Rules for detective stories

Twenty rules for writing detective stories (1928) by S.S. Van Dine

Over at one of my favourite blogs, Another 52 books , Bibliophile reviews some novels by John Dickinson Carr and Georgette Heyer in detective mode. Bibliophile mentions the classic 1928 rules for writing detective stories, by "S S van Dine"(although she mentions the rules in the Heyer post, they apply also to the Dickson Carr post from what she says and what I remember of DC’s plots). I have read these rules before but, being reminded of them, went to read them again.

They are still pretty cool today, on the whole. Bibliophile refers to Heyer breaking rule 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". Well, that rule would eliminate the vast proportion of post-1928 crime fiction.

Bibliophile says she may return to this list in a future posting: I hope she does as what she says will be a good read.

In the meantime, many current authors of the genre could do well to remind themselves of these rules. It is frustrating when they are broken (well, not rule 3), for example when the villain is unmasked and you can’t remember who they are because they appeared briefly in chapter 2 and not again thereafter (Janet Evanovich); or when the denoument relies on a conversation between two characters that the reader is not told about (Laura Lippman).

Also of delight is rule 20, which lists "a few of the devices which no self-respecting detective story writer wil now avail himself of. They have been employed too often, and are familiar to all true lovers of literary crime." One of these is the dog that does not bark in the night, a cliche even in 1928, it seems.

JFK and Martyrs’

I read today that the people of Dallas, Texas really do not like the JFK memorial and want to replace it with something less like a giant egg box (or Lego as some have it). Apparently the reason it was done that way is becuase Mr Kennedy’s widow liked the style of the architect. Most other people think Kennedy deserved something better, according to an architect called Witold Rybczynski. It is said that nobody much visits the memorial, preferring instead to see the grassy knoll where the assassination took place, and where the only acknowledgement is a "barely visible" cross on the road.

This immediately put me in mind of the Martyrs’ Memorial in Oxford, a beautiful local landmark in the centre of the city, looking like the sunken spire of a cathedral ("meet you at the Martyrs’ ", say the locals). This memorial is, of course, to bishops Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer, who were burnt at the stake for their Protestant beliefs in the time of Bloody Mary. No doubt St Giles was a busy Victorian thoroughfare when the gothic landmark was built, as it is a short walk from the actual site of the execution. At that sad place there is a plain iron cross bolted into the road. In some ways, the cross is more poignant, and memorable, to me than the "real" memorial, despite its beauty. Maybe the people coming to remember Kennedy feel the same way.

Honesty pays

Beatrix Potter’s letter to a six-year-old fan apologising for writing and pubishing "The tale of Pigling Bland" has been sold at auction for 8,200 pounds sterling. Apparently the author was under pressure to meet a Christmas deadline, was not well, and so submitted an inferior work — which was duly published. The letter, decorated with pigs, was written in 1913.

Apart from the obvious points about authors who produce a book a year after they attain the bestseller charts, irrespective of maintaining quality, the Beatrix Potter letter made me wonder how many children’s authors are still so popular 100 years after their books are published. Children in the UK are still bought up on Beatrix Potter. Peter Rabbit and co were my first books. My sisters and I shared my mother’s childhood copies. We still have those, which were read by our own children (though my children preferred modern copies). But it isn’t just my family: Beatrix Potter is everywhere in bookshops, libraries, people’s houses, etc.

Apart from their shared Lake District origins, my mother always rated the books because Beatrix Potter did not use simple language: she wrote using complicated words and assumed children would absorb the sense, or be stimulated to ask what the words meant. One reason I liked the books as a child is that the animals were so naughty — Peter Rabbit and the lettuce, Hunca Munca’s faux housekeeping, Tom Kitten’s ruining his best clothes, etc. The books are short, beautifully illustrated, and written in such a refreshing, direct style — the authorial voice treating the child-reader as another sensible adult in a joint observation of the quaint doings of the animals. And unsentimental, too — Jemima Puddle Duck’s eggs being a case in point even though Mr Tod did not get to have them for dinner. Pigling Bland also — his mother packing her innocent offspring off to the marketplace — this one is longer than the average, but I quite liked it despite the revealed apology by the author. One child I know was quite obsessed with it.

I think Beatrix Potter was right to use the language she did, as when I came to read her books to my own children, not only did I witness their enjoyment, but I found I had remembered them well (though I can’t have understood quite a lot of the words), whereas those by most other authors read at a very early age are forgotten.

If Beatrix Potter’s books aren’t a great example of what children are capable of enjoying without receiving patronising, dumbed-down input, I don’t know what is. And apart from fairy tales, which don’t really have "authors", I can’t call to mind other "very young children’s" books that have endured on the same scale and over the time period of Beatrix Potter’s.