Rules for writing detective stories have been around at least since the famous Golden Age mystery writers’ 10 rules appeared in 1929. However, as an acquaintance pointed out long ago, readers’ priorities might be different. Mystery writers, he argued, owe it to readers to remember the importance of encouraging willing suspension of disbelief by respecting basic common sense, running reality checks now and then, and remembering that anyone who’s watched a police procedural knows about things like preserving the chain of evidence .
It’s not that I want too much realism in a mystery. As a fan of (mostly) cozy mysteries, I can suspend disbelief until it practically floats off into the stratosphere. After all, in the cozy world, solving murders is easy: just ignore the police and ask questions until the murderer develops an unduly flattering belief that you know what you’re doing and confronts you with a gun or knocks you out with drugs in your merlot or Lapsang Souchong. Even though the murderer might mock you for expecting him or her to confess while you wait for the police, the handsome detective, your sexy yet sensitive widowed neighbor, and/or your rock-solid gang of gal pals to burst in, he or she usually will come clean. In great detail. Perhaps while pouring gasoline around the old hunting cabin or your beloved little cottage or fixer-upper Victorian home, prior to incinerating you. While you’re secretly recording him on your cell phone. Oh – and every year or so, you get involved in a new murder, usually because you found the corpse or someone you care about is accused of the crime, and yet you never wake up screaming. Ridiculous, isn’t it? Yet somehow, I’m fine with that, if the implausibility falls within the conventions of the form. But once we lovers of this high art start thinking at all critically about anything beyond the basic conventions of the genre, books and authors we want to love can lose us.
Remember how the real world works. Most of us readers know some basic things about the law, at least if we’ve ever seen or read a police procedural, and use some restraint, even if it means not writing a scene you’d love to write. Having the heroine break into a building in search of evidence can be suspenseful, but it’s also not very believable. Not only is she risking jail, whatever she finds won’t be admissible in court.
A reality check now and then can do a world of good. Speaking of risking jail, if the heroine commits a serious crime and is caught, she can’t avoid all consequences without damaging her story’s credibility. I gave up on a series I’d really enjoyed when it went too far over that particular cliff. The heroine, a police officer’s wife, breaks her wrongly arrested friend out of jail. When the police find out, neither she nor her friend is charged, and neither her husband’s career nor her marriage is damaged.
No matter how exciting and original an idea might be, it has to make basic sense in the real world. Why was the heroine in the previous example so determined to spring her friend? Because her friend had had a heart attack, she was afraid that the stress of prison might kill her. But how can the heroine be sure that her friend will survive the stress of a prison break? If she does, how is it healthy for a frail, elderly cardiac patient to have to live as a hunted fugitive? In jail, she’ll at least have access to medical care.
Even though I am grateful for the triple-chocolate cookie recipe I got from one of that author’s books, I couldn’t read her after that.
Sometimes, everything in a book works in the cozy world but the premise. I tried with one author – I really did. Her characters are engaging, her writing is crisp and funny, her gore is minimal – I wanted her to win. But hard as it was to believe that a very pregnant woman was would be capable of amateur sleuthing (especially in stakeouts, with their confinement in a too-small car and their lack of bathroom access, and in chases), she crosses over into madness at the end of the first book when this same very pregnant amateur sleuth decides to get her detective’s license because being a gumshoe will be such a practical career for a new mom – she can bring her baby along! Forget about child endangerment – what do you do if your baby’s nursing or you’re changing a diaper when the suspect leaves the house at last? Even assuming that you’re lightning with a car seat, will you be able to strap in the kid, start your car, and pull out before he’s driven off? And that’s supposing that no one’s noticed the baby’s screaming in the hours you’ve been sitting there. Let’s not even think about what would happen if she had to chase the crook, hysterical toddler in tow, should they manage to survive that long. If you can imagine it, you must be a DYS worker. They’ve seen everything. I never read the sequel, even when the supply of new, fun, witty mysteries was low.
Please, do some research. That same author’s book set in a Bachelorette-style television show seemed to be based on the premise that embarrassing bits of the star’s past would be liabilities. In the real world, they’d be exploited as ratings grabs. But in this world, anyone off the street can be hired for a TV series with no checking, and, apparently, the cheesy drama of hiring a star who needs a redemption story or springing an ex on her isn’t wanted. The heroine’s fear of being fired if the truth about the scandal in her past or her prior relationship with the new guy comes out suggests that the author never watched even an ad for one of those shows, much less looked into how they work.
And consider the realities of living in a diverse world. If you’re a white writer, your heroine is white, and your heroine has a black friend, please don’t make the black friend give all the support, cook for the white friend (unless the white friend cooks for her), and never have a need or an interest of her own. That’s a bit of a plantation fantasy. It’s less prejudiced to have a white-only cast.
And think about what it tells the reader if the only minority member in the cast is the villain. Or an obnoxious stereotype, but not the villain. It’s not that the African American or the Jew can never be the killer, but if your only African American or Jew is? Ummmm . . . I stopped reading a very popular author after one book: the only important people of color were Chicano gang members, the most evil of whom was also disabled. Hard enough on Latino/as to have that gang-member stereotype pushed on them, and no easier for people with Tourette’s Syndrome to see their condition used as a sinister metaphor for a psychopath’s lack of control.
So, here’s to the many mystery writers who give us fiction with just enough reality to make their stories and characters compelling. As for the others, please learn from them. Have some mercy on us readers and use some common sense. Not enough to kill your stories – if I want reality, I’ll put the books down and pay attention to the world around me. But keep the way the world and people work in mind when you write your mysteries, and if your vision takes you too far from both, switch genres to fantasy or science fiction, where you can make your own world. Chances are I’ll adore you when we meet in those very blessed regions.
NOTE: If the idea of rules set by mystery writers intrigues you and you haven’t read these already, here’s a few links you might enjoy. The creed of the Golden Age mystery writers (1920s and 30s) are represented by Ronald Knox’s famous 10 rules:
(Please note: at the time, sensational fiction often brought in a mysterious and/or brutal person of color as a sort of diabolus ex machina: the prohibition against the “Chinaman” is more a repudiation of cheap, violent thrills than an example of cheap racism, though the cheap racism is definitely there. Also please note: people who don’t know Latin shouldn’t coin phrases in what they hope is that language – and yet I just did.
On this side of the Atlantic, S. S. Van Dine challenged the 10 effete, British Golden Age rules with his own rugged American 20:
As one of the gods of the hard-boiled school of detective fiction, Raymond Chandler went all out and blasted the genteel puzzles favored by the Golden Age writers with his own set:
And, just for fun, here’s a blog by the very successful author Rhys Bowen (the Constable Evans series, the Molly Murphy series, the Royal Spyness series, and some great stand-alones) about rules for mystery writers posted on the Jungle Red Writers website, run by some of the most fun cozy writers around – with discussion by both readers and writers – & isn’t it great that the two categories overlap!
tea pot: (c) Sharon Yang 2015
girl on stack of books: https://wpclipart.com/education/reading/reading_4/girl_sitting_on_pile_of_books_reading.png.html
Last updated: 7/26/18