For the Love of Murder
The detective had to combine honour with several annoying affectations. Justice could be a slow process so there was always time for Hercule Poirot to dye his moustache, Lord Peter Wimsey to polish his monocle and Albert Campion to feed his jackdaw.
The frequency with which the sidekick narrated the tale meant it was vital for the writer to pinpoint their storyteller’s level of intelligence. Certainly, they required an aptitude lower than that of the average reader, and yet they could never fail to be one rung above a local magistrate. Ideally, the individual’s intellect would slot nicely between an archbishop and an archaeologist.
It was traditional for the criminal to be mentioned in connection with a village fete on page 73, a blocked chimney on page 134 and a trip to Mesopotamia on page 219. It was generally frowned upon to reveal the protagonist as the culprit in the closing pages, although allowances would be made for a story held together in such a way that the reader did not want to murder the author.
If someone was murdered whilst making a revelatory telephone call they were required to recline in their chair and allow the receiver to slip artistically out of their right hand.
If the detective believed the victim to be deserving of their fate, there is a chance the twelve culprits stranded on an impressive train would be allowed to go free.
The plot had to be improbable yet logical. The plot had to be demure yet available. The plot had to be sombre yet not without hope.
Language was always clear and concise. If an author stuck to one long word a book — for instance, ‘demystification’ on page 139 — their readership would be content.
The story should be about real people in the real world. The mansion in the countryside had to be populated by butlers, drivers and flower girls selling sweet red roses, as well as the usual aristocrats, artists and foreign businessmen.
It went without saying that servants did not have the right type of brain to plan a complicated murder, however, they could be quite entertaining in small doses, so writers felt obliged to include a few, albeit limited, speaking parts.
If a character showed indifference to someone’s murder there were two options available. 1. They are delighted the individual is dead. 2. They do not actually think the individual has met their demise — as they were in cahoots over a staged death — and is yet to realise that a third party has actually carried out a very real murder. It could never be justified with reference to the fact that the two characters did not know each other very well.
Options for the reader to consider if the dog does not bark: Was Rover asleep? Is Rover dead? Did Rover know the murderer? A bone for Rover? Could Rover have been playing it cool?
If a coded letter formed a vital part of the mystery, authors were jeered at when they opted for A=1, B=2, C=3, D=4 etc.
It was considered poor form for the crime to be committed by identical twins making use of role-swapping and so forth. Interestingly, identical triplets were allowed.
Occasionally an author would come along and push the genre into new areas. Cosy fireside chats gave way to the excitement of contrasting the physical world with the world of ideas and abstraction. For example, consider the possibility of a murderer who kills by way of nominative determinism — victims include Tom Graves the undertaker and Jill Bake the cook. The detective’s love of pattern recognition fools him into prosecuting local criminal Darren Deadly. Meanwhile, the real culprit, Scott Free, gets away …
The murderer needed credible motivation. There could be no talk of, ‘For the love of a good woman.’ Money and revenge. Money and revenge. Money and revenge.
New writers were encouraged to create an antagonist capable of double bluffing — someone willing to plant evidence to momentarily make themselves a suspect — but triple bluffs were only for the very experienced author. No one was quite sure of the true nature of a quadruple bluff.
If an author wished to hide from the reader the fact that two characters were only pretending to hate each other, there could be no allowance for winking or the mouthing of ‘I love you.’
If the perpetrator did not wish to face justice in the courts there would either be a shoot-out at Farley’s Pie Factory or a marriage to the ugliest character in the book.