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Thou Shalt Not

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One of the really nice things about this summer is that a friend of mine has been sending me books, mostly classic mysteries, or things having to do with classic mysteries.  One of those books was a collections of essays, articles and other material about “the detective story,” published in the 1950s.  I’d remember the name of it if I could, but at the moment I can’t, and I can’t look it up. 

I’ve got a faculty meeting today, so I’m sitting around waiting for it at a computer at school.  The book, of course,  is at home.

Maybe I should have waited to get home to write this.

Except–probably not.   I’m going to be exhausted by the time I get home, and in the meantime I remember wha it was that bothrered me.

Part of the book consists of a section of various advice by professional writers of detective stories on what  you should and should  not do in a murder mystery.   Some of this advice is just good sense–don’t include untracable poisons, for instance, or make your murderer somebody nobody has ever heard of through the course of the novel.

It did interest me, though, that so much of the advice in these four or five articles–one was not an article but the ceremony for induction into the Detective Club–was negative.  It was all about what not to do.  And there was a lot that was proscribed, too.  So much so that if I actually followed the advice, I’d never write a mystery novel again.

Among the various thou shalt nots, for instance was “thou shalt not do any part of the novel from the murderer’s point of view.”

I should point out here that the articles and essays were talking about detective novels, and fair play ones at that, and that the problem seemed to be that doing a section from the murderer’s point of view without revealing the fact that that was the murderer wasn’t fair play, and revealing the fact made the detection part of the book superfluous.

My sentences are really getting impossible today.  I have no idea if that’s fear of faculty meetings or just getting up early.

It seems to me that excluding any writing from the murderer’s point of view does two things to a murder mystery, both bad:  it makes it impossible to truly get into the murderer’s mental frame of reference, to understand the motive and the personality that was susceptible to the motive; and it limits the number of points of view that can be presented under any circumstances.

And, in fact, among the other “thou shalt nots” in these pieces was the insistance that a detective novel should be about a detective detecting, and any other focus on any other character, murderer or not, was a bad thing,

Even at first glance, it must be obvious that adhering to any such rule would wipe out some of the most famous classic mysteries of all time–The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Murder on the Orient Express–as well as doing in all the work of P.D. James, Elizabeth George, Martha Grimes, and dozens of others.

In fact, a mystery written with this rule taken as a rule would not be a novel at all.  It would be an intellectual puzzle with a little narrative, like a kind of interactive, video-game version of a crossword  puzzle.

But even the rule about never writing from the murderer’s point of view is bad enough.  If the reader knows, going in, that the writer will never write from the murderer’s point of view, then he is able to discount any character from whose point of view the author does write.  Aha, he says, clues rule out Sheila and Lancelot, but point of view sections also rule out Martin, Jacob, Gwendolyn and Miles–that leaves only Stedman to be the murderer!

In fact, all the thou shalt nots seemed to me to unduly restrict the scope of the mystery novel, to take it out of the real of literature and make it something else, and something far less interesting.

I don’t, I suppose, have much problem with writers urging each other not to engage in genre cliches.  I’ve got a list of genre cliches I’d like to see die a natural death myself.

But why should mystery writers, any more than any other kinds of novelists, be restricted in which or how many points of view to use, or restricted to a relentless hammering on the detection to the exclusion of all other issues, or prevented from writing about current events or philosophical issues or politics? 

It seems to me that a mystery novel is first and foremost a novel, and that that is true even of the fair play detective story.  There’s nothing inherent in the form that should mean it must be penned into a very small place, and the smaller the better.

And now this room is full of people talking, and I have to go.

It feels like half a post.  Maybe I’ll get back to it tomorrow.

Written by janeh

July 27th, 2011 at 9:19 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Thou Shalt Not'

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  1. Maybe it’s easier to think up ‘Don’ts’, or was easier for whoever wrote the book of advice! Then there’s the idea that you need to know the conventions before you know when and how to break them – that might also encourage negative advice.

    Cheryl

    27 Jul 11 at 2:41 pm

  2. Sounds like Howard Haycraft, THE ART OF THE MYSTERY STORY, whch has three such sets of rules–one of which indeed says the guilty party “must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been alowed to follow.” (Knox, “Detective Story Decalogue.”) But Knox goes on to write “It would be more exact to say that the author must not imply an attitude of mystification in the character who turns out to be the criminal.” This seems to me quite reasonable, unless someone drags out the amnesiac murderer for another go.
    Many of the prohibitions amount to an insistence on fair play–no supernatural evidence or psychic insight, no concealed clues or unscientific means of death. These, I think, should be adhered to quite closely.
    Another set means to avoid cliches–criminal conspiracies, sinister chinamen, secret passages and so forth. These have to be subject to exceptions, but they are worth keeping in mind.
    But the third set insists, in effect, that one write a fair play detective novel only, and not “a love story with detective interruptions.” This is, and must be, a matter of taste. The suitable balance between current events or philosophy and the detective story is a private matter between the author and the reader. For myself, I only ask that, like a good stew, the flavors blend. If one may read the current events without regard to the mystery, or solve the mystery without considering the philosophy, then the novel is, if not necessarily a failure, certainly not all that it might have been.
    Haycraft himself, note, has two rules:
    (1) the writer must play fair.
    (2) it must be readable.

    robert_piepenbrink

    27 Jul 11 at 3:35 pm

  3. Rules like this remind me of classic French drama with it’s required “Three Unities”:

    The first unity was unity of time: Everything must take place within a 24-hour period.

    The second unity was unity of place: Everything must happen in one place.

    The third unity was unity of action: All the action must pertain to the one main theme, i.e. no subplots.

    These rules, of course, resulted in very forgettable plays. Not surprising when you realize that none of the works of Shakespeare obeyed these rules.

    I have formulated my own rules, not for how books should be written, but for which works of fiction I am able to read.

    For example, I like books to be written in good college English with not only a rich vocabulary but also occasional compound-complex sentences. And yet…

    I read and re-read LAST OF THE BREED by Louis L’Amour (one of his few contemporary, non-Western novels) several times without realizing that L’Amour’s English usage was way below what I find desirable. It was only when my husband and I were taking turns reading it aloud to each other that I noticed that one simple sentence followed another simple sentence followed another simple sentence… Why hadn’t I noticed this before? Because L’Amour told such a compelling story.

    I definitely, absolutely like the mystery novels I read to be told in the first person, and yet…

    I have read and re-read every one of Jane’s novels and will probably keep on reading them over and over forever because her characters are so complex and so non-generic (and also because I want to live on Cavanaugh Street) that I am quite willing to read them even though she doesn’t use a first-person narrator.

    I don’t like flashbacks–but I’ve read novels where the flashbacks were so well done, and so essential to the story, that I couldn’t put the book down.

    I don’t like reading novels where the research has been so badly done that I repeatedly have to exercise “willing suspension of disbelief,” and yet…

    There are some books that have played fast and loose with historical facts, and yet I have not only been able to read them but to read them over and over again.

    In short, every time I make a statement like, “I don’t like books that..,” then I will come across a book makes me add a qualifier, “…except, of course for xyz.”

    Charlou

    5 Aug 11 at 12:28 am

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