Monday, March 18, 2013

How to write a crime novel – or not

As I said in my last blog, I am giving a lecture soon about Dorothy L Sayers and have been immersed in the crime fiction of the Golden Age.

It has got me thinking how much crime fiction has changed. For Sayers, the puzzle was all. She was much less interested in the Who or the Why; it was all about the How – indeed, she got slightly irritated that readers were so keen to focus on whodunit when the really interesting part was the ingenuity of the method. Development of character was a threat to the proper direction of the novel; it was only in the later books, once Harriet Vane appeared on the scene, that Sayers allowed herself to be seduced by the charm of her two protagonists and  permitted their relationship to develop, to the extent that Busman’s Honeymoon was subtitled ‘A love story with detective interruptions.’

Her friend, Monsignor Ronald Knox spelled out the rules for crime fiction in 1929 in the Detective Story Decalogue.

  1. The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.
  2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
  3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
  4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation.
  5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.
  6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
  7. The detective must not himself commit the crime.
  8. The detective must not  light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
  9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
  10. Two brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

I doubt if following these rather tongue-in-cheek recommendations would actually be much help to the modern writer aiming at publication – but then, to tell you the awful truth I’m not absolutely sure that, for all the modern how-to manuals that line bookshop shelves and occupy writing websites, they really do either.

There weren’t so many around when I was struggling to get my first book published. Certainly, when I came across an article by a best-selling author sharing tips for success I would read it avidly and become hugely enthused and certain I had it all sorted, until I actually sat down at my desk again and realised it didn't really help at all if the ideas and the drive to tell a story wasn't there.

Of course, it’s all very detailed and sophisticated now. There’s always analysis of these vital elements a book must have, like the ‘three acts’ structure, or  peaks of action plotted like a graph, or the crucial  ‘hooks’ to be placed at the end of the chapters.

When I did read one of them for the first time, I looked back at the books I had written with some amazement and even delight, like Moliere’s Bourgeois Gentilhomme who was enchanted to discover that all the time he thought he’d just been talking, he’d been speaking in prose. I’d more or less done the sort of thing they were talking about but I thought I was just writing a book, not creating a structure – and probably the really great names in crime fiction are the ones whose books actually don't conform to the rules at all. After all, despite sending Sherlock Holmes into Chinese opium dens, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did all right.

I always come back to W. Somerset Maugham’s dictum: ‘There are three rules for writing a novel.  Unfortunately no one knows what they are.’

 

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