Guest Post: The Ten Commandments of Writing a Detective Novel by Adam C. Mitchell

Welcome Adam C. Mitchell, one of Dragonfly’s most prolific writers. Enjoy this repost from his blog, “Noir Writer, Adam C. Mitchell.” You can find this and other blogs by this author there.

Adam C. Mitchell

As a Noir Crime Fiction writer, I read a lot of noir, both modern and golden age, this writer’s preference being those set in the ’30s and ’40s, and the kingpin of the noir crime caper were my literary idols Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, these two creative masters both set the foundations and gold standard in my opinion, on what good crime fiction should be! This can especially be said for Raymond Chandler, most notably through the eyes of his most beloved creation, his character Philip Marlowe later played on the small screen by Powers Boothe, a Tv show I can’t recommend enough to those wanting to not just read but see the glory of chandler.

The script lifts a lot straight from his books (a character I heavily based my own private eye Jack Malone on – check out my book The Lost Angel to read about Malone). Marlowe showed a side of Los Angeles back in the 1940s that most crime novels and films of the day refused to show, mainly the everyday people with everyday problems and how they suffered through the greed of others and the city leaning on and over them, pushing them into acts, they would later regret.

Chandler throughout the tradition of crime novels of his time, the so-called ‘Locked Room Mystery’ made famous by authors like Agatha Christie. Instead, Chandler created outward-looking stories and plots that showed the world with its lose ever-changing morals. This genre, the genre of noir crime fiction, (some would also say the golden age of crime fiction –I tend to stand by both labels) was his life’s work and even after his death would go on to influence and inspire future generations of noir and crime writers and authors, this author, in particular, being one of those touched and inspired by this god of the genre. So it’s not a stretch to find out the man who gave his life to a genre, had some very strong often controversial opinions on crime fiction.

Below are what he called The Ten Commandments of Writing a Detective Novel.

*These are taken from a book by him Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler published in 1981 – note this book has been republished countless times and the commandants have been added to and expanded upon but this is the original ten.

1) It must be credibly motivated, both as to the original situation and the dénouement.

2) It must be technically sound as to the methods of murder and detection.

3) It must be realistic in character, setting and atmosphere. It must be about real people in a real world.

4) It must have a sound story value apart from the mystery element: i.e., the investigation itself must be an adventure worth reading.

5) It must have enough essential simplicity to be explained easily when the time comes.

6) It must baffle a reasonably intelligent reader.

7) The solution must seem inevitable once revealed.

8) 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.

9) It must punish the criminal in one way or another, not necessarily by operation of the law…. If the detective fails to resolve the consequences of the crime, the story is an unresolved chord and leaves irritation behind it.

10) It must be honest with the reader.

These ten commandments are heavy-hitting left and right hooks to the locked room mystery that was popular in the 1920s-1940s. Chandler delivers a heavy volley of creative punches two of these works in his seminal essay about crime fiction, The Simple Art of Murder (a must-read for any crime author)

In that essay after thoroughly taking apart the murder mystery The Red House by A. A. Milne (yes, the writer of Winnie the Pooh), Chandler fights back against detective stories where the whole point of the plot makes no sense when compared to what would happen in real life in that exact situation. On the matter Chandler says this, “If the situation is false, you cannot even accept it as a light novel, for there is no story for the light novel to be about.”

He goes on to trash other British mystery writers like Agatha Christie who Chandler paints not only as a hypocritical snob but also as boring. “The English may not always be the best writers in the world, but they are incomparably the best dull writers,” he quips. (being a fellow Brit crime writer I have to say if I could go back in time I would happily punch the yank, with a choice quip or two of my own.)

Chandler then offers praise to his hard-boiled partner in literary crime Dashiell Hammett who infuses his stories with a sense of realism. “Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought dueling pistols, curare, and tropical fish….He was spare, frugal, hard-boiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.” Chandler says.

It’s funny that this quote about Hammet also sums up Chandler.


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