16 de novembre de 2015

Agatha Christie, Chandler and other great writers provide rules for crime fiction

[The Sydney Morning Herald, 16 november 2015]

Jane Sullivan



American crime novelist Raymond Chandler. Photo: Supplied

Not many people these days read the exploits of Philo Vance. But back in the 1920s, he was one of the most popular American detectives ever created. He was the brainchild of Willard Huntington Wright, who used to write intellectual articles about art, literature and philosophy until he discovered his lowbrow side.

After surviving a nervous breakdown and a cocaine addiction, Wright fell ill and treated his bedridden boredom by reading hundreds of crime and detective novels. This spurred him on to write bestselling yarns of his own, under the name of S.S. Van Dine. In this persona he came up with "Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories". Every respectable and self-respecting concocter of literary mysteries lives up to them, he said.

Willard Huntington Wright, who wrote detective tales as S.S. Van Dine. Photo: ecimages.kobobooks.com

You can see his intentions are sound, but some rules are too restrictive and others are ludicrously outdated. "There must be no love interest," he declares. He also insists there must be a corpse – "No lesser crime than murder will suffice" – that there should only be one detective and one culprit, who should not be a servant or a professional criminal, and that the crime must not turn out to be an accident or a suicide.

Since these rules were produced, umpteen detective novels have broken them – partly because of changing fashions, as the genre evolved from the cosy to the hardboiled style, and then on to all kinds of hybrids with fantasy, romance, historical drama or science fiction; and partly because there is nothing like a set of commandments to goad ingenious writers into attempting flagrant disobedience and still produce a novel that works.

Yet writers persisted in coming up with rules or the murder mystery. Across the Atlantic from Van Dine, British writers such as Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie and G.K. Chesterton formed a Detection Club, with its own set of rules: that detectives must solve their cases by using their wits; that no vital clue can be concealed from the reader; that gangs, super-criminals, trapdoors and similar contrivances will be used only with "seemly moderation"; and that poisons unknown to science are forbidden. Those who broke the rules were cursed with the promise of misprints and poor sales. 

One member of the Detection Club, Ronald Knox, came up with his own 10 commandments, including the baffling "No Chinaman must figure in the story". Twin brothers should not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them; the detective should not be helped by an accident or an unaccountable intuition; and his Watson-like friend's intelligence "must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader".

Raymond Chandler had his own 10  commandments. He was scornful of the "cosy" school and insisted the novel should be "about real people in a real world". The story must be credibly motivated, technically sound, be an adventure worth reading, must be easy to explain when the time comes (a rule he sometimes broke), must baffle a reasonably intelligent reader, must have a solution that seems inevitable once revealed, must not try to do everything at once, and must punish the criminal one way or another.

Above all, Chandler declared, the story must be honest with the reader. It's a rule that persists, however multifaceted the detective story has become. You can lead your reader down the garden path, or dazzle with totally unexpected plot twists, or hide secrets behind the facade of an unreliable narrator, or load your story with irony or moral ambiguities. Your reader can be surprised, moved, horrified, disgusted and charmed – but you must never leave your reader feeling cheated.






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