Writing A Detective Novel ~ The Rules

Investigation

 

 

As in life…some rules can safely be broken, others can’t. Determining which is which often demonstrates who is the proficient writer and who is not.

Quite a few of the rules for writing detective stories are similar to those for writing murder mysteries, suspense novels, and thrillers. Others are very different.

BASIC RULES:

1. The story must have a detective, or detective partners as its main character(s). These can be duly sworn police detectives, fire department arson investigators, licensed private investigators, FBI special agents, homeland security investigators and the like, or military police officers of high enough rank to be investigating crimes. They are law enforcement professionals on the case to solve a particular crime or series of crimes.

2. The story must have a victim or victims. Usually there is a dead body, preferably more than one. But the crime could be kidnap, or arson that did not result in murder, or perhaps eco-terrorism resulting in corpses or not. The crime could involve the brutalization or killing of animals (especially if the detective is a park ranger). Most often there is a human murder or murders.

3. The detective story is an intellectual game, much like solving a puzzle or playing chess. There are opponents in this game. The detective is pitted against the criminal. They must be equally matched for it to be a good game. Although the reader knows the detective is going to win, for it to be a compelling story,  it has to feel at times, as if the criminal might triumph over the detective. The criminal must be clever enough to inflict some mental, emotional, and/or physical damage on the detective(s).

4. The old axiom was that the criminal’s identity must be unknown to both the detective(s) and the reader until the very end. This is still largely true. If the criminal’s identity is know the story becomes suspense. Lately, there’s been some line blurring in this area. In the modern market place, many genres have blurry lines.

5. The criminal should be introduced early in the story, amidst a field of plausible red herrings.  There’s nothing worse than having the criminal sprung on the reader, out of the blue, at the last minute. There could be more than one culprit. So, secondary culprits can be introduced later. Still, it’s sort of cheating to wait till the very end even for those to be brought into the story line. Don’t want to give the reader a bait-and-switch feeling. Finding out who the killer is at the end ~ good. Introducing the killer at the end ~ bad idea.

6. The crime should also be introduced at the beginning. It’s been said within the first three chapters. The first chapter is best. Opening up in the very midst of it, helps grab the reader’s attention. The specific crime must fit the criminal’s psyche and personality, and he/she must have had the know-how and ability to commit said crime.

7. Supply plausible and understandable clues that both give hints as to the identity of the criminal, and also clues that point to others who are merely red herrings. Also leave clues as to the motive for the crime(s).

8. In days gone by, it was almost written in stone that the detective story is simply one of detecting, that no social issues must be brought into it and certainly no romance. This is no longer the case. Readers enjoy a detective protagonist with a social conscience, or definite lack thereof. It makes him/her more interesting. In the same way a love interest for the detective often gives her/him an Achilles’ heel which the crafty criminal can take advantage of. The Christian detective story must have inspirational or redemptive elements to it. However, in the detective sub-genre, the overwhelming majority of the plot must be about the protagonist detective(s) detecting and solving the crime(s), or else it’s not a detective story.

9. The crime must not be solved by super-natural or extraordinary means. The criminal can’t be caught via psychic powers, magic, assistance from ghosts, aliens from another planet, or the like. Those scenarios make the story speculative fiction, not a detective story. Although in today’s world, it’s entirely possible to have a spec fic detective story, but that book would not be shelved with detective stories in a book store. Then again, you might hit a bookstore where it would be. Go figure.

Murder

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About NikeChillemi

Nike Chillemi has been called a crime fictionista due to her passion for crime fiction. She writes literature that reads like pulp fiction. She likes her bad guys really bad, and her good guys smarter and better. She is the founder and chair of the Grace Awards, a member of ACFW. She has judged numerous literary awards including the Grace Awards, Carol Awards, Inspy Awards, and the Eric Hoffer Awards. View all posts by NikeChillemi

7 responses to “Writing A Detective Novel ~ The Rules

  • P. T. Bradley

    Thank you for posting this. There are so many subgenres of mystery.

    Like

  • Terri Main

    Actually, there is a sub-genre of detective fiction in which the detective uses supernatural powers to apprehend the crook in part. It’s not really new either. In the 70s there was a TV show called My Partner the Ghost and they were private eyes with one being a ghost that only the other could see.

    However, the supernatural stuff in these stories rarely solves the case. At most, it usually does nothing more than provide an additional clue. It is not a deus ex machina that does all the work for the detective.

    It’s still brainwork and piecing the clues together.

    Good set of guidelines though. Enjoyed reading it.

    Like

    • NikeChillemi

      Terri, The lines do get blurred. I’d put My Partner the Ghost in the cozy spec fic detective category. LOL

      If the case is solved by good old detective investigation, then it might indeed be a detective story.

      Like

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  • Cathe

    Great article. Thank you. I love these lists. The ones by Chandler and Knox are good, but my favorite is the one by S.S. Van Dine – His #15 is awesome advice:
    “The truth of the problem must at all times be apparent–provided the reader is shrewd enough to see it. By this I mean that if the reader, after learning the explanation for the crime, should reread the book, he would see that the solution had, in a sense, been staring him in the face–that all the clues really pointed to the culprit–and that, if he had been as clever as the detective, he could have solved the mystery himself without going on to the final chapter. ”

    He wrote in 1928, which is definitely “days gone by” as you say in your point #8. He said:

    3. There must be no love interest in the story. To introduce amour is to clutter up a purely intellectual experience with irrelevant sentiment. The business in hand is to bring a criminal to the bar of justice, not to bring a lovelorn couple to the hymeneal altar.

    I am pinning your list to my pinterest board!

    Like

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