If you are interested in blogging or want to promote your book, please contact E. B. Davis at writerswhokill@gmail.com.

September Interviews

9/2 Dianne Freeman, A Lady's Guide to Mischief and Murder

9/9 Ellen Byron, Murder in the Bayou Boneyard

9/16 Marilyn Levinson, writing as Allison Brook, Checked Out for Murder

9/23 Rhys Bowen, The Last Mrs. Summers

9/30 Sherry Harris, From Beer To Eternity

September Guest Bloggers

9/19 Judy Alter

WWK Weekend Bloggers

9/5 V. M. Burns

9/12 Jennifer J. Chow

9/26 Kait Carson


Keenan Powell recently signed with agent Amy Collins of Talcott Notch. Congratulations, Keenan!

KM Rockwood's "Secrets To The Grave" will appear in the new SinC Chesapeake Chapter's new anthology Invitation To Murder, which will be released by Wildside Press on 10/6.

Congratulations to our two Silver Falchion Finalists Connie Berry and Debra Goldstein!

Paula Gail Benson's "Cosway's Confidence" placed second and Debra Goldstein's "Wabbit's Carat" received Honorable Mention in the Bethlehem Writers Roundtable 2020 short story contest. Congratulations, Paula and Debra!

Susan Van Kirk's Three May Keep A Secret has been republished by Harlequinn's Worldwide Mystery. The WWK interview about the book can be accessed here. We're so glad another publisher picked up this series.

KM Rockwood's "Burning Desire," and Paula Gail Benson's "Living One's Own Truth," have been published in the anthology Heartbreaks & Half-truths. Congratulations to all of the WWK writers.

Please join Margaret S. Hamilton's Kings River Life podcast of her short story "Busted at the Book Sale" here. Congratulations, Margaret!

Look Margaret S. Hamilton's short stories in the new Mid-Century Murder by Darkhouse Books. Margaret's story is titled "4BR/3.5BA Contemporary."

Grace Topping's second novel in Laura Bishop staging series, Staging Wars, was released by Henery Press on April 28th. Look for the interview here from April 29th.

Annette Dashofy's 10th Zoe Chambers mystery, Til Death, will be released on June 16th. Look for the interview here on June 17.


Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Detective Fiction by John Desjarlais

A former producer with Wisconsin Public Radio, John Desjarlais teaches journalism and English at Kishwaukee College in northern Illinois. His first novel, The Throne of Tara (Crossway 1990, re-released 2000), was a Christianity Today Readers Choice Award nominee, and his medieval thriller, Relics (Thomas Nelson 1993, re-released 2009) was a Doubleday Book Club Selection. Bleeder and Viper (Sophia Institute Press, 2009 and 2011 respectively) are the first two entries in a contemporary mystery series. A member of The Academy of American Poets and Mystery Writers of America, he is listed in Who's Who in Entertainment and Who's Who Among America's Teachers.

A helpful way to read detective fiction is to be aware of "the rules of the game," as mystery writers call it. The characteristics of detective fiction that began with Edgar Allan Poe developed into a fairly rigid "code" for other writers to follow, and there are several famous such ‘codes’ compiled by different writers and theorists over the decades. Father Knox’s Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction is one; 20 Rules by SS Van Dine is another; Dorothy Sayers and the Detection Club had another list. Here is a compilation:

1. In its basic structure, the detective story must never vary from being absolutely logical.
2. A completely unpardonable sin is the substitution of accident, chance, or coincidence for logical deduction (no supernatural intervention, either).
3. The detective story must always play fair: no evidence can be made known to the reader, which remains unknown to the detective, and vice-versa.
4. All action must proceed from the central theme of the crime and the pursuit of the criminal.
5. No human frailties, like stupidity or a poor memory, can change or prolong the plot in any way.

There are some secondary rules, especially for the traditional puzzle that involves an amateur killer:

1. The crime must be murder.
2. The killer's motive must be strong enough to induce an amateur to commit murder
3. All suspects must be real suspects, the killer must be one of the suspects (don't bring in a new character at the end)
4. The murder must be pre-meditated, or if it is a crime of passion, or unintended, it must be ingeniously covered up.
5. The killer should be an intelligent, competent amateur, the crime elegantly planned which, except for the brilliant detective, would go unsolved.
6. Clues should be clearly presented. All information given to the detective must be given to the reader. This is called "Fair Play."
7. The detective is not superhuman but uses reasoning to fit the clues together .

These are not rules, but nice to have:

1. The detective is fun if unusual, fallible, and has personal problems.
2. Lead characters should grow and change
3. The detective should have a profession that allows him/her to spend time, money, and energy on the crime
4. Don't treat police as idiots
5. Don't make the victim an angel or the killer thoroughly evil.
6. The killer must be an amateur who has not killed before and does not plan to kill again - no serial killers, psychos, random killings (unless it's a police procedural or a ‘thriller’ – the traditional ‘puzzle’ mystery dislikes such matters).
7. The story must be moral in that BAD is punished, GOOD rewarded, and the universe is restored to harmony and balance.
8. In the classic whodunnit, the killer should be near the victim, and use an ordinary means
9. It is desirable for the murder to occur early in the story so the puzzle is whodunnit, not when-will-the-writer-get-down-to-business.
10. It helps if there is a deadline to beat; a "ticking clock."

Clearly, there are exceptions. Obviously, there are different expectations across sub-genres such as the police procedural, the caper or the PI story. And we know full well that real crime isn’t so tidy as all this; there is random violence, gang shootings and crimes of mayhem that are so horrible they can’t really be treated lightly in ‘the mystery’ as an entertainment. So I realize these ‘rules’ are limited. But they assisted me in writing my first two mysteries and I hope you’ll appreciate reading mysteries more having seen ‘the rules’, such as they are.

The reader only has 2 rules:

1. Don't read the end.
2. Don't tell Whodunnit.

John Desjarlais

Look for John’s newest book, Viper, released by Sophia Institute Press in July, at Ingram or Amazon. John’s website is: http://www.johndesjarlais.com/.

On All Souls Day, Selena De La Cruz’s name is entered in her parish church's “Book of the Deceased.” The problem is, she's not dead. And someone thinks she should be. Is it "The Snake," a notorious drug dealer Selena helped to put in prison when she was a Special Agent with the DEA years ago? Or someone far, far more dangerous?


Donnell Ann Bell said...

What a fascinating blog, and an educational piece! Thanks, E.B. for bringing Mr. Desjarlais to us. I will refer to these rules often!

Mr. Desjarlais: I'm curious about one rule. The crime must always be murder. Joelle Charbonneau's Skating Over the Line involves car thefts. A body doesn't actually shoe up until page 204. So she kind of skates over these rules . Her comment was that if every small town had as many murders as say Jessica Fletcher's Cabot Cove, the population would be down to zero. What are your thoughts on this?

Second. Edgar Allen Poe. What a name to live up to. What a master.

Thanks for your wonderful post.

E. B. Davis said...

Good points Donnell. I'm going to compare his rules with the stories that I read in Ellery Queen, which features detective fiction. My main characters aren't detectives. I have detectives in my manuscripts, but they aren't my main interest. Thanks for the blog, John.

johnny dangerous said...

Donnell: Well, the crime can be anything - counterfeiting, kidnapping, extortion, robbery, and on - but most readers of the genre expect a body or two, and murder is the crime with the highest stakes - the theft of a human life and the ultimate assault on human dignity and personhood. -- Most writers fudge a little with the 'rules' and even the great Agatha Christie broke them gleefully (even if she had a part in defining the 'rules' for the British Detection Club). But that's part of the 'game' of detective fiction - to play fair with the rules - usually - to outwit the clever reader. -- Yes, I've heard that about Cabot Cove. At some point, the small-town-amateur-sleuth premise begins to stretch credulity because of the body count and the coincidence of the amateur needing to get involved. This is why PI or police procedural stories have an edge in the genre, since the protagonists have crime and trouble as partof their professions.

Warren Bull said...

I've read parts of the rules in various places. Thank you for putting them all together. I'm going to use your post as a reference.

Pauline Alldred said...

Thank you for assembling so many rules together. I wasn't aware of them all. I've used relatives or friends of the victim or suspect because the relative or friend has a high stake in finding the killer or keeping a loved one out of jail. Then the rules about not treating the police as idiots and making the killer smart and sneaky apply.

johnny dangerous said...

The practice of presenting police as near-fools begins with Poe and the tradition of 'the brilliant detective'. Auguste Dupin appears to be all the more brilliant when his foil is a police officer who is lower-class and not as fast intellectually. Dupin's sidekick, too, the unnamed American journalist, is also slower. This is repeated with Sherlock Holmes, whose sidekick is slower and who confounds Lestrade, the police Inspectr. Hercule Poirot continues the tradition with the hapless Captain Hastings and Inspector Japp. However, when we reach the late 40s and 1950s, police forensics and lab work take a huge leap forward and the brilliant independent investigator who outwits the police becomes an anachronism.

Anonymous said...

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