Clipped Wings

"The golden rule is that there are no golden rules."
-  George Bernard Shaw
Let the reader beware: extremely vague ramblings are ahead of you!  

Recently, Xavier Lechard added an addendum to a response he compiled earlier this month to the projectile vomiting an article signed by Philip Hensher, in which the savant took a fresh and much needed stance by opposing the unchallenged conventions of the rule bound mammoth that is the crime genre – and labeled its perfervid followers as the un-evolved troglodytes they really are. But as Xavier already spewed his cerebral guts all over the article, there's not much left for me to add except to seize this opportunity to make one or two general observations of my own.

In the opening of his addendum, Xavier restated one of his previous observations that the genre being "rule-bound" doesn't mean it is necessarily adverse to originality and innovation, but I think that is putting it weakly – since the genre would've never prospered as it once did had any of the practitioners in the field taken serious notice of the scribbles produced by S.S van Dine and Ronald Knox.  

Mysteries were virtually unique as a genre fiction during their golden period in the fact that they were hard to define and had a scattered fan base. For decades, a discussion raged on what constituted as a mystery as the wings of the genre seemed to encompass the entire literary globe. Within the scope of the crime-ridden genre itself there were many different denominations: the fair-play whodunit, action packed thrillers, inverted crime stories, gothic novels of suspense and maidens in distress, police procedurals, rogue adventures, spy thrillers etc.

This is not a problem found with gritty westerns, science-fiction yarns, blood curdling horror stories or sweet, diabetic inducing, romance novels. They are, for the most part, what they are and still easily identified if they crossed-over in unfamiliar territory – where as the detective story blends in almost naturally with every surrounding it is put in. The prime example of this genre bending is, of course, Isaac Asimov's Caves of Steel (1954), which places a traditionally plotted mystery in a futuristic setting peppered with social commentary, but you could just as well write a legitimate detective set in Transylvania featuring a protagonist who has to exonerate Count Dracula from a murder committed in a locked and nearly impenetrable castle tower – whose only point of entrance is a tiny, top-floor window large enough for a bird or bat to pass through. A creative writer can pull it off.

As far as rules go, I have pretty much given up on them. Until recently, I clung to the necessity of a plot and strict fair play, however, that proved to be incompatible with a lot of writers and books I absolutely love and adore (e.g. Conan Doyle, Maurice Leblanc, Rex Stout and H.R.F. Keating). I still consider cleverly plotted detective stories that play fair with their readers as a personal favorite, but that's just a preference for one of the many forms the genre can be molded into by a talented pair of hands guided by an intelligent and imaginative brain. That's how I see the genre these days... as a mass that can be molded in any shape you want and should provide a gifted writer with unlimited freedom.

Lamentably, that's a potential that is rarely tapped into these days and there's not much left of that once majestic, free-roaming bird who soared over the printed pages of nearly every genre after it was captured, clipped and put in a cage too small to even stretch it wings properly.

Enter any bookstore, and it's the same old, same old. So called literary thrillers saturated with character angst and lengthy, pointless descriptions of absolute nonsense. No imagination. No experimentation. No longevity. And there's where you find the true tragedy of this problem. The people who threw themselves up as innovators with the purpose of "transcending" the genre are effectively bleeding it to death and hopefully their publishers will take notice, before it's too late, that the new generation of readers aren't all that interested in these self-proclaimed, literary masterpieces – that make pungent comments on society and whatnot. I realize that it's very vulgar of me, Ho-Ling and Patrick to admit, openly and unapologetically, that we read mysteries mainly for our enjoyment, but perhaps our generation simply isn't literate enough to appreciate lengthy descriptions of angst-ridden childhood recollections, bladder problems and CD/DVD collections.

As my fellow aficionado concluded, we should (or rather they) make the tent bigger and be more inclusive as well as stopping with that childish, unfounded phobia for the "I" word, but then again, maybe we're better off if the genre, as it stands now, withers away so we can begin anew.

And on a side note: I'm midway through another impossible crime novel (it's not an addiction, I can stop whenever I want!) and the review will be up within the next two days or so.


  1. Ah, that's a weird typo I can't explain. I meant, of course, "bladder problems."

  2. That is one interesting way to see it. I personally can't forfeit any sort of rule however. The closest I can get to that point of view is to establish some general, vague sounding rules and then quoting Captain Jack Sparrow.

    "The code is more what you'd call "guidelines" than actual rules."

    Van Dine certainly saw it that way, considering how he barely followed his own rules. But again that's hardly the only problem with his novels. It's hard to express myself well in regards to this, but what I want to say is something along the lines of "it is important to have rules, but not necessarily to follow them."

    Trent's Last Case, for example, is one fun read that wouldn't be nearly as fun if it wasn't breaking as many rules as it was.

    I still cling on to fairness as a rule, and consider Doyle, Stout and others to be the exception. I believe it's fine for the genre to spread its wings and fly towards the unknown. In fact, it's not only fine but necessary. But I will still cling on to fairness, and insist that the mystery genre brings that rule to wherever it goes.

  3. Don't get me wrong, I still think that solidly plotted, fair-play detective stories are the highest and purest incarnation of a mystery, but I have now come to accept that a talented writer can forfeit both and still deliver a great detective story. Take, for example, Baantjer's De dertien katten, Keating's Inspector Ghote Goes by Train and Inspector Ghote Draws a Line or most of the stories by Rex Stout and Conan Doyle, which usually disregard one or two sacred rules but are still superb mysteries in their own rights.

    Of course, this doesn't mean that I accept every blatant defiance of the basic principles of the genre – an author really has to come up with something good to make it acceptable.

    I guess this shift in perception of the genre is inevitable when you take large quantities of this stuff... either that or I'm finally maturing. :(

  4. How do you define "literate"? I actually think our generation is not literate enough for complicated puzzlers... or at least is not willing to actually use their brains a little.

    The reason characterization and innovative settings are not absolutely necessary for me might stem from the fact that I only started getting into orthodox mysteries pretty recently and already experienced a lot of interesting plots and characters in other genres like SF, Fantasy or Horror before that. I'm actually pretty full because of that by now and enjoy complex puzzles and surprising but logical solutions the most because this was something I did not experience before. So I guess this is just my personal view on crime fiction, or rather mystery/detective fiction for that matter.

    However I also have to say that even sticking to certain rules, these do not necessarily have to constrict writers' imagination or talent, as many Japanese writers convinced me of.

    I think we all have to acknowledge though, that we are a different, playful kind of reader who wants to enjoy specific genre fiction rather than literature in general, as literature to me mostly is about how someone adresses social or cultural topics and how beautifully or skilfully or whatever he narrates a narration rather than focussing on what plot he is actually telling the reader. Personally I have no problem admitting that I read novels almost the same way I read comics, watch movies or play games and I don't know why there should be any difference nowadays.

  5. I don't think that's truly shifting your perception of the genre so much as adding one more genre you enjoy to your list of golden ones. I consider "detective stories" and "mystery stories" to be two different genres that are closely related, but different nonetheless.

    That's not to say I enjoy one less than the other...well, actually it is, I generally enjoy "golden" mysteries(for the lack of a better term) much more than regular detective stories. But that is not to say that I think one is better than the other, if I'm making any sense.

    I mean, it sounds perfectly reasonable to have a story with a detective and a mystery but to not follow the guidelines to the "Grandest game in the world" as Carr put it, to write a story and not make it solvable. It's still quite possible that the novel will be good, and there is no denying it.

    But it won't be an example of the game. I'm fairly sure I'm losing my point right now after rambling so much, but what I'm trying to say is that the detective story without rules and the one with rules are two different(but closely related) types of story. What separates them both is their approach to the genre.

    For example, the Sherlock Holmes stories are fine as they are because they never give the impression of being solvable. Thus, we judge it as an unfair detective story, and conclude it is a wonderful story, much like Harry Potter is still a good fantasy novel despite its disturbing habit of revealing the murderer right after the crime itself.

    On the other hand, let's go with Van Dine's Canary Murder Case. It presents itself as a fair mystery, it has no plot or characters of importance, and focuses solely around the game. The detective constantly engages in a battle of wits against the reader.

    The solution includes clues pulled out in the last chapter, and a badly done gimmick. We shall judge it as a fair mystery novel and say it's a bad one. The novel approaches the genre like a game, and it plays it quite badly.

    I think I rambled enough, so I'll cut myself short. But in short, what I think is simply that. That the mystery genre has many subtypes, including detective(Sherlock, Nero), golden(fairplay), thrillers, and each subtype can have its own great novels, but they each have their own individual set of rules and standards.

    And again, the great writers are able to break rules and still stay within the boundaries of the genre, like you alluded before.

  6. Quick responses:


    The remark about us not being literate enough to appreciate bloated monstrosities, in which the reader is treated to painstaking descriptions of the protagonists failed marriage, troubled childhood and his CD/DVD collection, was meant as a snide remark at the contemporary thriller – and pointing out that the genre is possibly shutting out an entire generation of readers.

    And the reason for this ramble was to thrash the fallacy that detectives are not chained down by a set of strict rules. We only have the necessity of a plot and playing fair with the readers and even those aren't set in stone. I still think these are the best detective stories, but time and time again I encountered brilliant detective stories that flew in the face of these rules.

    Well, it shouldn't matter what kind of books you read, but if you read the article to which Xavier responded...

    However, I like to think that we're a playful lot who enjoy an intellectual challenge and it fills me with hope to know fellow readers from our gen prefer imaginative novels over this so-called realistic drag that is the modern thriller. Unfortunately, most of them haven't found their ways to the detective genre, but who knows what tomorrow brings. :)

    @Hesopen Laway

    No. My perception of the genre has definitely shifted. I added to the list when I discovered neo-orthodox writers like William DeAndrea and Herbert Resnicow (and now Paul Doherty) or opening myself up to the private eye stories by Bill Pronzini. But the way in which I perceive the genre at this moment is completely new point of view for me.

    I used to label these stories as detectives (fair-play whodunits), mysteries (Doyle, Leblanc, etc) and crime/thriller (everything published after 1950, which was, for me, synonymies with everything that was wrong with the world today), but as you delve deeper into the genre these labels become untenable.

    I get your point about stories that stray from the guidelines, but what, for example, about stories focuses on the battle-of-wits between protagonist and antagonist (i.e. inverted detective stories) or howdunits? These stories also defy the purest form of the detective story, but does that qualify them from taking part in the grandest game? They can be as clever and amusing a traditional detective story (and as always, it all depends on who’s writing them).

    On a side note, concerning the unfairness of Conan Doyle's stories, I that the Sherlock Holmes (and Nero Wolfe series) are, IMHO, not so much detective stories as they are stories about detectives. But I think you make a good point by comparing it to Van Dine. A detective story is probably best judged by the guise in which it presents itself.

    I'm making everyone ramble on incessantly with this post. :P

  7. Great rambling TomCat! I just re-read a Van Dine and was considering the validity of his 'rules' given the fact that he usually tends to at least 'bend' them, but in the end of you do things well it doesn't have to matter what rules you follow (or what rules you say you follow). The early Van Dine books are fantastic and fantastically entertaining , but there has to be room for a little irony in our reading of them because, reading between the lines, one suspects that Van Dine was not always being entirely serious. And yet, even though he was in his mid 30s when he started the series and in his early 50s when he stopped, his world view didn't change but the public's did which is why most of us recall his earliest with so much affection and his later work with more of a tolerant shrug. So he stuck to his rules, and look where it got him ...

    Let's be clear mate, as far as I'm concerned, it's a credit to your critical acumen that your view of the genre is changing and enlarging.



  8. Thanks, Sergio!

    I think Van Dine's problem wasn't whether or not he followed his own set of inane rules or that world around them had altered dramatically, but that he just wasn't a very good writer – at least not one whose stories aged with grace. But I commend you for being to spend time in Vance's company without chucking the book across the room.

    Last year, I attempted to struggle through The Dragon Murder Case but was forced to tap out midway through and skipped to the ending to confirm my suspicions – and it was even worst than I had feared.

  9. Shame Van Dine doesn't do it for you TomCat - I think the first 5 do still stand up but would certainly agree that DRAGON is when series got tiresome.