A variety of events in my actual, I’m-a-real-person life — the culmination of which was a discussion about the perceived inferiority of genre fiction because of its hidebound nature — has got me reflecting on the deployment of rules, conventions, tropes, expectations, and other norms in detective fiction, and I thought I’d share it here in case anyone was interested (I mean, that’s all I’ve done so far with this blog, and it seems to be going well…).
In short, rules are a good thing, and rules in detective fiction are even better. Sure, you may have your own feelings about the Van Dine, Knox, and (to a lesser extent, since he hated the puzzle genre) Chandler declarations on the subject, but I think we can all agree that most of what Knox and Van Dine have to say still stands. With the exception of Knox’s oft-derided sixth rule that ‘No Chinaman must figure in the story’ — that, that is a whole post of its own, but rest assured the man wasn’t being xenophobic — he and Van Dine actually agree on everything, with Van Dine adding a few which became less important over the years (as Brad pointed out the other day at the start of our Carr vs. Christie post) such as:
No love interest — goodbye Harriet Vane (a sentiment many would applaud), sayonara Tommy and Tuppence, au revoir Jeff and Haila Troy, adieu just about every Carr protagonist…
Murder as the only crime — robbing us of the poisoned pen letters of The Moving Finger (1942), the inexplicable hoof-marks of The Footprints of Satan (1950), and too many thefts to count (or, it seems, remember). True, murders frequently result from these schemes, but the investigation starts well before them in each case…
Only one detective at a time — I can live without Cards on the Table (1936), but no Case for Three Detectives (1936), no Death of Jezebel (1948), no Murder on the Links (1923), no Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929)? Inconceivable!
Servant don’t count as suspects — generally observed throughout, but I can name (however, I won’t) four fricking awesome mysteries where a member of the household staff is the guilty party, and appropriately prepared for, motivated, and clewed.
Only one culprit — I get that seven crimes by seven killers would be lousy (I’ve read a book where this pretty much happens, so can speak from experience), but the use of overlapping threads from intersecting plots is one of the hallmarks of GAD fiction, I’d say.
No secret societies — mainly I just wanted to say how much I love The Seven Dials Mystery (1929). Because I do. So, so much.
Minimal descriptive writing — some people call this atmosphere, some might argue that it’s helping to set up the workings of the crime, or fill in some necessary background for motive. Sure, don’t go all The Nine Tailors (1934) on us, but a little bit never hurt.
For the love of god, nothing from Sherlock Holmes — you also have to feel that Van Dine has had enough of people recycling ideas from the Holmes canon, since his final rule is almost exclusively ideas from there, but the guy clearly wanted the genre to move forward, and it’s difficult to disagree.
Anyway, while there will always be a certain amount of debate over some elements — and while we don’t want to give the impression that Knox and/or Van Dine spoke for the entire genre in any way — there are nevertheless a certain set of expectations we have when reading detective fiction. I’ve mentioned before how infuriating it would be if a solid chunk of Gideon Fell’s impossibilities were resolved by it being a ghost that committed the murder in the sealed room, and over at The Reader is Warned, Dan recently made an excellent point about how detectives come by their knowledge. Insisting that your detective do some, y’know, detecting in solving the crime and that the solution is rigorously applied, reasonable, and based in the real world is probably the very least we would hope for, and as a set of conventions go there’s clearly no harm in having such expectations…call them tropes if you will.
But these expectations are good — better than good, I’d even go so far a to say wonderful — for another reason altogether. Allow me to give an analogy, for which I shall venture timidly into the world of professional sports.
Now, I may be English but I’m not any sort of football fan — English football, possibly known as ‘Soccer’ where you’re reading from. However, I’m aware that the Argentinian footballer Diego Maradona is famous for scoring two goals in a game against England in 1986 for two contrasting reasons. The first, often referred to as the ‘Hand of God’, saw him punch the ball into the goal while jumping in the air (as the name suggests, the ball is typically propelled with the foot, so this was an illegality under the game’s rules), and the second saw him run over half the length of the pitch with the ball, take on two-thirds of the England team, and then score with about five of the opposition around him.
Ignore the first, which breaks the rules of the game; I wish to discuss the second. It falls perfectly within the rules and is actually quite a breath-taking sporting achievement — it turns out it was voted the Goal of the Century, which gives you some idea of how superb it was (there is a lot of football played each year, so it had lots of competition). Given rules which are codified, understood, and observed, something really quite amazing and unexpectedly beautiful resulted, something about which people still enthuse to this day. And it’s precisely because it was achieved within the rules that it’s so incredible — a full 100 years of other football (well, okay, less, since it was probably restricted by those of which we have a moving-picture record…) failed to match it, that’s pretty special.
So, yes, you can see where I’m going. Observe the rules for detective fiction — declare all the clues, have the method be rational, allow no sudden leaps in intuition, etc, etc — and at its very best the genre will stagger, astound, amaze, and fascinate you, leaving you gobsmacked and all other sorts of good, happy things. Inside of all these restrictions, the finest practitioners will still find a way to weave around all the other experts in the field (see how that’s both literal and a metaphor? Damn I’m good…) and produce something unexpected, wonderful, and memorable that sets you evangelising to all and sundry. Without these basic foundations this could still be achieved, of course, but it would be far less regular a thing (pretty much anyone would write a book if they could skip the important bits, as the wonderful Crime Fiction Trope on Twitter constantly reminds us) and thus far harder to find. The genre would look unimaginably different.
What these rules — these tropes that I have seen sneered at so many times I’m sort of immune to the short-sightedness of people who do it now — achieve is the encouragement of better writing, of cleverer schemes, of subtler clues, of more finely-realised plots. Not every legal goal scored in football will have the panache of Maradona’s Goal of the Century, but by crikey when they come close — or when someone scores an ever better one — it’ll reverberate down the years, especially if it can’t be faulted on any technical or rule-observing grounds.
What is especially true about detective fiction, however, is that authors can find many different ways of introducing information that conforms to these rules without having to tip their hand: floorplans, or crime scene maps, are one of my absolute fascinations in this genre — I bloody love a diagram, and will spend far, far too much time studying them to build up as ornate a picture as possible in my mind — and the book I’m reviewing this Thursday (Murder in Black and White (1932) by Evelyn Elder) does something with diagrams that I’d not seen before. Equally, because it’s not a visual medium, an author can get away with something right under your nose that seems ludicrously obvious because of how we usually visual what we read: Yukito Ayatsuji’s The Decagon House Murders (1987, trans. 2015) has a reversal in it that plays by the rules in the strictest sense imaginable but still made me drop the book in surprise.
In both cases, the authors undoubtedly made life harder for themselves by relaying the information in the way they did: the option was there to fail to acknowledge it, or leave it unsaid, and make the mystery even harder to fathom with about a quarter of the work required, but this type of fiction is about being fooled and so that work will not have been done in vain: it adds to the joy of what is basically close-up magic but with the option of pausing the trick at any time and rewinding it to pick through each step v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y and spot the join. That is a very high standard to pull off. If you remove that need for clever phrasing and plotting to keep it inside of rules of declaration, or remove the need to allow the ratiocination to be a play-along-at-home affair, there’s no fooling, and a huge part of the joy is taken out of the experience.
Without the need to declare everything, locked room mysteries would be ten-a-penny and worth slightly less. A dead body in a room, here’s the door — which is locked on the inside — and the window’s also locked, but there’s no sign of the gun that shot him…then, 300 pages later, there’s a trap-door in the ceiling which was neither locked nor bolted, and leads into the loftspace which is connected across the entire row of houses. Problem solved. There’s doubtless a convention-challenging piece of subversive literature in that — Harry Stephen Keeler probably wrote it already — but who in the hell would want to read it? And who cares what that sort of person thinks anyway? Nah, I’m kidding, Keeler fans, you’re alright…
But, as ever, I veer off point. The idea of declaring rules for a genre gives the impression of it therefore being policed — of some select group of overlords poring through texts and allowing this but not allowing that, as if it’s a treatise on the growth of the French language or something. And, as we all know, people who observe and enforce rules are no fun and don’t allow anyone else to have fun and so therefore nothing that’s fun could possibly result from this. So, if your genre of choice is treated in this way, clearly there’s no scope for creativity and growth, and obviously no-one writing in it has a chance to engage in anything meaningful or worthwhile, and therefore the entire edifice is false and must be derided.
Except, bullshit. On several grounds. Firstly, no-one enforced these ‘rules’ in the first place, they’re simply the markers that determine what forces the most creativity out of the genre — having a fundamental set of expectations to steer the overall expectations no more defiles the experience of writing or reading in that genre than having rules for Articulate means you can’t ever enjoy playing it. And y’know, a lot of detective fiction doesn’t observe these rules — hell, Christie didn’t play fair at times, Carr sure all hell didn’t, neither did Ellery Queen, Christianna Brand, Anthony Berkeley…I mean, not always, and certainly not even close to a majority of the time, but when the brightest luminaries the genre ever produced didn’t maintain the notion of fair play in 100% of their output you start to get an idea of how special this kind of thing is when done and done well.
Secondly, why assume that rules enforce only negative restrictions? Go return to football — and, yes, I’m on shaky ground — I understand that people don’t necessarily like the referee, but his presence and an understanding of what is expected kinda makes everyone else there — you know, the players, the people you’re paying money to watch — raise their game and behave in a way that ensure everyone comes out of it well. If Ellery Queen wrote The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932) — and they did, I checked — by keeping to the rules, well, then Agatha Christie has to write Murder on the Orient Express (1934) within those same rules in order to be compared and, hopefully, considered better in that same field. Suddenly there’s one-upmanship on a comparable level which is, y’know, kinda fun. No-one seeing Maradona’s second goal in 1986 immediately went “Well, football’s terrible because of the referee”, so why in the hell should such restrictions apply in any other comparable specialism?
And, finally, have you seen what happens when people don’t observe these rules? Examples abound, but I’ll kep this short simply by saying that if you haven’t read Mark Green’s amazing deconstruction of Gone Girl (2012) by Gillian Flynn then you’ve missed out and need to correct that. Without the internal consistency of rules to make sense of the limits implied by the world in which you’re writing, anything goes and no-one is going to enjoy that. If you smash your opposition at Articulate only to be told that your victory doesn’t count because Easter is before April 20th this year and your team isn’t wearing three items of orange clothing…well, harsh words will be exchanged, believe me.
I mean, that would be a rule, but a bad rule because it has no internal consistency and so is the kind of thing that causes trouble, and is usually what people reach for when indulging in the hyperbole usually resolved for making the such false cases as “rules are bad” anyway. Sure, not all rules are good, hence the need for simple understanding of how what is enforced goes on to inform the medium it is shaping. Not all people are good but we don’t kill everyone, not all football games are good but we haven’t outlawed it, not all board games are good but we haven’t burned them all. The bad apple spoiling the batch does not apply; please up your game if you want to pull down something that has been operating perfectly well without any such ill-considered, reactionary blindness hurling itself against the keep walls once ever so often.
But I strongly suspect that anyone who gets this far agrees with me, so I’ll get off my box and go and do something useful now instead…