Twelve Notes on the Mystery Story (Revised April 18, 1948)
The following twelve notes were written by Raymond Chandler all the way back in 1948. They comment on what he percieved to be an ongoing issue within mystery stories as well as the solution. The notes are incredibly detailed and actually still fairly applicable today. When so many of the top ten bestsellers end up being crime fiction, thrillers and the ilk, it’s important to note when they fail in terms of their main objectives. I’m not going to analyse these in terms of one specific novel, but I will be dipping in and out of storylines to show what works and what doesn’t work.
In any case, these rules make for really interesting reading on their own (hence why I’ve left them verbatim in the post).
1. It must be credibly motivated, both as to the original situation and the denouement; it must consist of the plausible actions of plausible people in plausible circumstances, it being remembered that plausibility is largely a matter of style. This requirement rules out most trick endings and a great many “closed circle” stories in which the least likely character is forcibly made over into the criminal, without convincing anybody. It also rules out such elaborate mises-en-scene as Christie’s Murder in a Calais Coach, where the whole setup for the crime requires such a fluky set of happenings that it could never seem real.
Credible motivation is something of a problem in novels, TV and cinema these days. It’s a losing battle really to create plausible stories without becoming predictable and it’s the mark of a brilliant writer when a story can feel natural and realistic, and still shock you with a resolution. Take a look at Fight Club. What’s the motivation in Fight Club? Repressed masculinity causes a businessman to create an uber-macho alter-ego. That this information comes at the end of the story, yet feels fairly natural is quite impressive. There’s benefit to re-reading the novel when you know this information, and it never feels as though Tyler Durden being the imaginary friend has come out of left-field.
2. It must be technically sound as to the methods of murder and detection. No fantastic poisons or improper effects from poison such as death from nonfatal doses, etc. No use of silencers on revolvers (they won’t work) or snakes climbing bellropes (“The Speckled Band”). Such things at once destroy the foundation of the story. If the detective is a trained policeman, he must act like one, and have the mental and physical equipment that go with the job. If he is a private investigator or amateur, he must at least know enough about police methods not to make an ass of himself. When a policeman is made out to be a fool, as he always was on the Sherlock Holmes stories, this not only depreciates the accomplishment of the detective but it makes the reader doubt the author’s knowledge of his own field. Conan Doyle and Poe were primitives in this art and stand in relation to the best modern writers as Giotto does to da Vinci. They did things which are no longer permissible and exposed ignorances that are no longer tolerated. Also, police art, itself, was rudimentary in their time. “The Purloined Letter” would not fool a modern cop for four minutes. Conan Doyle showed no knowledge whatever of the organization of Scotland Yard’s men. Christie commits the same stupidities in our time, but that doesn’t make them right. Contrast Austin Freeman, who wrote a story about a forged fingerprint ten years before police method realized such things could be done.
Or the Jeff Goldblum rule. This is a fairly easy trap to fall into and I’ve read countless stories and seen numerous TV shows and films where this rule is completely ignored. The problems come when you sit down to write dialogue and storylines where your character is a genius. So the problem comes when the writer isn’t a genius. The common method to overcome this is by dumbing down the rest of the characters around, and thereby making your genius character seem that much smarter. Either that or the writer doesn’t even bother, and just gives the character simple solutions that make everyone else seem completely useless (see most Russell T Davies episodes of Doctor Who.)
3. It must be honest with the reader. This is always said, but the implications are not realized. Important facts not only must not be concealed, they must not be distorted by false emphasis. Unimportant facts must not be projected in such a way as to make them portentous. (This creation of red herrings and false menace out of trick camera work and mood shots if the typical Hollywood mystery picture cheat.) Inferences from the facts are the detective’s stock in trade; but he should disclose enough to keep the reader’s mind working. It is arguable, although not certain, that inferences arising from special knowledge (e.g., Dr. Thorndyke) are a bit of a cheat, because the basic theory of all good mystery writing is that at some stage not too late in the story the reader did have the materials to solve the problem. If specal scientific knowledge was necessary to interpret the facts, the reader did not have the solution unless he had the special knowledge. It may have been Austin Freeman’s feeling about this that led him to the invention of the inverted detective story, in which the reader knows the solution from the beginning and takes his pleasure from watching the detective trace it out a step at a time.
There’s a trend within television shows to throw mysteries at the viewer. Most of these are intended to do nothing more than provide some fraudulent narrative thrust, to keep viewers on the edge of their seats and make them want to come back for more. Some of these shows do this fairly well (take a bow Battlestar Galactica and Mad Men) and some do this fairly terribly. Lost is a prime example. Lost throws red herrings at you like there’s no tomorrow and when you look back and actually follow the story through (with the ending in mind) there’s far too many loose ends that now feel as though the writers were just throwing things into the story for the sake of mystery. I spoke of Mad Men just a moment ago as being a show where the mystery works. (Spoilers ahead). Early in the first couple of episodes, our main character Don Draper is travelling to work on a train when he’s approached by someone who thinks he’s someone else. This scene is only around a minute long, and at the time seems completely inconsequential. It’s only later in the series that this small moment comes to make sense. Red herrings only exist to frustrate and turn off viewers and readers.
4. It must be realistic as to character, setting, and atmosphere. It must be about real people in the real world. Very few mystery writers have any talent for character work, but that doesn’t mean it is not necessary. It makes the difference between the story you reread and remember and the one you skim through and almost instantly forget. Those like Valentine Williams who say the problem overrides everything are merely trying to cover up their own inability to create character.
I think this is one where the rules fall down a little. The second part I couldn’t agree with more, as per something I wrote on my own blog. There is definitely a tendency for writers to focus so much more on story and plot now than character, and this kind of writing can be really detrimental to a story. I mean, how many times can we read a story about Dan Brown’s thinly veiled cipher/professor who has no personality whatsoever aside from being quite good at “Zodiac iconography”. And how about Stephen King (as much as I love, and I do love, some of his stories), how many failed alcoholic writers can be traumatised in Maine? I know you write what you know, but seriously, some writers need to know more. It’s that first sentence that makes me feel these rules are a little out of time. Surely realism is completely relative. Look at Life on Mars – a brilliant show, but completely unrealistic. Of course, that’s the whole point of the show, it isn’t about real people, or about the real world, but that doesn’t make Sam Tyler’s story any less compelling, nor the mystery of where is he, any less interesting.
5. It must have a sound story value apart from the mystery element; i.e., the investigation itself must be an adventure worth reading.
Dan Brown I’m looking at you, and Lee Child, and John Grisham and in fact anyone you can pick up in the top ten bestsellers at an airport (unless they are pink or have been written by Katie Price). Where’s the joy in being an incredibly well told story? When did it suddenly become fine to write thinly veiled travel writing with a bit of a chase around it, and/or a conspiracy involving historical figures. The writing tends to be a case of characters run from A-B find a new clue and go from B-C and so on. There’s no satsifaction watching characters play a city wide game of hide and seek. That’s not even an investigation. That’s a party game.
6. To achieve this it must have some form of suspense, even if only intellectual. This does not mean menace and especially it does not mean that the detective must be menaced by grave personal danger. This last is a trend and like all trends will exhaust itself by overimitation. Nor need the reader be kept hanging on the edge of his chair. The overplotted story can be dull too; too much shock may result in numbness to shock. But there must be conflict, physical, ethical or emotional, and there must be some element of danger in the broadest sense of the word.
Again, one of the most common mistakes of modern mystery stories. Look at something like Vertigo, an absolutely brilliant mystery. The main character isn’t really in grave danger (although it is quite personal), but we’re captivated throughout. His life, for the majority of the story isn’t really in danger, but we want to know what’s going on. Now look at say, any modern thriller, The Millenium trilogy, Harry Potter (they may be fantasy but those books are structured entirely as thrillers), Dan Brown, John Grisham – these are books that needn’t be putting the main characters lives on the line, but they do it in a quest to create a false jeopardy within the story.
7. It must have color, lift, and a reasonable amount of dash. It takes an awful lot of technical adroitness to compensate for a dull style, although it has been done, especially in England.
8. It must have enough essential simplicity to be explained easily when the time comes. (This is possibly the most often violated of all the rules). The ideal denouement is one in which everything is revealed in a flash of action. This is rare because ideas that good are always rare. The explanation need not be very short (except on the screen), and often it cannot be short; but it must be interesting in itself, it must be something the reader is anxious to hear, and not a new story with a new set of characters, dragged in to justify an overcomplicated plot. Above all the explanation must not be merely a long-winded assembling of minute circumstances which no ordinary reader could possibly be expected to remember. To make the solution dependent on this is a kind of unfairness, since here again the reader did not have the solution within his grasp, in any practical sense. To expect him to remember a thousand trivialities and from them to select that three that are decisive is as unfair as to expect him to have a profound knowledge of chemistry, metallurgy, or the mating habits of the Patagonian anteater.
You can’t really argue with this point…mostly because it’s such a long rule! This is quite a nice forum covering the most convoluted mysteries in crime film. But essentially, a lot of stories end up being a bit too simple. Take The Historian, for example. Hyped up to be the next De Vinci Code, it’s a simple travelogue mystery with a writer following clues to find a supposed grave of Dracula, only to discover a long lost relative who claims the whole thing was just set up for her to find him. That is simple to the point where it infuriates the reader. A mystery that works in the complete opposite way is Choke (spoilers abound here). The main character visits his mother in a mental home and discovers her diaries, written in a foreign language. A helpful nurse deciphers them and tells him that his mother believes he is the second coming of Christ. The mystery reveals itself at the end when it’s discovered that the nurse in question is actually just a mental patient herself and was making the whole thing up. This most simple of explanations, is actually one of the most satisfying conclusions to a novel in recent memory – offering up a giant cry of ‘of course!’ from the reader, rather than an angry, ‘that was it?!’ that a lot of novels do.
9. It must baffle a reasonably intelligent reader. This opens up a very difficult question. Some of the best detective stories ever written (those of Austin Freeman, for example) seldom baffle an intelligent reader to the end. But the reader does not guess the complete solution and could not himself have made a logical demonstration of it. Since readers are of many minds, some will guess a cleverly hidden murder and some will be fooled by the most transparent plot. (Could the “Red-Headed League” ever really fool a modern reader?) It is not necessary or even possible to fool to the hilt the real aficionado of mystery fiction. A mystery story that consistently did that and was honest would be unintelligible to the average fan; he simply would not know what the story was all about. But there must be some important elements of the story that elude the most penetrating reader.
Some writers try and do this far too much, you only have to look as far as the latest series of Sherlock on the BBC to get a sense of a program trying maybe a little too hard to baffle the viewer. The first episode has a good five minute scene in which Sherlock, and ourselves are trying to work out why a taxi driver would be able to talk people into killing themselves, even the taxi driver himself promises “You’ll never guess how I do it,” only for the explaination to be fairly easy to guess. I think, in this day and age, with so much access to information, it’s fairly hard to completely baffle someone without simply overcomplicating information.
10. The solution must seem inevitable once revealed. This is the least often emphasized element of a good mystery, but it is one of the important elements of all fiction. It is not enough merely to fool or elude or sidestep the reader; you must make him feel that he ought not to have been fooled and that the fooling was honorable.
Take a look at my previous comments on Choke, The Historian and Lost. Choke does this well, the others do not. The inevitability of a solution can only really come if a story is plotted out completely, and you can clearly see when writers are just stringing mysteries along.
11. It must not try to do everything at once. If it is a puzzle story operating in a rather cool, reasonable atmosphere, it cannot also be a violent adventure or a passionate romance. An atmosphere of terror destroys logical thinking; if the story is about the intricate psychological pressures that lead apparently ordinary people to commit murder, it cannot then switch to the cool analysis of the police investigator. The detective cannot be hero and menace at the same time; the murderer cannot be a tormented victim of circumstance and also a heavy.
Unless you are David Simon.
12. It must punish the criminal in one way or another, not necessarily by operation of the law. Contrary to popular (and Johnston Office) belief, this requirement has nothing much to do with morality. It is a part of the logic of detection. If the detective fails to resolve the consequences of the crime, the story is an unresolved chord and leaves irritation behind it.
I truly don’t believe this to be true. Look at The Wire, or even closer look at Hidden. The end of that is all about unresolved conflict and to be honest, that makes the film so much the better for it.
So there we have it. What do you guys think? Do these rules still stand? If you’re a mystery writer, do you still follow them?