Rules for writing a crime novel

Sorry this one’s late.  It turns out that, no matter how much I’d rather be doing other things, sometimes responsibilities just have to be taken care of.  Go figure.

I’m reading a surprisingly enjoyable nonfiction book called The Golden Age of Murder.  The author (Martin Edwards) is a current-day member of The Detection Club, a club founded in the 20s by-among others-Agatha Christie.  (Dorothy Sayers was really the driving force, but Christie is the name I know the best.)

Among the other fascinating things I’ve been learning (in between adding to an ever-expanding TBR list) is that a number of the Detection Club and Golden Age writers took a stab (ha!  murderpun) at creating lists of rules for mystery writers.  Since cozy mysteries are the direct descendents of these traditional mysteries, I thought I’d look them up and share a few here.

T. S. Eliot (of all people) said that a detective story has to:

  • have no adventures after the first chapter (I guess everyone is supposed to be an armchair detective?)
  • be entirely and only about figuring out evidence about something that has already happened.

S. S. Van Dine (whom I’d never heard of but is apparently Very Important):

  • The writer has to play fair with the reader- everything their detective knows, the reader knows
  • No tricks that only fool the reader
  • Absolutely no love interest (grandpa traditional mystery would be so disappointed in his grandkid cozies)
  • You’re not allowed to have the detective or any of the investigators be the bad guy
  • The bad guy has to be found out by by logic, not chance.
  • The book has to have a detective and that detective has to investigate
  • There has to be a murder.  No ifs, ands, or buts. (The recent SinC debate would disagree vehemently.)
  • Absolutely no supernatural intervention is allowed.  It’s unfair to the reader
  • No more than one POV or protagonist.
  • The bad guy has to be someone the reader is familiar with.
  • The butler, under no circumstances, can have done it. Apparently that would be too easy.
  • You can only have one bad guy.  They can have helpers, but only one Big Bad.
  • No secret societies.
  • No pseudo-science allowed.  Means of murder and figuring it out have to be strictly true to life.
  • The solution should be obvious enough that, if someone reread the story, they could see it unfold.
  • No purple prose or fluff.
  • Your criminal must be an amateur- no professional bad guys.
  • The murder can never be an accident or suicide.
  • The motives for murder always have to be personal.
  • Van Dine made his 20th point a sub-list of things you’re not allowed to use, ever.
    • Using the brand of a cigarette butt to find the killer
    • Bogus seances to scare the killer into confessing
    • Forged fingerprints
    • “The dummy-figure alibi” (I think this means using a mannequin to make people think you’re somewhere.)
    • A dog failing to bark meaning that the killer is someone they know
    • The killer actually being a relative or Evil Twin
    • “The hypodermic syringe and the knockout drops”
    • The locked-room murder having been committed after the police broke in
    • “The word-association test for guilt” (Is this a thing?)
    • A coded letter eventually being cracked and explaining everything

Ronald Knox’s rules:

  • The killer has to be introduced earlier enough that they’re familiar, but not be a POV character.
  • No supernatural interference.
  • No more than one secret room or passageway per story.
  • No pseudo-science in the form of made up poisons or machines.
  • No “Chinamen.”  (A popular villain at the time.)
  • No coincidences.  The detective has to figure it out through hard work.  (Probably uphill both ways.  In the snow.)
  • Your detective can’t commit the crime.
  • Any clue the detective has the reader has to have to. (I feel like Sherlock Holmes violates this one.  Or maybe I’m just slow on the uptake.)
  • Your detective’s Watson can’t hide anything from the reader, especially their own thoughts.
    • The Watson has to be slightly dumber than the average reader.
  • No twins or lookalikes unless the reader has been forewarned of the possibility.

A.A. Milne’s rules for mystery novels (I could only find them in the book. Also, did you know he wrote a mystery novel?):

  • The story has to be “written in good English.”
  • No love interests.
  • Amateur murderer and sleuth.
  • “Scientific Detection is ‘too easy.'” (What?)
  • The reader should know everything your sleuth does.
  • You have to have a Watson.  (I love that the writers also call it a Watson.)

So there you have it.  The rules set down by our ancient and venerable forefathers in mystery writing.

How many of these rules did you violate in your last manuscript?  Which one are you most grateful we’ve moved on from?  Let me know in the comments!

P.S.  I’m at about 10k words on book two!



10 thoughts on “Rules for writing a crime novel

    • There was an interesting debate on this subject in, I think, the SinC group. The final decision came down to “as long as it’s interesting, a murder-free book is fine.” I bet that’s more challenging to pull off though.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I’ve read Dorothy L Sayer and she is good. But A A Milne’s wasn’t my cup of tea. Also have heard of Van Dine–maybe made into movies??? I loved reading these rules.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It never occurred to me that Milne might write anything besides Winnie the Pooh. I’m definitely checking out The Red House Mystery, if only to see how the writing varies. (Part of me is expecting Pooh to play Sherlock and Piglet to play Watson.)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post! If you were surprised that A.A. Milne wrote a mystery, did you know that Arthur C Clarke also wrote one? About a murder at a book conference? Murder at the ABA.


    • I didn’t, but I’ll have to look it up! That reminds me of Sharyn McCrumb’s “Bimbos of the Death Sun.” (Murder at a sci fi convention.)


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