Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Is it a Mystery?

The other day, a friend asked if I would read his new manuscript before he started the process of submitting to agents. Since this particular writer is not only a friend, but a longtime member of my critique group and particularly talented where scene and imagery are concerned, I was not only glad to oblige, but looked forward to the read.
         Then, he threw me for a bit of a curve.
         “It’s a mystery,” he said.
         Even better, I thought anticipating a more commercial blend of plot with the well-crafted literary work I’ve come to expect from him.
          And then he threw me for another curve. 
         “I just got comments back from a contest I entered and they questioned whether it was really a mystery,” he said. “Can you read it and let me know?”
         I’m halfway through the book and, as expected, am enjoying so much about this story, but is it a mystery?
         Actually, I think there are two, potentially strong mysteries in the manuscript, possibly three. 
What my friend has done, is create what I believe could be a strong series. But, and it’s something of a big but, if he wants to sell this manuscript(s) as a genre story, I think he needs to break the plot lines down and examine what he is trying to do with his main character in light of the good old rules of mystery writing.
         Which led me to the Internet where I found an amusing set of guidelines I thought I’d share:                 
Here is Fr. Ronald Knox's famous Ten Commandment list for Detective Novelists (copyright © 1929 Ronald Knox and Pope Somebody):
               The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.
               All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
               Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
               No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
               No Chinaman must figure in the story.
               No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
               The detective must not himself commit the crime.
               The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
               The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
               Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

As for my friend, I think I’ll suggest a more current version.  Or, maybe I won’t and see if I can persuade him to write in a Chinaman!


Robin Allen said...

These are great, Linda! I've broken a couple of these rules, but not the Chinaman Rule. Not yet.

Alan Orloff said...

Whew! Got scared there for a moment. I have triplets in my WIP, and I thought I'd committed a no-no.

Thanks for the chuckle!

Linda Hull said...

I'm all over the no Chinamen rule. It's begging to be broken. Triplets are A ok though. Didn't see a single rule against that.

Unknown said...

Does a Pekinese count as a Chinaman?

Linda Hull said...

Just for clarification, I definitely meant for the word "Chinamen" to be in quotes as I was making fun of the silliness of both the rule and the term. I'm always amazed by offensive, outdated language. How some terminology is not only considered acceptable but commonplace never ceases to surprise me, even in the context of history. A friend commented that my repetition of the word in my blog could be considered offensive. I hope not and apologize if anyone took it that way. For the record, my daughter is Chinese.