Another rule of theirs that makes me smile is "Absolutely no romance allowed."
Again, I'm a hopeless failure in this respect. All of my books have a romance going through them. Actually I LOVE books with that hint of romance in them. I LOVE characters who fall in love, have heartaches, disappointments, betrayals AND happy endings--don't you?
And when I read lists of rules I realize that I am not good at keeping most of them. In fact I'd probably get drummed out of the olden day Detection Circle.
Here are some of the most cited rules. See what you think? Do they still apply today? Should they?
1. In mystery writing, plot is everything.
This is where the mystery has really evolved from the whodunit to the whydunit. No longer just a puzzle, it's more a psychological drama. If I had to sum up a good mystery in one sentence I'd say IT'S ALL ABOUT THE SLEUTH. If we have an interesting, complex, human character to follow we will happily follow her through any twists and turns of plot. We will worry about her, fear for her and rejoice with her. My fans never say "I can't wait for your next complex plot." They say "When is Molly/Georgie coming back?"
2. Introduce both the detective and the culprit early on.
I agree with the first, since the story is the detective's story. And I do agree that you have to play fair. You can't introduce a character in the last chapter and say "I knew this serial killer was hiding in the neighborhood but I didn't want to scare anyone." But sometimes we don't meet my villain until later in the book. we may know of him earlier but not always.
3. Introduce the crime within the first three chapters of your mystery novel.
Sorry. I fail hopelessly at this one. Most of my crimes take place after we have set up a situation, brought characters together, let the reader see them interacting and tensions building. If we start with the crime it becomes the old fashioned whodunit, when I think the sleuth's life and situation is always equally important. However, I have heard of libraries who will not shelve a book as a mystery if there is no murder in the first three chapters.
4. The crime should be sufficiently violent -- preferably a murder.
Again I disagree. Where most mysteries involve a murder, I shy away from violence on the page, and I love reading books in which the crime is a clever art theft/forgery/bank heist. It's just that that is harder to pull off. It's awfully easy to kill someone.
5. The crime should be believable.
I agree that the aim of the writer should be to create a believable universe. All the same, any series mystery requires the reader to suspend disbelief. How can so many people be killed in Cabot Cove? Or St. Mary Mead? And we know that real police procedure involves weeks of paperwork and few exciting chases. And real CSI folk are not allowed to do any detective work. We create a semblance of reality but it has to feel real.
I would choose Miss Marple over Sherlock Holmes any day, and she uses good old knowledge of human nature. My sleuths use observation, intuition and a good sprinkling of luck--being in the right place at the right time. Personally I can't stand know it alls!
7. The culprit must be capable of committing the crime.
We're all capable of killing, physically. Anyone can pull a trigger, put poison in a tea cup. It's the motivation that's important. Would you or I kill if we were in a similar situation? How far must an ordinary person be pushed before he strikes back? For me we must make the villain a real person, believe in his tormented suffering/anger/jealousy so that we can see, when he is revealed, why he killed.
8. In mystery writing, don't try to fool your reader.
Isn't that what we try to do all the time? Red herrings, clever clues, a multiple list of suspects, all of whom have a good motive for wanting the victim dead? Personally I love it when I come to the end of the book and I have been fooled--but played fair with at the same time. Don't you?
This is the one that I completely agree with. I have read so many books about Victorian or Edwardian England that make me cringe in the way that characters address each other, or in their lack of basic knowledge of London. If I find one thing wrong, I give up. How can I believe in the rest of the story now? I just started a book in which they say that the fall term hasn't yet started at Oxford. Sorry--it's the Michaelmas term at Oxford. How can I believe that you've been there if you don't know that?
10. Wait as long as possible to reveal the culprit.,
Of course. The plot does tend to fall flat after the murderer has been revealed, but in real life would we summon everyone in the story together, including the murderer--who might have a semi automatic weapon hidden in his socks--and say "I have brought you here to name the killer?"
So my take is--there are no rules. You play fair. You create terrific characters. You make your sleuth have a hard time, both in the case and his private life. You set the story in a real, vibrant place and time. And apart from that it's up to you.
AND..you add a little romance if you want to!
So Reds and Readers--should there be rules?