copyright 2011 Ron Adams
As with everything in life, there are rules to writing a good mystery. They are very good guidelines, but, as they say some rules are made to be broken. Or to paraphrase the Dalai Lama, it is important to understand the rules in order to break them. So, according to people much brighter than I, these are the rules (and my suggestions for working around them):
1) The reader should have the same opportunity as the Hero to solve the crime.
2) No tricks can be played to mislead the reader unless it is also done to the Hero by the criminal. (Let’s face it, Gang, we all know some pretty tricky criminals, don’t we?)
3) The Hero should not have a love interest. (Here I disagree. I think the Hero/hero could be well served to have a love interest. It brings out another aspect of the character, how they deal with a lover while investigating the crime, and the conflicts that arise as a result of his/her involvement in the case. I immediately think of Spenser and Susan Silverman, Temperance Brennan and Andrew Ryan, and Stephanie Plum and…you get the idea.)
4) Neither the Hero nor one of the official investigators can turn out to be the criminal. (Again, I disagree. I think it can make for a really interesting twist to have one of the chief investigators working with the hero turn out to be hampering the case. It has to be handled carefully, but I believe it can be done.)
5) The villain must be found by logical deduction, not luck, accident, or un-motivated confessions. (Hard and fast commandment here.)
6) It must be a murder mystery. (The murder may not have to happen right away, but someone important has got to die.)
7) The solution must come by "naturalistic means.” (This means no divine intervention/inspiration.)
8) There can be only one Hero, not a team. (Where would Spenser be without Hawk? Nick Charles without Nora? Sherlock Holmes without Watson? Teams can work if handled properly, especially when each member has a unique POV.)
9) The villain has to be someone who plays a prominent part of the story. After all, he/she is at least as important as the Hero, right?
10) The culprit can't be a servant. (But then again, a disgruntled employee…)
11) There can only be one murderer. The villain could have a helper or "co-plotter," but only one is going to get the ax in the matter. (Consider this: the helper could wind up taking the ax for real murderer. Puts a slightly different twist on the story, and could set up a darker ending.)
12) No secret societies ("mafias, et al"). The murderer, too, needs a sporting chance to outwit the Hero. The villain may belong to a cult, a sect, or other shadowy type of group. But in the end, it is the individual, not the group, that is the real culprit.
13) The method of the murder must not be beyond plausibility. No super-natural means, nor the introduction of a fictional device or element. (Realism is the key here, but so is creativity within the framework of reality.)
15) The truth of the solution must be apparent. The reader should be able to pick the book upon completion and see that the answer was in fact staring at him all the time.
16) The culprit must be an amateur, not a professional criminal. (Just a minute. Why can’t the Hero be involved in bringing down a hitman, for example, or even an organized crime boss? The Hero may have more freedom to maneuver than the regular police.)
17) The solution must never be an accident or suicide. That’s just lazy and it cheats the reader.
18) Motives for the crime must be personal, not political or professional. ( Why? I have read more than my share of stories about ideologues taking their views to the extreme. Why not have the Hero track down one of these deluded individuals before they can kill again?)
19) All of the following tricks and devices are verboten. They've been done to death or are otherwise unfair.
a) Comparing a cigarette butt with the suspect's cigarette.
b) Using a séance to frighten the culprit into revealing himself.
c) Using phony fingerprints.
d) Using a dummy figure to establish a false alibi.
e) Learning that the culprit was familiar because the dog didn't bark.
f) Having "the twin" do it.
g) Using knockout drops.
h) If the murder is in a locked room, it has to be done before the police have actually broken in.
i) Using a word-association test for guilt.
j) Having the solution in a coded message that takes the Hero until the end of book to figure out.
These are just my ideas on how to bend the accepted rules for mystery writing. Now, go ahead, have some fun, and commit your own crimes against society and literature. I’m no stool pigeon.