The Game of Death
‘The Detection Club Oath’ in The Art of the Mystery Story edited by Howard Haycraft
Do you solemnly swear never to conceal a vital clue from the reader?
I love a good detective story. Of all the sub-genres within crime fiction, this one most often captures my imagination and inspires me to write my own stories.
At its best, detective fiction is a battle of wits between the reader and the author. The challenge for the reader of this game is in trying to solve the crime before the detective. Therefore, the author has to create a mystery with enough twists, turns and red herrings to keep the reader guessing. Yet they must still provide enough clues to make reaching the correct solution possible. This delicate balance is very difficult to achieve.
All good games have rules and the lists written over the years fascinate me. Most of these rules were written during the Golden Age of Detective Fiction and many have not aged well. For example, one of Ronald Knox’s rules is,
“No Chinaman must figure in the story.” Ronald Knox, ‘Detective Story Decalogue’ in The Art of the Mystery Story edited by Howard Haycraft Others rules seem too restrictive, like S.S. Van Dine’s injunction that,
“There must be no love interest.” S.S. Van Dine, ‘Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories’ in The Art of the Mystery Story edited by Howard Haycraft
However, for authors, part of the pleasure of rules, seems to be the challenge of writing successful detective stories that break them. If Dorothy L. Sayers had listened to Van Dine, Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane would never have met. Likewise, I’m glad Agatha Christie didn’t obey the rules about the who should never be the culprit. If she had, she wouldn’t have written two of the most famous detective novels, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Murder on the Orient Express.
Sayers and Christie were both members of The Detection Club and this society’s oath is something I often return to when planning a mystery. At its heart is the principle that a reader should be presented with the same clues as the detective. For me, the most satisfying detective stories are not the ones I can solve quickly, but the ones where I follow the clues along with the detective. I always hope to solve the case just before they reveal the answer. The author’s ability to achieve this elusive balance is something that sets apart many of the great detective stories.
I love to write detective stories. It is difficult, time-consuming and often makes my brain hurt. However, when all the pieces fall into place, the sense of satisfaction I feel makes it all worthwhile.
May your adventures be full
of mystery and magic
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