Golden Age of Detective Fiction Forum

May 17, 2008

Van Dine’s Rules

Filed under: General GAD,SS Van Dine — Jon @ 7:59 am
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Eighty years ago, S.S. Van Dine – a pseudonym for Willard Huntingon Wright and the author, most notably, of the Philo Vance detective novels – came up with a list of twenty rules for how detective fiction should and should not be written. I’d invoked these rules at one of my panels at the LA Times Festival of Books and figured it would be fun to revisit them. Obviously, all of them have been broken in the 80 years since – sometimes well, often not so well – but #15, I think, still matters the most:

The truth of the problem must at all times be apparent – provided the reader is shrewd enough to see it. By this I mean that if the reader, after learning the explanation for the crime, should reread the book, he would see that the solution had, in a sense, been staring him in the face-that all the clues really pointed to the culprit – and that, if he had been as clever as the detective, he could have solved the mystery himself without going on to the final chapter. That the clever reader does often thus solve the problem goes without saying.

Of course, that’s if your primary motive is to keep the reader on his or her toes. Van Dine thought of detective fiction as an intellectual game; what’s transpired in the eight decades since is how said novels have become more about the emotional and the visceral. Or to spell it out more clearly, empathy in classical detective fiction was an afterthought; now it’s a crucial component. I think that’s rather a good thing.


The Rules are at:’s+Twenty+Rules+for+Writing+Detective+Stories

What is a ‘Puzzle Plot’?

Filed under: FAQ,Sub-genres — Jon @ 5:16 am

From Monescu:

A “puzzle plot” is, as the phrase suggests, merely a plot which is in its essence a puzzle. As such, the term has a wider scope than “impossible crime story,” which in turn has a wider scope than “locked room” mystery. Perhaps I should say that the “locked room mystery” is a subset of the “impossible crime story” which is in turn a subset of “the puzzle plot.” A few examples may help make things clearer:

Conan Doyle’s “The Speckled Band” is a locked room mystery. As such, it is also an impossible crime story and a puzzle plot.

Ellery Queen’s “The Lamp of God,” which involves the stunning vanish of an entire house, is not a locked room mystery (there is no locked room involved), but it is an impossible crime story and thus also a puzzle plot (there are many examples of this type of story… Carr’s “The Curse of the Bronze Lamp” is another that comes to mind, though the word “Lamp” in the title is certainly not a prerequisite!).

Agatha Christie’s “Five Little Pigs” (as with most of her novels) is neither a locked room mystery nor an impossible crime story, but it certainly is a puzzle plot.

The term puzzle plot is used nearly interchangeably with several other terms, though there are important distinctions. It is usually a puzzle plot that is meant when one refers to a “Golden Age detective story,” but not all puzzle plots were written within the historical period referred to as detective fiction’s “Golden Age,” nor is a detective figure necessary for a puzzle plot (Christie’s “And Then There Were None” certainly qualifies as a puzzle plot, and it lacks such a detective character [yes, I know about William Henry Blore… but he quite obviously doesn’t count!]). “Whodunit” is another term that is frequently used to refer to puzzle plots, but is actually another subset; many puzzle plots are not concerned with the question of culprit identity, instead centering on questions of “how,” “why,” or even “where” (e.g. Poe’s “Purloined Letter,” where the identity of the culprit is known from the beginning).

Again, the boundaries of classification are sometimes fuzzy and in constant dispute (of course, I’ve tried to make it easy on myself by choosing examples that are fairly clear-cut). Did that help? I hope so.

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