“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.”
— S.S. Van Dine, “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Fiction”
(Speaking of rules for writing detective fiction, I’m looking to revise again my article on Fair Play, particularly in terms of its application to science fiction, but also for clarity and to reflect further thinking. Any suggestions before I do?)
4 thoughts on “Quote of the Day”
What has always most amused me about Van Dine’s rules is how comprehensively the best mystery writers have ignored them. I mean, just start with Dorothy Sayers — I think she breaks at least 11 of those that I can recall. You could fill in half of the remainder from P. D. James, and finish off the rest from Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie.
And they broke them in writing very good books, for the most part!
The only exception to my mind is Christie’s The Big Four, which broke #13 “Secret societies, camorras, mafias, et al. have no place in a detective story” to awful effect. I know that David Suchet has said that he plans to film all the Poirot stories, but I really hope he skips that one.
One might almost think Van Dine was criticizing Sayers particularly. She gets the last laugh; her books are still readable and Van Dine’s are not.
Wilkie Collins doesn’t pass muster either.
I don’t know about the timing of Van Dine’s list with respect to Sayers’s work, but she definitely gets the better of the exchange: with few exceptions I can pick up anything she wrote and enjoy it both as a good mystery and a good story. To be honest, I’ve never read any of Van Dine’s fiction. I never see it even in used book stores.
I’ve never been able to get into Collins’s work. I don’t know whether it’s just the sheer length of intervening time or what, but I just can’t get more than a few pages in. And yet, a number of writers I admire have spoken very highly of The Moonstone, so I feel as though I ought to read it at some point..