23/05/2008

Another Decalogue

This list, of course, is tongue-in-cheek. Mostly.

1. Mystery fiction is not about character, society, politics, gender, religion or whatever else. It's about mystery and the puzzle plot is what makes its specificity as a genre. You will thus approach it with respect and attention rather than just as a template for your personal concerns.

2. Mystery fiction, however, is or should be more than just a game. Good writing, sound characterization and some humor can't but enhance the value of your work. Remember, though, that good writing doesn't equate preciosity or free-wheeling virtuosity, while sound characterization doesn't mean loading your characters with various problems and issues or going into painful detail of their childhoods and food habits, especially when neither are relevant to the story.

3. You won't conceal any vital clue or decisive element from the reader. This is an old rule, present in many past and present syllabuses, but it's always worth-repeating if only because it's infringed almost every day by legions of hacks as well as some major names. Cheating is wrong because it ruins the architecture of the plot, much like bad rhyme or meter errors ruin that of a poem; it's bad technique and thus bad art.

4. If realism and verisimilitude get in the way of a good idea then realism and verisimilitude should be dropped, period. One of the great pleasures of being a writer is that you can play God and do exactly as you please, so enjoy your freedom and let your imagination be your guide. Mystery fiction, unlike common misperception, don't have a sacred duty to "show the world as it really is". You are a writer, possibly an artist, not a reporter or a social scientist.

5. Conversely, do research only if it's your thing or if you think it may improve your story. Otherwise just go ahead and don't be afraid to talk about things you have little or no knowledge of - provided of course that you admit it from the start. It's fiction and most importantly, your fiction. The only master aboard is you.

6. Ellipsis is a force. Don't explain, don't tell, don't describe more than what's absolutely necessary and let the rest open for imagination and interpretation. Reading, especially reading mysteries, must not be a passive experience. Gaps must be left for the reader to fill.

7. Don't stay content with what others have said and done before. Try to find new ways, new themes, new approaches. Mystery may look quite strait-laced at first sight but it actually offers a plenty of room for experiment, and it would be a pity not to use it.

8. Series detectives are to be avoided as much as possible or used homeopathically, and must never become the sole or major justification for their stories.

9. Don't mistake gimmicks for originality. It takes much more than an "original" character, premise or setting to write a genuinely original mystery.

10. The genre didn't start with you and the authors that you like. To have a good knowledge of its history will help you understand it better and avoid hubris. Whatever "new" ground you think you're breaking, chances are someone else broke it a long, long time ago.

08/05/2008

In Praise of Theory

Sarah Weinman unearths S.S. Van Dine's famous Twenty Rules, rightfully singling out #15 as the one still most important eighty years on - I am more hesitant in respect to her contention that mystery fiction having become "more about the emotional and the visceral" is "rather a good thing". Van Dine's rules for the most part were actually quite reasonable despite the bad press they've been getting for eight decades, and anyone setting to write a real mystery rather than just a mainstream novel with a criminal element should definetely take a look. The main interest of this syllabus, however, is a historical one. Not as an embodiment of Golden Age ideals of good mystery writing, which it clearly isn't: major authors of the era as well as many lesser ones either ignored or deliberately violated its most contentious ukazes. Van Dine himself broke free from his own laws on numerous occasions (Kennel Murder Case, anyone?)
 
The Twenty Rules are important for just the same reason as Freeman's Art of the Detective Story, Carolyn Wells' Technique of the Mystery Story, Ronald Knox's Decalogue or  even - God forbid - Raymond Chandler's Simple Art of Murder. There you have authors from different stripes and backgrounds pausing one moment to think about the genre they practice and giving their own answers to some hard questions - in short, doing theory. What is this thing called mystery and what is it for? Where does it come from and where is it heading to? How does it work and how can it be made to work even better? Is it "serious" fiction, fluffy entertainment or something else? Is it about plot or character, real-life or fantasy? They were not the only ones pondering these issues: Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley, John Dickson Carr, Anthony Boucher, our old friend Julian Symons in the Anglo-Saxon world or Boileau-Narcejac and Jean-Patrick Manchette on this side of the pond also chimed in. Theory was a driving force in twentieth-century mystery writing, leading at times to violent wars such as the one Carr and Chandler fought for years without ever meeting each other. Yes Virginia, they took the genre that seriously back then.
 
Feuds of that kind are unlikely to happen nowadays. Theory is now mostly confined to fanzines, discussion groups and blogs like the one you're kind enough to pass by; most authors, critics and readers agree on the (very basic) basics of the genre and don't give a damn about the whole thing anyway. It's both fascinating and infuriating to see that many "fans" are more interested in what mystery fiction allows - social comment, psychological studies, political messages - than the genre itself, hence the proud illiteracy met in countless articles and interviews as well as the academism, both formal and thematical, of a large part of contemporary crime fare. Why bother to learn about the history of a genre, or try to make it progress, when to you it's just a convenient medium? Just keep doing what you've always done, and reading what you've always read.
 
No art form, and mystery fiction is undoubtedly one, can move forward if it doesn't explore, question and try to renew itself. That's why we need theoricians, and most particularly authors-theoricians, more than ever. Will the next Willard Huntington Wright please stand up?