in the vein of Peter Wimsey rather than a race to outrun a killer.

  14. I’m assuming the same rules apply even when writing a contemporary romance where no murder was committed, yet a crime, and secrets, have been held by the older generation in the small town for decades? I’m writing one now where the heroine goes in search of her biological father and uncovers secrets surrounding her birth, her father, the townsfolk, and attempts are made to keep her from uncovering the truth.
    I’ve no clue what to label this, maybe contemporary with a mystery element. Wish I’d stop muddying up my work and stick to a clear genre. Ha ha.

    1. Don’t worry about genre, just write the story you need to write. Let the agents and editors figure out what genre it is.

  15. Thank you for the Chandler excerpt – damn, was he a fine writer.

    “There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.”

    Fine writer.

  16. As one of the folks who requested the mystery post, a big thank you for pulling it together. What I love about your posts is that they’re always stimulating–like reading a type of idea ping-p0ng for the mind.

    After reading through, I think your roundup is spot on. But it got me wondering too about other formats in mysteries, other than the more classic pure detection. For example, the cat & mouse type or like the turnabout in Dial M for Murder. In both types, there’s often a “who will outwit who” angle but not necessarily in so much of a detection way as a “how will this get pulled off” way. Same for mysteries that start off with the answer (often who & what) but then go back and unfold the how & why. Yet they can be super engaging & suspenseful even though the denouement won’t be about unveiling the culprit. There’s definitely an art to pulling that off.

    Then too there’s tone. Like there’s more humour in a caper but also in some more classic stories. I remember seeing a mystery with Bob Hope that surprised me for its time in how tongue-in-cheek it was, kind of poking fun at the PI genre while at the same time following it.

    But no matter what the format, I think your point re connecting with the protag is so important. And surprisingly not always done & a big reason I lose interest in stories, feeling why should I care if the protag doesn’t or if I don’t care about the protag.

    Think too after reading this I have another takeaway: The “hymeneal altar” bit. Never heard that expression before & thinking his writing was probably better off without romance if that was considered the HEA of that subplot:)

  17. This was the most fun I have had all week! I sure am missing my “like” button though.

    Mina Lobo, you really cracked me up!
    Olga Godim, I am right there with you – this seems very prevalent in the tv mysteries I have been watching, and I really dislike it. They did it over and over in “Bones”

    I found “The Big Sleep” made much more sense after I read the book. Of course, “much more sense” is not the same as “completely understandable”. If you like the movie and haven’t read the story, I highly recommend reading it – makes the movie even more enjoyable in my humble opinion.

  18. Extra thought found it’s way back to the surface… You mention clue the board game but Clue the movie broke many of these rules depending on which ending you go with. I really enjoyed the movie even if it did drag a little in the middle. My preferred ending was everyone did it but not like Murder on the Orient Express – another rule breaker.

  19. My guess is that the no Chinaman rule applies much more to Sax Rohmer & his Fu Manchu series than to Charlie Chan.

    As racist as Charlie Chan seems to us now, he was far far better than Fu Manchu. He followed the rules of the goden age detective, using logic to solve crimes. Think of Charlie Chan as a Chinese detective rather than a Chinaman. He was a father and a police man. He considered himself an American in the novels. Yes, now the sterotype is racist – but as Keye Luke put it – “Demeaning? You had a Chinese hero!”

    A Chinaman in the detective fiction of the 20s would only be the villian involved with white slavery, opium dens, tong wars; the helpful serving boy (even if he was 50) who was sexless; the mysterious & submissive Madame Butterfly (yes, I know she was Japanese) but none of them characters who would act like Westerners. All of them aliens whose motivation for any crime was no other reason than he/she was an “Oriental.”

    Using that type of sterotype breaks the “culprit must be a member of the community” that these rules stress.

    Fu Manchu involves mysterious Oriental mental powers, secret societies, an elixer of eternal life… everything the rules try & prohibit. And if I remember the hero was more of a cardboard figure in those stories than an equal opponent to the evil Fu Manchu. And Fu Manchu was very much like the Brain – he wanted to take over the world.

    He also sold extremely well.

    I imagine it made them crazy.

    1. I always thought of Fu Manchu as more of a super-villain like a Bond villain or a Marvel antagonist, more thriller than mystery, as opposed to the classic detective nemesis like Moriarty. But I’ve never read any of the Fu Manchu books so I’m guessing.

  20. Joining the party to thank you for the critical analysis of the Golden Age mystery. Impressive.

    I also thank you for the map on writing GAm. Reading it fires me to disinter Emerald Village Mystery and apply your schematics over my convolution of plot, world, and character to see what I can see. I’m always fine once I have organization and pattern to go on with.

    And that’s what you do too: apply those suggestions to whatever mystery you currently work on (I’ve lost track), and away you go. Easy-peasy. You’re welcome.

  21. BBC Sherlock breaking the No Chinaman rule is one of the reasons Elementary is superior.

    In trying to suss out the spirit of the No Chinaman rule, what do you think its modern equivalent is today? No Islamic Terrorist? No Predatory Queer? No character type that would be more at home in the horror genre? (because they’re usually the Too Obvious suspect?)

    1. I really think it goes back to “no overused story tropes.” So I think the middle Eastern character as terrorist is definitely one of those. I think LGBT characterizations are finally getting to the point where female characterizations are arriving; just as women no longer have to be The Girl (hello, Rey!), LGBT characters no longer have to be comic best friends or sadistic villains. But really, it all goes back to “treat your characters as rounded human beings.”

      1. Yes, it was interesting to see how the rules for noir focused much more on the meta level elements than the object level details, given how it’s a genre defined by its overused story tropes. (though I have seen criticism of the Femme Fatale, when they’re either the only woman in the story, or part of a Madonna/Whore dichotomy) The use of a particular cliche depends on their purpose within the narrative, and whether or not the same effect could be accomplished without the cliche.

        Most of the queer pop culture sites I frequent seemed very put off by Barbara in Gotham, because they felt that she conformed to and reinforced the Depraved Bisexual trope, not helped by Gotham’s noir influences. (and the poor treatment of Renee Montoya’s character) This is compared to the same community’s positive reception of Jeri Hogarth’s antagonist role in Jessica Jones, and it stemmed from the respect with which they felt the characters were treated.

        1. I presented a paper once, long ago, that argued that noir is masculine Gothic, the male victimized by the female instead of the other way around. I still like that argument but the paper is long gone.

          Barbara in Gotham is a mess because they keep shifting her around. She was the Good Girlfriend, and then I think they made her bi to make her more interesting, and then she went off her rocker for no good reason except, uh, ratings? I don’t think Gotham respects ANY of its characters (Albert slaps children, Gordon kills people, etc.).

  22. “If you’re in the criminal’s POV, you know what he or she is thinking, and it’s a cheat if the reader doesn’t know it, too. Unless you’re Agatha Christie.”

    Or Dorothy Dunnett!

    1. Yay, Dorothy Dunnett! But her mysteries are not as good as her historical fiction.

      Re: Chinamen–Chinese (and later Japanese) were viewed with suspicion as far back as 1870 when Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany coined the term “The Yellow Peril.” The Boxer Revolution in China didn’t do the Chinese reputation any favors, either. Chinese were the low-wage “coolie” workers on the West Coast–like Mexicans–but were especially feared because they looked so different from Occidentals. So they were a stock in trade of novels of the early 20th century. (“Thoroughly Modern Millie” anyone?) See some of the novels of Gene Stratton Porter set in California (eg “Her Father’s Daughter”).
      Fu Manchu was an especially great villain–and also shows that Chinese were not viewed as stupid. “Inscrutable” was the term most often applied–Westerners couldn’t understand their facial expressions. “Racist” is such a common epithet these days. But I prefer to think about these older books as records of the fears we Americans had–fear of “other”, especially those who look different from us, that continues today. So toady the Muslims–yesterday the “Yellow Peril.” But that’s they way it was.

  23. Thanks so much for these. Not only have I learned a lot tonight, but I also have a new list of old books to read (oh joy!).

    For those of us who love to read but haven’t the foggiest idea of what makes it all work, thanks to you who do know and are willing to share.

    Does anyone feel inclined to comment on the BBC Sherlock “Abominable Bride” episode, since Sherlock has been mentioned? Some of it was great fun, some felt forced, but overall I thought it was a blast. If this isn’t the proper place and time for that, please forgive me and set me straight.

    1. Oh, this is the place. It’s just that I’ve only seen it on my computer screen, so I’ve been waiting until it hit Amazon digital to watch it again. I liked it.


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