#503: The Men Who Explain Miracles – Episode 9.1: Laying Down the Laws – The Van Dine Twenty

Van Dine Knox header

There’s joy in your heart, a spring in your step, a tune in your soul — could it be that The Men Who Explain Miracles are here with another episode of their universally listened-to-by-some-people podcast?

Indeed, it is!  Dan from The Reader is Warned and I are back back back, and with Spring around the corner we’re thinking about the nomothetic aspects of detective fiction (no, the two are not related) and have turned our attentions on the lists of rules written by S.S. van Dine and Ronald Knox.

Today, we sweep through Van Dine’s list — well, highlights of it — and if you want to do some pre-reading the list in its entirety can be found here at the GADetection wiki.  It’s true that this episode, and next week’s in which we pick over the bones of Knox’s contribution on the subject, don’t veer as heavily as normal into impossible crime fiction, but it’s all part of a master plan that will be revealed in due course.

Okay, onwards, before that joy runs out, that spring dampens, or that song veers into tunelessness:

As ever, we hope you enjoy, and look forward to discussing the above in the comments below.  Have a lovely day!


Previous The Men Who Explain Miracles episodes:

1. Rim of the Pit (1944) by Hake Talbot — A spoiler-heavy discussion

2. An interview with YA author Robin Stevens

3. On republishing Murder on the Way! (1935) by Theodore Roscoe

4. The Ed Hoch ’15 Best Impossible Crime Novels’ list of 1981

4.1 Books 15 to 11

4.2 Books 10 to 6

4.3 Books 5 to 1

5. Choosing our own 15 favourite impossible crime novels

5.1 JJ’s list

5.2 Dan’s list

6. An interview with Martin Edwards

7. The Ages of John Dickson Carr [w’ Ben @ The Green Capsule]

7.1 Part 1

7.2 Part 2

8. The Impossible Crimes of Paul Halter

8.1 Part 1

8.2 Part 2

27 thoughts on “#503: The Men Who Explain Miracles – Episode 9.1: Laying Down the Laws – The Van Dine Twenty

  1. As the Countess says in that classic film, The Women, “Ah, l’amour, l’amour!” Obviously, love figures into countless mysteries in an integral way, since it vies with greed as Motive #1! I always took this rule to mean that space should not be wasted with extraneous love affairs. I’m a quarter of the way through The White Priory Murders, and the typical “fine young man” character, who exists in Carr/Dickson to witness events and bring Fell/Merrivale into the case, has just met the host’s niece. I know CD won’t spend too much time on this, but protecting/arguing with/obsessing over her gives our hero something to do besides observing; I think it humanizes him into James Bennett, rather than Six Down.

    Writing mysteries made Van Dine rich, but it didn’t make him happy. I wonder if he was being less tongue in cheek than we think, trying to lend greater credibility and respect to a genre he had mocked before he took up his own blood-soaked pen. In the end, his own limitations as a plotter did him in. Rules were most definitely made to be broken.


    • Yeah, we get into Van Dine’s perspectives a little more at the end of the next episode (at least, we do if I don’t edit it out when I come to put that together…). Man, to know what the contemporary feelings were on this list, especially from the authors in the genre. I’m sure no-one felt a need to adhere strictly, but I wonder how many rolled their eyes and went “Oh, for pity’s sake, Willard…”


    • “Writing mysteries made Van Dine rich, but it didn’t make him happy. I wonder if he was being less tongue in cheek than we think, trying to lend greater credibility and respect to a genre he had mocked before he took up his own blood-soaked pen. In the end, his own limitations as a plotter did him in. Rules were most definitely made to be broken.’

      This is gloriously put Brad, and having just finished The Kennel Murder Case makes me believe this even more. Again as JJ said we’ll get into this more in the next episode, but I think it’s always funny and tragic how detective fiction is apparently not a ‘serious’ art form. It really ate away at Van Dine, and I think it shows in his work.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Good stuff, as ever.
    If Van Dine’s list isn’t to be taken as largely tongue in cheek, and my hunch is that he was being a tad playful, then I do think swathes of it aren’t meant to be taken literally.
    Some of those aspects he wants forbidden – romance, description and atmosphere – absolutely have their place but I do think it’s reasonable to suggest they should sometimes be reined in.


    • I hear the same point about Knox, and am ready for you with a counter-sort-of-argument next week, Colin.

      There’s less playfulness in this than I think is typically assumed — I mean, the final rule is ten examples…there’s a certain amount of denial that won’t wash there 😁 Sure, we’ll never really know the Motives behind this list — though, yes, “Mr. van Dine, we will pay you $x to write 2000 words for our magazine” probably features with moderate prominence — but the playfulness/oh shucks aspect if thus isn’t something I personally subscribe to. However, more detail next week…apologies for the delay 😂


    • As JJ says more on this next week, but I think Van Dine was too serious about what he was doing (in an ironic bind that he had got himself into) to be able to be too tongue in cheek about this. The fact that he spent this amount of time writing nearly 2000 words on the subject shows a real love/struggle with the form. But as we say more next week on that.


  3. I think Van Dine’s list is so strict and limiting because his own novels (and by extension his idea of what the detective novel should be) were so pure. The first-person narration is done by the emotionless and usually thoughtless assistant. It’s about as close as an author can get to putting the reader inside the plot. We see exactly what Vance sees without being allowed to share his thoughts. The game couldn’t be fairer and that was obviously important to Van Dine. His list seems intensely personal to him, not something for everyone else to follow.

    some thoughts on the podcast
    — Detective novels are a search for rationalization in a world that isn’t rational — I’d never thought of them that way.

    — Atmosphere behaves the same way in detective novels as it does in any other writing. Whether its the cozy manors, the foggy nights, or rain-slicked streets, the atmosphere elicits emotions in the reader. Think of the atmosphere of Murder on the Way! The reader is unnerved before anything happens just from the journey to the house. Eliminating this tool from detective novels is just silly. The Kennel Murder Case is not just some abstract game. It’s a story, whether Van Dine likes it or not.

    — It was mentioned that detective novelists have to consider the reader more than other writers. This is true, and it leads to many tortured thoughts. When I was writing Goodnight Irene, I was certain everyone would be able to solve the mystery without much trouble. Of course, the solutions were obvious to me because I had written the damned thing. In the end, I had to actually put in more clues because some beta readers complained that it wasn’t possible to solve. Whenever an author cheats, he/she is worried that it’s too easy.

    Looking forward to the next episode.


    • Ha, I always wonder what it’s like as a writer to put something together knwing the solution. Sure, you bury it under enough layers or behind enough constructions and you’re bound to get away with it, but the joy of fair play clewing is in being able ot dangle the necessary data and still have people miss it…and man it must be difficult to believe you’ve done that the first few times you try (and, hey, not everyone succeeds, of course).

      Part of my own difficulty in motivating myself to write the novel I’ve been 300 words into for about 4 years is that I’ve had so long to think about it I now no longer believe anyone can’t see through it at first glance. So bravo, James, for getting over that hurdle, and for doing such a great job in the process!


    • Thanks James, your observations really clarify some of the struggles I have with Van Dine’s list:

      ‘It’s about as close as an author can get to putting the reader inside the plot.’ – This is a lovely way of putting the feeling I had reading The Kennel Murder case. As I began that book knowing nothing about Van Dine (but been an artist and lover of art) I thought, ‘this must be written by an artist or an art critic’ because it’s pure form, and experimentation with form, and I really enjoyed the first few chapters. But then the irony was that the book started to loose interest when I realised the experimentation dropped off at the expense of endless restrictions. Another irony was that the most memorable chapter is towards the end of the book where one of the characters starts to behave in an extreme and unpredictable way, and it creates a real eire atmosphere that turns the pace up! And it becomes a real story again! As you said Van Dine can’t avoid it wether he likes it or not. Well actually I think he could have avoided it, if he really went experimental and played with the limits of the form, but the fact that he took up a fairly conventional way of writing (for his own sake, or for money, for the fans, who knows in the end?) meant that he is sucked into the story form and not writing a dynamic mystery that a reader can really get into.


  4. As someone, who loves good atmosphere in his fiction, I definetely can’t agree with that part of Van Dine’s list (same with “no subtly worked-out character analyses”), and the part that I agree with, is basically the same as in Knox’s one: most of what is related to fair play. I haven’t read any of Van Dine’s stories yet, but I can imagine them being a bit dry.
    Atmosphere is something that makes you “feel” the world inside the story, draws you in and makes it memorable, and the characters are basically the heart of the story, so without all these it’s just it: a logic puzzle, even if it awesome by itself.
    I don’t really care about romance, but I also think that the “no love” rule is going a bit too far. After all, love can be a huge motive for a crime!
    Some of the rules seem to be here just because the author wanted to make it to 20. And the list of devices at the end is a bit ridiculous.
    This one is great though: “There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better”. Even though I quite enjoy Chesterton’s stories with no murder in them, I can get behind this one.

    This was a great discussion, and I am looking forward to the Knox one!


  5. I’d like to give an example of a fair-play mystery – downloading this episode onto my phone so I could listen on the go! I had to investigate to find the solution!

    Quite a lot of stuff on the list is the kind of advice that might be useful for helping a bad writer keep their book from being “bad” and reach “mediocre”. But good writers, as we can tell from the many golden age greats who are happy to break the rules, would just be held back if they followed the “rules”.

    The denying of atmosphere is very weird. It seems like it’s the most personal thing on the list, and also it’s contradicted by other things on the list. If the detective plot is pure puzzle, why does it matter if it involves a murder or if it’s a theft? Why is only “verisimilitude” necessary, but nothing more than that?


    • Once you get into fair play, it’s interesting how mny authors don’t subscribe to it, and you start to realise how integral is to to a certain tyoe of GAD novel only. The Sea Mystery by Crofts, of instance, is utterly spellbinding, but there’s no way that could be fair play — it’s genius clever, but not the sort of thing you play along with (as, indeed, have all Crofts’ books been to this point in my reading — I look forward to seeing if that’s always the case, or if he developed a clewing conscience over time).

      Atmosphere and setting seem inseparable to me: the second lacks without the first, and affects your appreciation of the context in which the action is happening. The book for review this Thursday has a definite setting but virtually no atmosphere and while I wouldn’t say it suffers as such, there’s a real sense of…something about the experience of reading it. Very enjoyable book, but could have been one for the anges with a bit more, er, something else.

      Thankfully I have a while to clarify these thoughts some more, so tune in Thursday for that…


    • Really well put Velleic. I think the atmosphere point does must be linked back to his love of abstraction in art, and his obsession with pure form therefore. But actually by setting that restriction he is limiting himself in a negative way, not in a way in which he can flex formal muscles and try something interesting, which he obviously more than capable of. It then lapses back into tropes, which then contradicts (as you say) many of the things he is claiming to fight against.


      • Now that’s a really interesting point you made there, about abstraction and his being an art critic. It almost makes me want to read a Van Dine book to see if he really does have that kind of approach… It’s always interesting to see a writer’s background and previous jobs come through in their work.


  6. As Captain Barbosa says “They’re more like guidelines!”

    A writer is probably best only breaking a couple of them at a time – and then with good reason. I’m sure we can all think of examples of all 20 rules being broken at one time or another. And when a rule is broken well, the work is normally more memorable because of it.

    As for romance, I think this can make us care more for the characters, so when there isn’t a happy ending for particular characters, this has more impact. I can think of at least one Christie where I cared for the killer’s spouse and their dreams for the future which were shattered when the truth was revealed.


    • Ah, yes, the unfulfilled romance, or ruined prospects, is often a wonderful way to get inside your sympathy bone. Superb point — there’s a tendency to imagine these things are always successful love stories — mainly because the majority of them are — but the failures, up-ending the rules, as you say, are where the good work is often done.

      But, then, as discussed above, does that justify the lazy ones? I think perhaps not, though clearly some authors — Berkeley, Brand, Carr, Christie — excelled at exploiting the opportunities that provided.


      • I like this idea of not breaking more than a few at once. We discuss this a bit more in the next episode (particularly with a little look at the Detection Club ‘rules’), and my feeling is that even if we as readers or the writers themselves say ‘it’s all tongue in cheek, not meant to be taken seriously’, we would still all baulk at a work in which too many liberties were taken with the form. Maybe we wouldn’t even call it a detective novel.


  7. Excellent episode as always, although I may have to discard the HP Lovecraft inspired locked room series I’ve been working on…

    Rules are fun for setting expectations, making them all the better when they’re cleverly broken. I can think of a few works where the author bends or breaks conventions to provide a nice impact. Of course, Van Dine’s rules are much more broad than what I’m talking about. Subverting the rule of “no romance” or “no atmosphere” is hardly akin to slipping a hidden passage into a locked room mystery and still providing a satisfying solution in spite of it.

    My favorite part of the conversation dealt with the topic of accidents. I think it swerves a little off of what Van Dine was going for, but the accidental impossible crime is almost always my favorite. John Dickson Carr has some excellent examples of crimes that were never intended to appear impossible, but something went awry and now the killer has cast an unintended spotlight on the circumstances of the murder.


    • I think your right, it does swerve from Van Dine in that as JJ rightfully said in the episode, if 50 detective novels came out this year and they all had suicide solutions it would be awful. And Van Dine is right to approach it with caution I think as it can be done very very badly as we all know (or simply used as an excuse not to write and actually good solution).

      On the other hand to say it must be true of all good detective novels is were Van Dine gets himself in a bind, and takes one step too far.


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