I ran a detective crime fiction course recently at the NSW Writers’ Centre and I kicked off with a very brief history of the detective novel and the different styles and sub-genres of detective stories available today. As I’m sure everyone knows, the 1920s was the “Golden Age” of crime fiction, a time when the amazing Agatha Christie was working her magic. In 1928, a gentleman by the name of S.S. Van Dine created his “Twenty rules for writing detective stories”. Many remain true today, but when I read them they always make me smile because he is so very black and white about what constitutes a detective novel. I particularly like rules 6 and 7:
6. The detective novel must have a detective in it; and a detective is not a detective unless he detects. His function is to gather clues that will eventually lead to the person who did the dirty work in the first chapter; and if the detective does not reach his conclusions through an analysis of those clues, he has no more solved his problem than the schoolboy who gets his answer out of the back of the arithmetic.
7. There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better. No lesser crime than murder will suffice. Three hundred pages is far too much pother for a crime other than murder. After all, the reader’s trouble and expenditure of energy must be rewarded.
He’s right, of course. But most of all I agree that we owe it to our readers to write a satisfying climax, that surprises and delights, with a juicy twist, for good measure.