#227: In Defence of Rules – A Possibly Pointless Paean


A variety of events in my actual, I’m-a-real-person life — the culmination of which was a discussion about the perceived inferiority of genre fiction because of its hidebound nature — has got me reflecting on the deployment of rules, conventions, tropes, expectations, and other norms in detective fiction, and I thought I’d share it here in case anyone was interested (I mean, that’s all I’ve done so far with this blog, and it seems to be going well…).

In short, rules are a good thing, and rules in detective fiction are even better.  Sure, you may have your own feelings about the Van Dine, Knox, and (to a lesser extent, since he hated the puzzle genre) Chandler declarations on the subject, but I think we can all agree that most of what Knox and Van Dine have to say still stands.  With the exception of Knox’s oft-derided sixth rule that ‘No Chinaman must figure in the story’ — that, that is a whole post of its own, but rest assured the man wasn’t being xenophobic — he and Van Dine actually agree on everything, with Van Dine adding a few which became less important over the years (as Brad pointed out the other day at the start of our Carr vs. Christie post) such as:

No love interest — goodbye Harriet Vane (a sentiment many would applaud), sayonara Tommy and Tuppence, au revoir Jeff and Haila Troy, adieu just about every Carr protagonist…

Murder as the only crime — robbing us of the poisoned pen letters of The Moving Finger (1942), the inexplicable hoof-marks of The Footprints of Satan (1950), and too many thefts to count (or, it seems, remember).  True, murders frequently result from these schemes, but the investigation starts well before them in each case…

Only one detective at a time — I can live without Cards on the Table (1936), but no Case for Three Detectives (1936), no Death of Jezebel (1948), no Murder on the Links (1923), no Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929)?  Inconceivable!

Servant don’t count as suspects — generally observed throughout, but I can name (however, I won’t) four fricking awesome mysteries where a member of the household staff is the guilty party, and appropriately prepared for, motivated, and clewed.

Only one culprit — I get that seven crimes by seven killers would be lousy (I’ve read a book where this pretty much happens, so can speak from experience), but the use of overlapping threads from intersecting plots is one of the hallmarks of GAD fiction, I’d say.

No secret societies — mainly I just wanted to say how much I love The Seven Dials Mystery (1929).  Because I do.  So, so much.

Heart TSDM

Deal with it, the Internet…

Minimal descriptive writing — some people call this atmosphere, some might argue that it’s helping to set up the workings of the crime, or fill in some necessary background for motive.  Sure, don’t go all The Nine Tailors (1934) on us, but a little bit never hurt.

For the love of god, nothing from Sherlock Holmes — you also have to feel that Van Dine has had enough of people recycling ideas from the Holmes canon, since his final rule is almost exclusively ideas from there, but the guy clearly wanted the genre to move forward, and it’s difficult to disagree.

Anyway, while there will always be a certain amount of debate over some elements — and while we don’t want to give the impression that Knox and/or Van Dine spoke for the entire genre in any way — there are nevertheless a certain set of expectations we have when reading detective fiction.  I’ve mentioned before how infuriating it would be if a solid chunk of Gideon Fell’s impossibilities were resolved by it being a ghost that committed the murder in the sealed room, and over at The Reader is Warned, Dan recently made an excellent point about how detectives come by their knowledge.  Insisting that your detective do some, y’know, detecting in solving the crime and that the solution is rigorously applied, reasonable, and based in the real world is probably the very least we would hope for, and as a set of conventions go there’s clearly no harm in having such expectations…call them tropes if you will.

But these expectations are good — better than good, I’d even go so far a to say wonderful — for another reason altogether.  Allow me to give an analogy, for which I shall venture timidly into the world of professional sports.

Bored dog


Now, I may be English but I’m not any sort of football fan — English football, possibly known as ‘Soccer’ where you’re reading from.  However, I’m aware that the Argentinian footballer Diego Maradona is famous for scoring two goals in a game against England in 1986 for two contrasting reasons.  The first, often referred to as the ‘Hand of God’, saw him punch the ball into the goal while jumping in the air (as the name suggests, the ball is typically propelled with the foot, so this was an illegality under the game’s rules), and the second saw him run over half the length of the pitch with the ball, take on two-thirds of the England team, and then score with about five of the opposition around him.

Ignore the first, which breaks the rules of the game; I wish to discuss the second.  It falls perfectly within the rules and is actually quite a breath-taking sporting achievement — it turns out it was voted the Goal of the Century, which gives you some idea of how superb it was (there is a lot of football played each year, so it had lots of competition).  Given rules which are codified, understood, and observed, something really quite amazing and unexpectedly beautiful resulted, something about which people still enthuse to this day.  And it’s precisely because it was achieved within the rules that it’s so incredible — a full 100 years of other football (well, okay, less, since it was probably restricted by those of which we have a moving-picture record…) failed to match it, that’s pretty special.

So, yes, you can see where I’m going.  Observe the rules for detective fiction — declare all the clues, have the method be rational, allow no sudden leaps in intuition, etc, etc — and at its very best the genre will stagger, astound, amaze, and fascinate you, leaving you gobsmacked and all other sorts of good, happy things.  Inside of all these restrictions, the finest practitioners will still find a way to weave around all the other experts in the field (see how that’s both literal and a metaphor? Damn I’m good…) and produce something unexpected, wonderful, and memorable that sets you evangelising to all and sundry.  Without these basic foundations this could still be achieved, of course, but it would be far less regular a thing (pretty much anyone would write a book if they could skip the important bits, as the wonderful Crime Fiction Trope on Twitter constantly reminds us) and thus far harder to find.  The genre would look unimaginably different.


Hell, I feel like this enough of the time as it is.

What these rules — these tropes that I have seen sneered at so many times I’m sort of immune to the short-sightedness of people who do it now — achieve is the encouragement of better writing, of cleverer schemes, of subtler clues, of more finely-realised plots.  Not every legal goal scored in football will have the panache of Maradona’s Goal of the Century, but by crikey when they come close — or when someone scores an ever better one — it’ll reverberate down the years, especially if it can’t be faulted on any technical or rule-observing grounds.

What is especially true about detective fiction, however, is that authors can find many different ways of introducing information that conforms to these rules without having to tip their hand: floorplans, or crime scene maps, are one of my absolute fascinations in this genre — I bloody love a diagram, and will spend far, far too much time studying them to build up as ornate a picture as possible in my mind — and the book I’m reviewing this Thursday (Murder in Black and White (1932) by Evelyn Elder) does something with diagrams that I’d not seen before.  Equally, because it’s not a visual medium, an author can get away with something right under your nose that seems ludicrously obvious because of how we usually visual what we read: Yukito Ayatsuji’s The Decagon House Murders (1987, trans. 2015) has a reversal in it that plays by the rules in the strictest sense imaginable but still made me drop the book in surprise.

In both cases, the authors undoubtedly made life harder for themselves by relaying the information in the way they did: the option was there to fail to acknowledge it, or leave it unsaid, and make the mystery even harder to fathom with about a quarter of the work required, but this type of fiction is about being fooled and so that work will not have been done in vain: it adds to the joy of what is basically close-up magic but with the option of pausing the trick at any time and rewinding it to pick through each step v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y and spot the join.  That is a very high standard to pull off.  If you remove that need for clever phrasing and plotting to keep it inside of rules of declaration, or remove the need to allow the ratiocination to be a play-along-at-home affair, there’s no fooling, and a huge part of the joy is taken out of the experience.


I apologise for being several years behind on my memes.

Without the need to declare everything, locked room mysteries would be ten-a-penny and worth slightly less.  A dead body in a room, here’s the door — which is locked on the inside — and the window’s also locked, but there’s no sign of the gun that shot him…then, 300 pages later, there’s a trap-door in the ceiling which was neither locked nor bolted, and leads into the loftspace which is connected across the entire row of houses.  Problem solved.  There’s doubtless a convention-challenging piece of subversive literature in that — Harry Stephen Keeler probably wrote it already — but who in the hell would want to read it?  And who cares what that sort of person thinks anyway?  Nah, I’m kidding, Keeler fans, you’re alright…

But, as ever, I veer off point.  The idea of declaring rules for a genre gives the impression of it therefore being policed — of some select group of overlords poring through texts and allowing this but not allowing that, as if it’s a treatise on the growth of the French language or something.  And, as we all know, people who observe and enforce rules are no fun and don’t allow anyone else to have fun and so therefore nothing that’s fun could possibly result from this.  So, if your genre of choice is treated in this way, clearly there’s no scope for creativity and growth, and obviously no-one writing in it has a chance to engage in anything meaningful or worthwhile, and therefore the entire edifice is false and must be derided.

Except, bullshit.  On several grounds.  Firstly, no-one enforced these ‘rules’ in the first place, they’re simply the markers that determine what forces the most creativity out of the genre — having a fundamental set of expectations to steer the overall expectations no more defiles the experience of writing or reading in that genre than having rules for Articulate means you can’t ever enjoy playing it.  And y’know, a lot of detective fiction doesn’t observe these rules — hell, Christie didn’t play fair at times, Carr sure all hell didn’t, neither did Ellery Queen, Christianna Brand, Anthony Berkeley…I mean, not always, and certainly not even close to a majority of the time, but when the brightest luminaries the genre ever produced didn’t maintain the notion of fair play in 100% of their output you start to get an idea of how special this kind of thing is when done and done well.

Secondly, why assume that rules enforce only negative restrictions?  Go return to football — and, yes, I’m on shaky ground — I understand that people don’t necessarily like the referee, but his presence and an understanding of what is expected kinda makes everyone else there — you know, the players, the people you’re paying money to watch — raise their game and behave in a way that ensure everyone comes out of it well.  If Ellery Queen wrote The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932) — and they did, I checked — by keeping to the rules, well, then Agatha Christie has to write Murder on the Orient Express (1934) within those same rules in order to be compared and, hopefully, considered better in that same field.  Suddenly there’s one-upmanship on a comparable level which is, y’know, kinda fun.  No-one seeing Maradona’s second goal in 1986 immediately went “Well, football’s terrible because of the referee”, so why in the hell should such restrictions apply in any other comparable specialism?


This has no relevance, I just got bored of trying to find an image to go here.

And, finally, have you seen what happens when people don’t observe these rules?  Examples abound, but I’ll kep this short simply by saying that if you haven’t read Mark Green’s amazing deconstruction of Gone Girl (2012) by Gillian Flynn then you’ve missed out and need to correct that.  Without the internal consistency of rules to make sense of the limits implied by the world in which you’re writing, anything goes and no-one is going to enjoy that.  If you smash your opposition at Articulate only to be told that your victory doesn’t count because Easter is before April 20th this year and your team isn’t wearing three items of orange clothing…well, harsh words will be exchanged, believe me.

I mean, that would be a rule, but a bad rule because it has no internal consistency and so is the kind of thing that causes trouble, and is usually what people reach for when indulging in the hyperbole usually resolved for making the such false cases as “rules are bad” anyway.  Sure, not all rules are good, hence the need for simple understanding of how what is enforced goes on to inform the medium it is shaping.  Not all people are good but we don’t kill everyone, not all football games are good but we haven’t outlawed it, not all board games are good but we haven’t burned them all.  The bad apple spoiling the batch does not apply; please up your game if you want to pull down something that has been operating perfectly well without any such ill-considered, reactionary blindness hurling itself against the keep walls once ever so often.

But I strongly suspect that anyone who gets this far agrees with me, so I’ll get off my box and go and do something useful now instead…

36 thoughts on “#227: In Defence of Rules – A Possibly Pointless Paean

  1. The question is of course how many (how few) rules you need to have to have the optimal setting. I’ve never been a fan of Knox and Van Dine’s rules, as they only work against what I think lies at the base of a good puzzle plot mystery: audacious imagination that is still presented in a fair way to the reader. Their rules on the other hand are overly specific and don’t actually help improve imagination. Twins, secret hallways, mysterious Chinaman with their undetectable poisons and secret armies of thugs; they’re fair game in my opinion as long as they’re used in a fair way.

    A lot of the modern Japanese mystery writers who come have a university Mystery Club history (especially those from Kyoto University like Ayatsuji) basically always work from this one premise of fair play, and then literally everything is allowed. What Ayatsuji does in The Decagon House Murders is a classic example of something you’d often see in stories written by people in the KUMC: he plays surprisingly fair, as a lot derives from the reader’s own expectations (which he never confirmed or deconfirmed), and he has actually left a series of clues that point to the conclusion, even if he does not explicitly explain those clues in the book itself. But we also have plenty of Japanese mystery novels where characters have supernatural powers which still are a lot more fair, and actually better constructed as a fair-play puzzle plot mystery than many other stories.

    The matter is of course how to define fair play. Internal consistency (not realism) is thus a fundamental rule I think, as it allows the reader to apply the internal rules to come up with a logicall explanation, and the explanation to the whole deal must be “clued fairly”, but that last one is hard to put in rules. When is a clue too obscure? When is the connection Clue A + Clue B = Explanation C too farfetched? I think that at this stage, it’s really an issue that can’t be set in rules, as it’s about the quality of the clues.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Aaah, see, what you’ve done here in only a few short paragraphs is make a far better point than I have in 2,500 words above.

      Certainly it’s far more important that the ‘world’ or any particular story be understood with clarity so that developments aren’t foisted in the reader unfairly — Derek Landy’s YA series Skulduggery Pleasant has a very simple set of magic rules and limitations that he sticks to for the entire run, and it’s brilliant. Not only that, he manages to throw some proper left-wing surprises at you too, which is even better!

      So, yes, I suppose its not so much about the real-worldness as it is about how ‘real’ the world is made, and the use of the rules to do so is where this comes in. Thank-you, Ho-Ling, another great comment that’s a) made this even clearer in my mind, and b) made me jealous of all the awesome fair play fiction you get to read that I don’t. Mission accomplished 😀


  2. I woke up WAY too early this morning – I pulled up your post and thought I saw “JJ HEART BDSM” in the middle of it! – but I’m not sure what to DO with this information. You do know, JJ, that in at least some ways, you are an old soul. We are old souls because we worship certain old things and think they are better than new things, but that sounds like we are 90 years old and we are far from it! I thoroughly enjoyed reading that deconstruction of Gone Girl because I didn’t think that book was nearly as clever as THE MILLIONS AND MILLIONS OF READERS who did! Yet, Gone Girl is NOT a detective story or anything like what we would find in traditional GAD. It’s a completely different sub-genre of mystery, so it makes no sense to apply Knox’ rules to it.

    Being as tired as I am at this moment, however, I must have been more open to a sports analogy, and I do like your soccer story. In my mystery assignment at school, (and in MOST of the project assignments I give), I’m bombarded by questions from my students asking if they can break the rules I’ve set. Ultimately, they want to do this NOT to be innovative or bold but because they are lazy. And while we can both cite dozens of titles where the rules were bent and yet they were not really broken, thus creating innovation, we don’t see those rules followed today because 1) people got tired of them, and 2) they’re really HARD to follow or, at least, follow well. There’s also something wonderfully nostalgic about old detective methods that simply does not translate well in the era of DNA and high tech. (You made this point yourself recently.) Just as I would rather listen to Cole Porter music or the Jack Benny show or watch old Hitchcock movies, I’m happier (some would say stuck) reading classic detective fiction for its rules and its cozy little cottages and challenges to the reader. These, at least, are life challenges that CAN be overcome.

    If I could add to the jock talk, there are a ton of rules to baseball and you have to follow them, but it’s still boring as hell. And if everyone hit a home run or scored a triple play all the time, I would still find baseball boring as hell. But if suddenly the outfielders started a choreographed dance and moved into the infield and the team started a kick line and the crowd burst into song . . . well, I’d be a much happier camper. And one thing would be clear: I just don’t like baseball.

    So I generally agree with you, but I’m not sure what to apply this to. Are you talking about GAD books? Or about the modern mystery novels that you don’t read? Accchhh, forgive me, I literally woke up at 2:45am after a very long day with a nose stuffed by allergies, and I’m grumpy. And, frankly, my mood does not improve when I read Ho-Ling’s response and realize that Japanese Universities really DO have murder clubs, and there’s a whole country where fair play mystery fans are in the majority, but I don’t speak the language. I mean, c’mon! how unfair is life!?!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I ended up applying this to GAD novels here because it’s the focus of this blog, but the conversation itself covered genre fiction in general, and the same ideas — as Ho-Ling has pointed out — apply cross-genre. The invication of rules as a “bad” thing is something I rally against generally when people scoff at Christie or her peers, and these various threads have been loose in my head for a while, so what came out was doubtless a little self-indulgent and unfocussed. I’m grateful to anyone who gets through it, to be honest.

      And, yeah, I’m jealous of these Japanese university clubs, too. But then you’re all like “Ooooh, so when I do a year-long course with young and eager minds where we talk about detective fiction and rules” in one breath and then all “Aaah, I have no-one to talk about detective fiction and rules with!” in the next — pick a lane, Bradley! Some of us don’t even have that, though I’m increasingly tempted to see if I can start one at work next year. Maybe we should compare notes….

      Liked by 1 person

      • I probably come across, at times, as a fanatical, rule-bound fiend who wants to burn everyone who doesn’t adhere to the standards of the Golden Age, but I’m actually very laid back where the rules are concerned.

        My personal expectations are very close to what the modern, neo-orthodox mystery writers in Japan are doing (see Ho-Ling’s comment). I expect a detective story to have a plot, which is the engine of the genre, and (at the very least) a genuine attempt to play fair with the reader, but how these two simple guidelines are incorporated into a story is entirely up the ingenuity and creativity of the author – e.g. Asimov’s classic SF-mystery The Caves of Steel.

        I think guidelines, or signposts, would be a better description, and more useful, for the those two simple “rules” governing the genre, because they don’t imply any restrictions on the creativity of a writer. But they would also keep the genre, so to say, on course by reminding a writer there two simple core principles that make a detective story a detective story. You only have to look at the state of the contemporary crime novel to see what happens when a genre gets off course. Some of the genre awards are even given out to non-crime novels!

        So a strict adherence to the rules written down by Knox and Van Dine would smother the genre, but the complete, post-modern rejection of any kind structure is genre-suicide.

        There is, however, one (personal) cast-iron rule when it comes to locked room mysteries and impossible crime stories that’s non-negotiable: I don’t want to see any secret passages, hidden trapdoors, unknown poisons, deadly animals or twins used as an explanation. Or any of the other hoary, moth-eaten plot devices from the 1800s.

        For example, imagine a body inside a windowless library with a solid door, that’s not only locked from the inside, but fits so tight in the frame that under normal circumstances you have to push it open with your full body weight. I don’t want to learn that one of the bookcases was actually a well-disguised secret door. However, what would be acceptable is if the author showed how one of the characters (i.e. the murderer), after breaking down the door, picked a handkerchief from the floor, which he said he had dropped upon entering, and began to polish his glasses, but the explanation reveals he had put the handkerchief as a cloth wedge between the door and the door-post when he left the room – which made it look as if the already tight-fitting door was locked from the inside. Such a door-trick would be completely acceptable, but not a secret passage behind a bookcase or a hidden cubbyhole behind the hearth.

        Well, so far my crummy contribution to the subject. Oh, and Brad, I’ve been called an old soul once for liking pre-1960s detective fiction. The person in question was surprised I went out of my way to find them, when there were brand new thrillers for the picking at our local bookstores, and had to be an old soul if I loved that old stuff. I like to believe I simply have an excellent and refined taste in fiction.

        Liked by 2 people

        • I don’t know if I’ve ever been called an ‘old soul’ before today. I’ve been called an ‘are soul’, but I didn’t know what to make of that…

          I’m delighted to see the responses here; mainly because I was sure most people would get to the end of my post and go “Uh…what?”, but also because it’s great to have this idea of the deployment of rules within a basic expectation so finely fixed in the minds of others.

          Asimov is a great example of this, you’re right. I love how one of his stories now relies on a scientific idea believed true at the time but since proven false, and how when that story was anthologised followed the overturning of this idea he wrote an introduction that essentially said “Well, if these scientists can’t get their facts right, I’m not the one at fault”! Goddamn, I bet he was the most wonderful man to just sit and chat with.

          I’m almost tempted to try and devise a new decalgue based on these discussions to see if there’s a core set of things we’re typically hoping for. That way, we could recommend things based on “Well, it’s a bit loose with ruke 5, but otherwise very sound…”. Possibly a fool’s errand, though, and it’s not like we don’t address these things in our reviews…

          Liked by 1 person

        • You do, TomCat, you do!

          And your comments are great! I totally agree with you. I don’t need rules that limit, only rules that provide parameters. “The narrator mustn’t be the killer” is a foolish “rule” – thank God it was broken by the best. (And too bad it has been copied by mediocre writers.) I think we fans know, as your locked room discussion suggests, not when rules are being broken so much as when we’re being cheated of a fair story. What I value above most other things in a mystery is misdirection, which leads to a total reversal of previous expectations or understanding. It means that an author MUST make something false look plausible and then make the reverse true thing just as plausible. All those false solutions we are handed in mysteries need to look like they could be the truth. The actions of the innocent that make them look guilty must be believable. And most difficult: the guilty must be made to look innocent or at least fade into the general list of suspects in such a way that we don’t jump at them as the killer simply because they have been crossed off our list.

          I think that one rule at least must hold – “the reader must be presented with all the information necessary to discover the truth. It’s the author’s job to make sure we don’t interpret that information correctly, but the author must do that fairly.


      • As I lay in bed (awake 😦 ) for far too long last night, I thought about what fun it would be to teach adults a course in GAD on the page and screen. I’m trapped with this stack of Nordic crime novels that I’m gradually realizing I really don’t want to read, and I’m thinking that the classroom might be filled with elderly people, but there just might be an audience for a class where the reading list looks like this:

        The Poisoned Chocolates Case
        The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
        Murder Must Advertise
        The Greek Coffin Mystery
        The Problem of the Green Capsule
        Green for Danger

        It needs tweaking and additions, but what fun that would be!

        Liked by 1 person

          • I forgot to tell you that one of my ex-students, who is an accomplished videographer (she heads the video team for the San Francisco Giants these days) has been following my blog and thinks you and I should do a podcast together!

            When I told her that an ocean divided us, she dryly texted,

            “Mr. Friedman”
            “It’s 2017”
            “Oceans mean nothing.”


          • Honestly, I rattled off some representative titles without giving it too much time or thought. I would actually have no business teaching Sayers, whom I’m not fond of, but it felt important to include her, so I would do my due diligence there. I added Golden Age Queen off the cuff, although I like 40’s Queen just as much or more (Calamity Town or Cat of Many Tails). I chose the Brand because I love her, but she may not be considered as major as, say, Ngaio Marsh, who I have read all of but don’t like as much. I could include Rex Stout or half a dozen other greats as well. I think I would add Miss Pym Disposes. Already my list is starting to get a bit subversive!!


          • Would depend on your focus, if you were giving a general overview of the genre and how large that window is. Personally, I’d pick a slightly lesser-known Christie, but if this is an overview of the genre, Ackroyd would be fine. I have no idea which I would choose myself, honestly, but I’m less well-read on this genre than many. My list would be similar, but I’d add Doyle and Chesterton, might tweak the others. I’d want works that still show the author at their best, but perhaps aren’t as well-known or read. For example: Cards on the Table for Christe (but this may not be a good example, not familiar with it.


            • Maybe A.B.C. Murders. I chose Ackroyd over And Then There Were None because, for most of it’s links, it is a quintessential village mystery. Then comes that wow of an ending!


          • If you want to look at the GAD and implications of ratiocination, I’d say Greek Coffin Mystery was as essential as Poisoned Chocolates Case — that ability to pick something apart, but to then be incorrect because of one little part, is at the heart of what GAD fiction is about, I’d say. This is, after all, why we go on such obsessive clue-hunts, and then gripe and nitpick when something isn’t resolved to our satisfaction!

            Liked by 1 person

  3. Great work JJ. And I must say the Maradona analogy was really striking and helpful. I think rules/laws as networks to allow culture to develop has been a cornerstone of artistic development since the beginning.

    This was a particularly pleasing line: ‘they’re simply the markers that determine what forces the most creativity out of the genre’. Love this idea that networks (however permeable) force great art out from within.

    And as the rest of these brilliant comment suggest, in saying all this, the detective fiction rule book its still an incredibly slippery beast to try and cling to.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Maradona thing sort of came to me out of nowhere, so I’m pleased someone got something out of it — cheers!

      And, yeah, I think Ho-Ling, Brad, and TC have given me more to go away and mull on. Expect another post on this in about five months from now…


  4. Great article, even better discussion. Way to stir the pot JJ.

    In my mind, the “rules” are a set of guidelines that will prevent a mystery author from alienating their audience. A secret passage is just lazy, and I’m sure the idea of twins was unique when it was first done 100-some years ago. At least for us GAD fans, I suspect that we’re into the mystery because we want that surprise at the end. The feeling that despite trying our hardest to put the puzzle pieces together, not only did they not fit, but we were building the wrong type of puzzle in the first place.

    In order for that to be successful, the reader needs to feel like they actually could have solved the puzzle. Not just while reading the book, but after it. But, of course, we don’t really want to solve the puzzle, we just think we do. Brad and I were just having a side conversation about this in my review of My Late Wives. We’re like dogs chasing after cars. Once we catch it, we don’t know what to do with it.

    An author is free to violate the rules as much as they want, but it’s not a great way to keep readers. I’ll tell you that it’s going to be a long long time before I touch another Father Brown story after reading The Invisible Man. Now, that example probably doesn’t qualify as breaking any rules, but it speaks to the bad taste it can leave in your mouth.

    With all that said………when a skilled author, who typically follows the rules, intentionally breaks one, it can be a thing of beauty. As the reader, you know the rules are going to be followed, and then the actual violation of the rules is….well, violating. When done just right, that can leave a powerful impression.

    I’m not going to pick the best example, but I’ll choose one that I can describe in a way that I think is fairly spoiler free. John Dickson Carr’s Death Watch contains a clear violation of what I think most of us would agree is a well justified rule. And yet, he does it in such a way that it doesn’t really matter, because there’s enough meat on the bone with the puzzle solution due to other clever aspects. Sure, us noble’s raise an eyebrow and cluck our tongues, but the book is still great and the solution still works. Of course, plenty of people seem to detest Death Watch, and perhaps it is for this reason.

    Liked by 1 person

    • …the reader needs to feel like they actually could have solved the puzzle…But, of course, we don’t really want to solve the puzzle, we just think we do.

      Oh, man, you have just summed up there virtualy the entire conflict at the heart of all my GAD reading! When I first got into Agatha Christie — after about four or five books, when I knew that I was hooked — I had this desire to solve everything tempered by the need to be completely surprised come the end (because, well, the moment of revelation in And The There Were None would sell in the billions if you could bottle it). But then of course, the more you do something, the better you want to get at it…so the desire to be a step ahead comes in, but I still crave that astonished feeling that’s becoming increasingly rare these days.

      The breaking of rules is all well and good so long as you know they can and will be broken. If you’re told “There are only six of us on this island, and there’s no way on or off…” but then irrefutable evidence of a seventh person is found, it’s equally fine for there to’ve been a way on or off (so long as it’s declared). If it simply turns out at the end that a seventh person could and did easily find their way on or off the island at will…the situation is still the same, but how the rules have been applied is different. Admittedly this gives a very different shape to this theoretical story, but then the ‘rules’ should determine the shape of the story. If an author wishes a plot to do one thing but can find no way to achieve that inside of the expectations of the context, they either need to change the plot or to provide new expectations to allow what they want to happen. Alas, all too often this doesn’t happen…

      And, yeah, that JDC example is both a good and a bad on, eh? I mean, it could easily have been avoided altogether with a simple piece of rephrasing (let’s say), but I’m guessing he left it in for some reason even if it’s not clear what that reason is!

      Liked by 1 person

      • You’re describing [TITLE REMOVED] here, and while I have almost completely forgotten the ending, I recall feeling that this aspect of the puzzle was not resolved to my satisfaction. Yes, I was surprised by the killer’s identity, but something about the way that “seventh person” got on and off the island felt like a cheat. I need to re-read, I guess . . . I’ll schedule THAT for 2055!

        But your point is at the crux of it all, just as Ben and I were talking about at his place. Clearly, an impossible crime states that something that MUST HAVE happened in order for the murder to take place COULD NOT have happened: somebody HAD to get into the room; somebody HAD to be able to access the weapon; someone HAD to walk across the pristine snow drift to get to the victim. But they COULD NOT. The point is that they COULD all the time, and the success of the book rests on the success of the way the impossibility is blown to smithereens. Do we want to figure that out before the detective? Yeah, sure . . . but mostly no!! And if we find out that the murder was committed by a secret passage or some other previously untold means, well . . . woe to the author who tries to pull that on us and then attend a book signing!

        I can only imagine how difficult this task is for writers. I have an image in mind for a mystery I would love to write (dedicated to you, JJ, of course). My high school has a large courtyard where the kids eat lunch. On the west side of the courtyard is the three story tall school building; on the north is a semi-circular Greek-stadium style seating area, backed by another two story building; the east side is open, leading to other buildings and a parking lot; the south side has another three story building with an archway leading to the street – above the arch is a clock tower. I envision the novel starting with the discovery of the body of a student in the center of the courtyard, which had been closed down to be repaved. So the cement is completely wet. And yet the body lies in the center of this large courtyard, undisturbed by footprints. The body has sunk a couple of inches into the pavement, indicating that the cement was wet when the body was laid there; yet the outline of the body is clear and defined, so the body couldn’t have been flung from a height.

        Another possibility is that the cement has dried! BUT the body is still “sunk in the pavement” as if it was placed on wet cement. And there are no footprints or signs of how the body got there.

        So how the heck did this miracle happen? I would love some ideas, but the main point here is that if the solution to this problem isn’t “solvable” a reader has every right to feel cheated. Yet we really DON’T want to solve it; we want to smack our heads at the end and shout, “But of course!!!”


        • Firstly, for safety, I’ve edited out the title of the book in your comment…possible spoilers an’ all that; weirdly, I didn’t have that particular book in mind at all, I was just trying to come up with a two-sentence example and an island seemed the easiest. Spooky….

          Secondly, if you can find a solution to that problem, I’ll read that book! One occurs to me now, but I don’t think it’d be terribly interesting, and the motive would be hard to work out….anyway, maybe give it to your students next year — instead of letting them have free rein, give them the crime and they have to come up with the explanation, motive, and characters around it. And then pay for my ticket so I could fly out for the end-of-year showcase 😀

          Liked by 1 person

        • Obviously there is a secret passage in the cement and it was used by the student’s twin.

          On a more serious note, this is great discussion. The three of us clearly need to do additional dedicated blog posts on the topic.

          Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, and as for “stirring the pot” — more than anything, the calibre of replies here has got me already planning a follow-up to this post, which wasn’t my intent at all. I was just trying to get some irritation at GAD-bashing out of my system…!

      Liked by 1 person

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