Simanaitis Says

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THE DETECTIVE novelist S.S. Van Dine devised a list of 20 rules for writing detective stories. Whether in observance or willful disregard, the rules first published in 1928 make for interesting reflection on the works of Dr. John H. Watson and other detective chroniclers.


S. S. Van Dine, 1888 – 1939, American art critic and detective novelist. Portrait by his brother, Stanton Macdonald-Wright, oil on canvas, 1913 – 1914. Image licensed through

S. S. Van Dine’s real name was Willard Huntington Wright. His brother and portraitist Stanton Macdonald-Wright, 1890 – 1973, was a co-founder of Synchromism, an early genre of abstract art.

Van Dine is best known as the chronicler of detective Philo Vance, who has been called “a pretentious upper-class doofus.” (See Wrote humorist Ogden Nash, “Philo Vance/Needs a kick in the pance.”


Philo Vance, more than a bit foppish, an intellectual, a New York City bon vivant and crime solver, as chronicled by S. S. Van Dine in 12 tales.

Despite all this, Vance’s exploits continue to delight in print and on Sirius XM’s Radio Classics channel. Van Dine’s 20 rules are also entertaining [abbreviated here with some comments of my own]. See for Van Dine’s complete essay.

1. The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery.

2. No tricks may be played on the reader if not played on the detective too. [Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd rides close to this one.]

3. No love interest. [No Irene Adler?]

4. The detective should never turn out to be the culprit.

5. The culprit must be found through logic, not unmotivated confession.

6. A detective must detect; he must gather clues.

7. There simply must be a corpse; the deader the corpse, the better. [This deletes lots of marvelous yarns.]


Danjô sees a clue.

8. No solutions through Ouija-boards or the like.

9. There should be only one detective. [Fortunately, side-kicks are not ruled out.]

10. The culprit must be prominent in the tale.

11. The butler—or other servants—didn’t do it.

12. There must be only a single culprit.

13. No secret societies. [No Scowers/Molly Maguires?]

14. Murderous methods must be rational and scientific.

15. The solution should, in retrospect, have stared the reader in the face.

16. The narrative should not dally on atmosphere or side issues. [What about The Study in Scarlet and its extensive Mormon background?]

17. A professional criminal never shoulders the guilt.

18. A crime is never accidental—nor simply suicide.

19. Motives must be personal; no international plots or warfare. [No WWI’s Last Bow? But see also No. 20.]

20. No hoary old clichés: cigarette butt analysis, bogus séances, forged finger-prints, dummy-figure alibi, non-barking dog, innocent/perp twins, knockout drops, locked room, code, or word association test.


They weren’t hoary old clichés when Holmes and Watson experienced them.

Van Dine admits this No. 20 catchall is “to give my Credo an even score of items.” It also pays homage to chroniclers before him, including a certain doctor occasionally residing at 221 B Baker Street. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2014

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This entry was posted on March 19, 2014 by in The Game is Afoot and tagged , , , .
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