Rules and how to fail at them

Inspired by some excellent recent posts by Noah Stewart and Dan at thereaderiswarned, and by reading several GAD books recently in which the standard template of ‘murder is committed; murderer is detected; murderer gets it in the neck’ is somewhat monkeyed with, I began wondering vaguely about the application of justice in detective novels – things like, how frequently that standard template is actually followed; whether lesser crimes like blackmail, theft or being an unattractive female are punished more or less harshly and often than murder itself; how important the establishment of Right winning out over Wrong was to the genre in general; how likely it is that three quarters of the murderers handed over to the police at the end would ever be convicted etc – and had contemplated working up a list of rules of my own.

The problem with rules, however (and, perhaps, part of their charm) is that there are always so many exceptions.

The below illustrates why I will never, ever make it to a Decalogue.

Rules appertaining to Justice within the Murder Mystery

Rule 1.  As a murder mystery must, of necessity, contain a murderer (but see Clause ‘a’), said murderer, i) for the reader’s satisfaction (see Clause ‘b’), ii) in the interests of restoring the world to a proper state of Rightness[1] (Clause ‘c’) and iii) in order to demonstrate sound moral principles (Clause ‘d’), must be properly punished at the climax of the book (Clause ‘e’) by their ignominious exposure and subsequent demise (shown or implied) through the workings of justice, which may be administered either Legally (Clause ‘f’), Naturally (Clause ‘g’) or Personally (Clause ‘h’).

Rule 1: Clause (a). Except in those instances where the death turns out to be:

A: Suicide, falling within one of the following subcategories:

– happens to resemble murder: through accidental circumstances (naturally arising); accidental circumstances (painfully contrived); or the cloth-headed attempts of otherwise sane people to absolve themselves/others from suspicion by behaving tremendously suspiciously.

– is disguised as murder (deliberately and with dastardliness (Subclause ‘a’));

– is disguised as ‘murder disguised as suicide’ (deliberately and with dastardliness and possibly after too much exposure to the ‘Inconceivable!’ scene from The Princess Bride[2] (Subclause ‘a’))

– is alleged to resemble murder – though clearly a blatant fit-up job – for the sole purpose of thickening the plot, despite the concomitant risk of thickening the Detective(s) also.

B: an unfortunate accident, falling within any of the above subcategories (Subclause ‘b’)

C: Committed by bells[3]

Rule 1: Clause (a) (Subclause a). In this instance, murder by judiciary being intended but the perpetrator being deceased by their own hand, justice may be said to have been done as a sort of free bonus effect of the injustice (but see Clause ‘h’) unless the said disguise be effected after the fact by a second naughty person, in which case Rule 1 applies (in as far as it can be said to apply to anything)

Rule 1: Clause (a)(Subclause b). In which case, justice is only required to absolve the innocent, rather than punish the guilty: which should be a source of joy but somehow tends to leaves you with a vague feeling of being cheated.

Rule 1: Clause (b). Except in those instances where:

A: Reader satisfaction is genuinely enhanced by a surprise ending

B: Reader satisfaction is intended to be enhanced but in actuality is diminished by the author’s complete inability to throw surprise parties without excessive hinting, giggling and unsubtle smuggling of bunting and cake.

Rule 1: Clause (c). Except in those instances where:

A: The murderer(s)’ actions are considered to constitute Right within the particular confines of his/her fictional world because of the truly awesome rottenness of the victim(s) and/or the unsettling moral convictions of the characters, thereby rendering their escape from justice, justice.

B: The world is left deliberately unrighted and all of a pother, for the purposes of:

– satire

– silliness

– subverting expectations

– squashing the last trace of any sad, small hope in the reader’s heart that there could ever truly be a better world

Rule 1: Clause (d). Except in those cases where:

A: Sound moral principles are being explored and questioned in a mature and thought-provoking manner

B: Sound moral principles can kiss the author’s giant anarchic arse.

Rule 1: Clause (e). Alternatively, especially in the case of inverted mysteries, the malefactor may be punished all throughout the book, by the gnawing furies of conscience; the detective continually grinding away with ‘just one more thing’; or simply by being made to look a bit of an idiot.

Rule 1: Clause (f). Although, where justice is not seen to be done –  by the insertion of a trial, for example, or a comment on the verdict – the assumption of conviction cannot be safely assumed, given the breathtakingly thin and/or legally inadmissible evidence that many a frustrated lawyer must have to deal with in these cases.

Rule 1: Clause (g). In a significant proportion of cases, the murderer is killed before any trial can take place, either in the attempt to escape (including, but not limited to: car crashes, shot by own gun in struggle, falling into unexpected patches of quicksand, alligators) or out of sheer embarrassed fury at being caught.

Rule 1: Clause (h). In an even more significant proportion of cases, the murderer will choose to take their own life, usually by the ingesting of poison (dentally-inserted cyanide capsules were widely available from any good private dental practitioner, though not, of course, on the NHS[4]) or by decently blasting their brains out all over the study. By this method, they either become their own Nemesis and thereby fulfil the dictates of justice or, by escaping the public excoriation of trial and conviction, contrive to cheat it. As both things cannot be true[5], this may generally be considered a no-score draw.


[1] The Wodehousian Climax, in which all is made inevitably right with the world in the end (unless you’re a lark – condemned to flap about without cease; a snail – skewered painfully on thorns; or Bertie Wooster – trapped in a controlling relationship, continually tapped for fivers and fishing holidays and never to be allowed a snippet of sartorial self-expression).

[2] Yes, this is an anachronism

[3] Technically speaking this is category B, but you never know with bells

[4] See footnote 2

[5] Unless truth is strictly Relative, which won’t wash in Court


Rule 2. This rule, and all subsequent rules, has been postponed indefinitely, in the interests of justice to anyone who might inadvertently read it, lapse into a coma and die.


3 thoughts on “Rules and how to fail at them

    1. The problem is, if I make it to ten, the weight of so many accumulated clauses and subclauses (and sub-subclauses, santa-clauses and puns swiped from the Marx Bros.) might just cause the blog to collapse in on itself, form a super-massive black hole and swallow the galaxy. Is that a chance you’re willing to take?


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