Literary analysis of murder mysteries.

The Straight Dope recently republished one of Cecil’s classic columns. This was dated September 26, 2003 and the topic was the murder mystery cliche “the butler did it”.

Cecil’s answer was pretty interesting. To summarize: the ending of “the butler did it” was used a little bit, but was generally frowned upon. As a trusted servant who would never be anything more than a servant, the butler had access to almost every room in the house (means) and there was always the opportunity for mistreatment or just simply class resentment (motive), so use of the butler or any other servant as the culprit made the whole story entirely too easy to write & unfulfilling to read. “The butler did it!” became a satirical joke in murder mysteries decades ago, and thus butlers are almost entirely off-limits as actual villains.

I have to confess, I had not realized there was so much detail in mystery writing. There was a reference in Cecil’s answer to a list of rules for writing detective stories. After looking around on the internet, I found a number of sources. Quoting from the Gaslight web page, here are “Twenty rules for writing detective stories”, as originally stated in 1928 by S.S. Van Dine.

  1. The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.
  2. No willful tricks or deceptions may be placed on the reader other than those played legitimately by the criminal on the detective himself.
  3. There must be no love interest. The business in hand is to bring a criminal to the bar of justice, not to bring a lovelorn couple to the hymeneal altar.
  4. The detective himself, or one of the official investigators, should never turn out to be the culprit. This is bald trickery, on a par with offering some one a bright penny for a five-dollar gold piece. It’s false pretenses.
  5. The culprit must be determined by logical deductions — not by accident or coincidence or unmotivated confession. To solve a criminal problem in this latter fashion is like sending the reader on a deliberate wild-goose chase, and then telling him, after he has failed, that you had the object of his search up your sleeve all the time. Such an author is no better than a practical joker.
  6. The detective novel must have a detective in it; and a detective is not a detective unless he detects. His function is to gather clues that will eventually lead to the person who did the dirty work in the first chapter; and if the detective does not reach his conclusions through an analysis of those clues, he has no more solved his problem than the schoolboy who gets his answer out of the back of the arithmetic.
  7. There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better. No lesser crime than murder will suffice. Three hundred pages is far too much pother for a crime other than murder. After all, the reader’s trouble and expenditure of energy must be rewarded.
  8. The problem of the crime must he solved by strictly naturalistic means. Such methods for learning the truth as slate-writing, ouija-boards, mind-reading, spiritualistic se’ances, crystal-gazing, and the like, are taboo. A reader has a chance when matching his wits with a rationalistic detective, but if he must compete with the world of spirits and go chasing about the fourth dimension of metaphysics, he is defeated ab initio.
  9. There must be but one detective — that is, but one protagonist of deduction — one deus ex machina. To bring the minds of three or four, or sometimes a gang of detectives to bear on a problem, is not only to disperse the interest and break the direct thread of logic, but to take an unfair advantage of the reader. If there is more than one detective the reader doesn’t know who his codeductor is. It’s like making the reader run a race with a relay team.
  10. The culprit must turn out to be a person who has played a more or less prominent part in the story — that is, a person with whom the reader is familiar and in whom he takes an interest.
  11. A servant must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. This is begging a noble question. It is a too easy solution. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person — one that wouldn’t ordinarily come under suspicion.
  12. There must be but one culprit, no matter how many murders are committed. The culprit may, of course, have a minor helper or co-plotter; but the entire onus must rest on one pair of shoulders: the entire indignation of the reader must be permitted to concentrate on a single black nature.
  13. Secret societies, camorras, mafias, et al., have no place in a detective story. A fascinating and truly beautiful murder is irremediably spoiled by any such wholesale culpability. To be sure, the murderer in a detective novel should be given a sporting chance; but it is going too far to grant him a secret society to fall back on. No high-class, self-respecting murderer would want such odds.
  14. The method of murder, and the means of detecting it, must be be rational and scientific. That is to say, pseudo-science and purely imaginative and speculative devices are not to be tolerated in the roman policier. Once an author soars into the realm of fantasy, in the Jules Verne manner, he is outside the bounds of detective fiction, cavorting in the uncharted reaches of adventure.
  15. 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.
  16. A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no “atmospheric” preoccupations. such matters have no vital place in a record of crime and deduction. They hold up the action and introduce issues irrelevant to the main purpose, which is to state a problem, analyze it, and bring it to a successful conclusion. To be sure, there must be a sufficient descriptiveness and character delineation to give the novel verisimilitude.
  17. A professional criminal must never be shouldered with the guilt of a crime in a detective story. Crimes by housebreakers and bandits are the province of the police departments — not of authors and brilliant amateur detectives. A really fascinating crime is one committed by a pillar of a church, or a spinster noted for her charities.
  18. A crime in a detective story must never turn out to be an accident or a suicide. To end an odyssey of sleuthing with such an anti-climax is to hoodwink the trusting and kind-hearted reader.
  19. The motives for all crimes in detective stories should be personal. International plottings and war politics belong in a different category of fiction — in secret-service tales, for instance. But a murder story must be kept gemütlich, so to speak. It must reflect the reader’s everyday experiences, and give him a certain outlet for his own repressed desires and emotions.
  20. And (to give my Credo an even score of items) I herewith list a few of the devices which no self-respecting detective story writer will now avail himself of. They have been employed too often, and are familiar to all true lovers of literary crime. To use them is a confession of the author’s ineptitude and lack of originality.
    1. (a) Determining the identity of the culprit by comparing the butt of a cigarette left at the scene of the crime with the brand smoked by a suspect.
    2. (b) The bogus spiritualistic se’ance to frighten the culprit into giving himself away.
    3. (c) Forged fingerprints.
    4. (d) The dummy-figure alibi.
    5. (e) The dog that does not bark and thereby reveals the fact that the intruder is familiar.
    6. (f)The final pinning of the crime on a twin, or a relative who looks exactly like the suspected, but innocent, person.
    7. (g) The hypodermic syringe and the knockout drops.
    8. (h) The commission of the murder in a locked room after the police have actually broken in.
    9. (i) The word association test for guilt.
    10. (j) The cipher, or code letter, which is eventually unraveled by the sleuth.

I found this list to be quite interesting, for a number of reasons. For starters, there is an marked concern for playing fair with the reader and keeping the reader’s interest. I assume that when this was written, mystery stories were just beginning to be recognized as their own literary genre, and there was concern that a lot of rubbish was being passed off as legitimate writing just because somewhere a crime was committed.

I also note that many crime programs of today do not always follow all the rules stated above.

Primary sources for this article (and another instance of me trying to be more diligent about documentation in my writing):
Adams, Cecil; The Straight Dope; “In whodunits, it’s “the butler did it.” Who did it first?”; copyright 2003, The Chicago Reader Inc.; column originally dated September 26, 2003; stored on the Internet at; for use in this article, site visited August 25, 2006.
Van Dine, S.S., pseudonym for Wright, Willard Huntington; “Twenty rules for writing detective stories”; stored on the Internet at; originally published in American Magazine, September 1928; included in Philo Vance investigates omnibus, 1936; for use in this article, site visited August 25, 2006.

While writing this article, I went looking for information on a set of Chinese mysteries that my mother had listened to as a book-on-tape years ago. I found what I was looking for, and some other information too. Here are some other excellent links to check out:
Information on the Judge Dee series – The Judge Dee mystery stories are set in 8th century (CE) China. I had thought they were written then as well, but contrary to my recollection, the Judge Dee stories were mostly written in the 1950s & 1960s. However, they were written by a career Chinese diplomat, one Robert Van Gulik. On this web page, Colin Glassey does an excellent job of describing the Judge Dee series.
Another page by Colin Glassey, this one on fantasy novels – This web page has some interesting information, especially background historical information, about some well-known fantasy authors & fantasy novels. I especially liked his comment about Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. Like Glassey, I am also of the opinion that the Wheel of Time series should have been ended long ago. I have not read the series myself, but what I have heard from other people who have is that there are a few books in the middle that are excellent, but the beginning & ending novels could have been condensed into far shorter tomes.

2 thoughts on “Literary analysis of murder mysteries.

  1. Hello. Nice to see a comment on Robert van Gulik and Judge Dee. I’ve rececently discussed the Judge Dee stories on my blog. One small correction: The stories were set in the seventh century, not the eighth. The real Judge Dee died in 700.

    Re the rules S.S. Van Dine’s “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories,” are you familiar with Father Knox’s ten rules — and with the fun Josef Skvorecky had those rules in his book Sins for Father Knox?

    Detectives Beyond Borders
    “Because Murder is More Fun Away From Home”

  2. Ooh, thank you for citing sources. As a historian, I read footnotes and bibliographies. I can confirm the above correction, though I could wish you had it right in te first place. MORE POWER TO THOSE WHO CITE SOURCES! Commendable.
    Some of my work can be found using my name and title as search query.

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