I’m a Loner, Dottie, a Rebel: Stomping All Over the Rules of Mystery Writing

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A rule breaker? I know you are, but what am I?

This post has nothing to do with Pee Wee Herman or his Big Adventure, but I just really like to say that line.

This week we’re talking about writing rebels. The rules, Dottie—and how we broke ’em. This is excellent timing for me, since I proposed a panel for an upcoming book fair on the very same topic, and I’ve been giving some thought to these “rules.”

Who makes the rules, anyway?

Well, apparently this guy named “Father Knox” (Monsignor Ronald Knox, if you please) had a list of ten rules for mystery writers. These things have seen some action. Here’s what the Internet says about Knox and the origins of his rules:

ThrillingDetectives.com says “Monsignor Knox (1888-1957) was a British clergyman, editor, a literary critic, a humourist and a detective story writer himself who nicely laid out, with a gentle wit, the ‘ten rules’ that guided detective fiction in its so-called Golden Age. They appeared in the preface to Best Detective Stories of 1928-29, which Knox edited.”

Note the word “humourist” in his bio. Some posit that his rules aren’t really rules at all, but a soft rib-poking among mystery writers at the tropes we all play-with-slash-try-to-avoid.

His edicts rule out detectives solving crimes through intuition and accident, from the detective having committed the murder himself. Some of these rules are sound. They read like something you might want to pay attention to, lest you fall into that pit of cliche behind you there.

But you know what happens when you set down the law? The scofflaws line up to bust through it. That’s the beauty of writing rules. As long as you can pull it off artfully, you can break whatever rule you want.

One of Knox’s laws says

Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

OK, first off, YES. That is a good rule. Preparing people for your solution is half the fun of writing a mystery. Left field does not exist in mystery writing.

But he’s also sort of making fun of the ol’ soap opera switcheroo, isn’t he? The twins/doubles tropes of the Gothic? (I took a whole class on the Gothic, and you really should, too.) The thing is, Monsignor Knox, that twins thing can work, if you do it well. And that means preparing the reader for the existence of said twin, yes, but also making sure that the story can stand on the skinny legs of what could be considered trope.

I just read a book, in fact, that used twins. Switcheroo and all. And it worked. You know why? Lovely writing, engaging characters, suspense, all cylinders firing in the story. When all that’s going on, nobody cares which rules you’re following or breaking. All they care about is getting to the end.

Oh, the book title? Sorry. It would be HUH-YUGE spoiler. And that is a rule I won’t break.

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Lori Rader-Day is the author of the mystery THE BLACK HOUR (Seventh Street Books, July 2014). She grew up in central Indiana, but now lives in Chicago with her husband and very spoiled dog.

14 thoughts on “I’m a Loner, Dottie, a Rebel: Stomping All Over the Rules of Mystery Writing

  1. There’s also the the list of 20 rules by S. S. Van Dyne, who was a far more successful and influential mystery story writer than Msgr. Knox: http://gaslight.mtroyal.ca/vandine.htm.

    I wouldn’t follow either list slavishly, that’s for sure. Ellery Queen, an early Van Dyne disciple, cheerfully broke #4 of his list more than once (and quite well, too). And I’ve broken some of them myself (and I think that in short stories, a “lesser crime” can be just fine — many of the Sherlock Holmes stories have crimes other than murder, and a few have a mystery but no legal crime).

    I saw a movie recently that broke the “twins” rule, and I don’t think it completely worked (too obvious, for one thing). Part of the problem may have been that the movie had already broken another rule by veering it the science fictional, and maybe there are limits on how many rules you can break in one story.

    Of course, I’m not giving the title of the movie, either. 🙂

    • Well, it doesn’t say NO twins, right? It says prepare the audience for twins. You have to mention them early on and then distract the shit out of your readers so they forget twins are in play.

  2. I also hadn’t heard about the rule of twins before, but right away I thought of a movie that pulls it off brilliantly (magically, if you’ll pardon my pun, because I don’t want to mention the title for fear of giving it away to anyone who hasn’t seen it).

  3. I don’t know if those Detection Club members were poking fun at the genre or not, because Christie for sure broke nearly all of them (including the one that says the detective should not commit the crime! shocker!) . I do think some of the rules just revolved around being fair to the reader–like the one about making sure that readers have access to all the clues along the way–which I happen to agree with 🙂 fun post.

    • Yeah, Christie broke a pretty big one, but at least she set it up so that it made sense that this unreliable narrator could commit the crime and not give himself away in his retelling of the story. A more recent example did not set it up well, and I was *peeved.* I will not give the title here, but email me if you want to be peeved along with me.

      • Christie did both the “narrator is the killer” thing and the “detective is the killer” thing (in different books).

        With the former, as far as I know, she was the first ever (which is always good — one of the the best ways to break a rule is to break one that’s never been broken before). With the latter, she was not the first, but she was probably the most prominent.

        Plus of course, the “everybody is the killer” thing. There probably wasn’t a rule against that because nobody ever thought of it before she did it. 🙂

        Oh,and I’m pretty sure Natalia and I are talking about the same movie — apparently it grabbed her a bit more than it did me.

  4. Speaking of twins, anybody read The Dark Half by Stephen King? There’s one “twin” who is the good guy and the other who’s the murderous freak. I could tell you how it really ends, but that would be a major spoiler, too. But then, this book is horror with a mystery woven through it instead of straight mystery.

    • I was big into King when I was a teenager, but The Dark Half wasn’t one of my favorites. Maybe I had read too much of him and should have saved it. I don’t mind a twin story, of course. I mind very much a Surprise Twin Story.

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