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


  1. Some of the rules by S.S. Van Dine still seem core to real detective fiction. Here are the core Van Dine Rules (nine out of his twenty):

    1, 2, 5, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 15

    Mike Grost

    Comment by jonjermey — May 17, 2008 @ 8:02 am | Reply

  2. I feel almost guilty in refuting Van Dine’s rules, because he is such an easy target (IMO he was a pompous idiot — an entertaining pompous idiot, true, but a pompous idiot nonetheless). However, besides the blatantly silly rules that Mike left out, there are even major problems with these “core” rules.

    My biggest objection is to #2. True, most readers would consider it foul play for an author to make an outright misstatement (i.e. if an omniscient third-person narrator were to say “Mr. Smith left at 3:00pm” it would be unfair if that were not true). However, Van Dine himself elsewhere described the detective story as a “sporting event” between the author and the reader. This makes it a much larger story than just a battle between criminal and detective he refers to in this rule. For besides “character ploys” (deceptions practiced by one character upon another), there is a large field of unmistakably legitimite “author ploys” (deceptions practiced by the author on the reader). Admittedly, the author is subject to certain ethical obligations that the culprit is not (primarily the duty to not be untruthful). But much of all great detective fiction writing has relied upon various psychological deceptions. An example of such deceptions is the deliberate reverse psychology of placing overt suspicion upon a character for the purpose of exonerating that character in the reader’s mind. Such reverse psychology (only one toy in the author’s bag of legitimate tricks) is undeniably a “willful trick or deception,” but it ridiculous to consider it unfair. If rule #2 was taken to its logical extreme, even the inclusion of all suspects other than the culprit (who makes the identity of the culprit less obvious) would have to be considered unfair. Phooey!

    Rule #6 also seems to me an unnecessary limitation (and like much of Van Dine, I’m sure it would have proved hypocritical had he been ingenious enough to devise “And Then There Were None”)

    However, I must give him credit for pointing out, in Rule #15, what I believe is the essence of the appeal of the genre.

    – Scott

    Comment by jonjermey — May 17, 2008 @ 8:03 am | Reply

  3. No 2 doesn’t stand up. It excludes a lot of misdirection, including playing with narrative techniques. Books like Reginald Hill’s brilliant Pictures of Perfection would be impossible. Art goes where genius takes it.

    No 12 is rather narrow. Granted, too many villains can make a plot rather diffuse, as in late Bailey, but many of Christie’s books, for instance, have more than one murderer.


    Comment by jonjermey — May 17, 2008 @ 8:03 am | Reply

  4. Granted, Van Dine’s rules are a mixed bag and even the best ones may be debated. Granted too, a strict enforcing of them would probably have led mystery fiction into a dead-end. Still, I think criticism of the syllabus is often misguided as it ignores context, that is, the state of the genre back when Van Dine set his rules. Most of his syllabus, just like Knox’s, is aimed at purging the genre from clichés and cheap tricks inherited from the “great ancestors” and still commonly practicised by his time. Rules #1 and #2 thus castigate dishonesty in clueing and presentation of the facts, #10 is a jab at Conan Doyle’s habit of throwing culprits out of nowhere, #13 targets Edgar Wallace and thrillers and so on. Hard to believe now but Van Dine was indeed trying to modernize the genre; he just used too large a brush to paint his picture.

    Now what’s interesting, ironic, funny or sad depending on your point of view is that by turning its back on all of Van Dine’s rules, a lot of later mystery fiction came to embrace again the old tricks he had tried so hard to eliminate, but that’s another story.

    Friendly, Xavier

    Comment by jonjermey — May 17, 2008 @ 8:04 am | Reply

  5. — – In, “Michael E. Grost” wrote: > 2 No willful tricks or deceptions may be played on the reader other > than those played legitimately by the criminal on the detective > himself.

    As Nero Wolfe would say, “Pfui!” (And Archie might add, “Nuts!”)

    I have to agree with Scott and Nick about this one, Mike. A skillful narrative might suggest to the reader notions that the actualities of the story don’t contain, thus (mis)directing said reader into paths that are legitimate even if untrue.

    Barry Ergang

    Comment by jonjermey — May 17, 2008 @ 8:05 am | Reply

  6. — – In, “Barry Ergang” <Barry_Ergang@…wrote: A skillful narrative might suggest to the reader notions that the actualities of the story don’t contain, thus (mis)directing said reader into paths that are legitimate even if untrue.

    And honestly, that IS the point of the best detective writing. For example, I remember in one of the Asimov robot stories


    we are surprised at who the murderer is because we had been misled by his surface appearance to assume he was not clever enough. Very good subtle writing.


    Comment by jonjermey — May 17, 2008 @ 8:06 am | Reply

  7. I think Van Dine’s rule #11 is often misinterpreted. His point was not about servants as persons but as murderers in a detective story. Van Dine championed the surprise murderer – “one that wouldn’t ordinarily come under suspicion” – and felt servants didn’t fit as they’re routinely among the first suspects (also, “the butler did it” had already been done to death by that time) There’s nothing “classist” here, at least as I see it.

    Friendly, Xavier.

    Comment by jonjermey — May 17, 2008 @ 8:07 am | Reply

  8. But it would be a surprise if the butler actually did it!

    In any event, my point was about critics who, on the one hand, attack the genre for not treating the lower/servant class seriously as suspects while on the other hand complain when someone from that class actually turns out to be the murderer. Can’t win!


    Comment by jonjermey — May 17, 2008 @ 8:08 am | Reply

  9. Ah! More comments relating to S.S. Van Dine. A few – of late – are actually favorable, rather surprising to me in that it’s been the fashion, for decades, to knock the man. I’ve been an enthusiast of vintage mystery fiction for years; covered the “Philo Vance” movies in “K’scope; and wrote the liner notes for Radio Archives’ “Philo Vance” programs of the late-Forties – early Fifties, the ZIV radio series starring Jackson Beck (this can be read online, as they appear with the announcement of the second CD box set). I’ve long considered Van Dine’s “The Greene Murder Case” (1928), “The Bishop Murder Case” (1929) and “The Dragon Murder Case” (1933) not only exceptional works, but the scariest books I’ve ever read (and I’m familiar with vintage horror fiction as well). The “Greene” narrative centers on an old mansion overlooking New York’s East River – the spookiest such dwelling in fiction, even more so than those of the subgenre of “The Bat” and “The Cat and the Canary” (be these in the original plays, films, TV versions or book adaptations). And the series of murders in the “Bishop” case grotesquely simulate “Mother Goose” rhymes, with some of the suspects just as grotesque. The “Dragon” entry is dominated by a creature of family legend, said to inhabit the ancient glacier formation now known as the Dragon Pool, seemingly validated when someone disappears from the pool under mysterious circumstances, and is later discovered in an ancient “pot hole” mauled as if by an animal, and the body broken as if dropped from a significant height! The sense of an actual monster inhabiting the pool is so effectively established by Van Dine that, were it not known that this was a “Philo Vance” mystery, the reader might be expected to think it supernatural fiction! (I have the original painting used for “The Dragon Murder Case”: the cover of the initial magazine instalments, the dust-jacket of the Scribner’s first edition, and the d/j of the Grosset & Dunlap reprint; this art described by detective-fiction authority, Otto Penzler, as “to die for!”) But the foregoing is simply the result of my taste, and – as the old saying has it – it’s all a matter of taste said Mrs. O’Leary as she kissed the cow!

    Ray Cabana, Jr.

    Comment by Raymond Cabana — March 19, 2022 @ 10:40 pm | Reply

  10. P.S. For what it’s worth, “K’scope” was selected by the Xerox Corporation for inclusion in their University Microfilms Program, and I once put on a “Philo Vance” presentation for the Syracuse Film Festival. I mention these simply to establish a bit of cred to, hopefully, provide my favoring S.S. Van Dine as something more than the unpopular opinions of simply a “fan”!

    Comment by Raymond Cabana — March 21, 2022 @ 2:47 pm | Reply

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