Murder Mystery research for a University project.

amylouamylou Wrexham, N. Wales
Hi everyone!
I am doing some research on the murder mystery genre for a project I am doing at University and was wondering if you could help me out.
For my project I am trying to define what makes the 'perfect murder mystery'. What are the specific elements or 'ingredients' that come together to make a murder mystery really good? Can the perfect murder mystery be distilled into a formula?
I thought there was no better place to ask these questions than a forum dedicated to one of the best (if not the best) murder mystery writer there has been.
Any insights and opinions you have on this would be greatly appreciated and I have also included a link to a questionnaire I have put together with some more specific questions on murder mystery which would be of great help (seven questions and should take 5 to 10 minutes).
Any advice on the best place within the forum to post this (or any other helpful forums) would also be a great help as I am new to the forum and was not sure where the most appropriate place to put it would be.
Thank you, Amy.


  • edited March 2018
    Hard for me to answer that here, but in the beginning to mid-20th century there was the english Detective Writers Club, (which included writers such as Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham and others) and they laid down rules for a "proper" mystery story. you can find them here
    but since this is wikipedia, you would need a more reputable source.
    I googled "detective story rules" and got a lot of interesting information (and various lists). One list is S.S. de Vine's list of 20 rules - I ran my eye over the first few, and was amused to discover that I know at least one mystery book that I really like that breaks almost each rule.
    here you can find his list:
    Beyond the lists, what makes a mystery not just "O.K." but great? Probably what makes a novel great.
  • Dr.SheppardDr.Sheppard Oxford, UK
    You are asking a difficult question 'what makes a perfect murder mystery'. For an essay question, these are personal thoughts, otherwise, you will get plenty of different answers from people you ask. Unlike taliavishay-arbel I would recommend Wikipedia, as it is written by fans of a subject, and corrected/amended/updated by fans. The Detective Club was formed in 1930 by a group of British mystery writers (which is still active today) who created a series of 10 rules of 'fair-play' to give their readers a chance of guessing whodunit. The rules are not intended to imply what makes a good murder mystery. As a retired English Teacher/Lecturer, I would give marks for something original on the question you ask. However, here are the rules from The Detection Club.

    1. The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.
    2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
    3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
    4. No hitherto undiscovered poison may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
    5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.
    6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
    7. The detective must not himself commit the crime.
    8. The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
    9. The stupid friend, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be very slightly below that of the average reader.
    10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

    With this list of rules in mind, you will find that The Golden Age of Crime Writers (the 1930s) frequently broke their own guidelines. Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd broke rule No 7, At Bertram's Hotel broke rule No 10, and you have to decide if the Hercule Poirot stories with Hastings broke rule No 9! 

    Good luck with your project.
  • edited March 2018
    Dr. Sheppard - I'm not knocking wikipedia, and I often use it myself. But it is not considered a reliable source for academic papers. What I've found useful is to get information from wikipedia and then verify it from other sources.

    Other examples of breaking the rules: in "Murder in Mesopotamia" Poirot uses intuition which he doesn't back with facts or understanding of characters (he says things like "it didn't seem that the truth lay that way"). in "The man in the queue", by Josephine Tey, the detective (and the reader) feel that the suspect is not the killer, but the real killer is only discovered when they confess, in order to prevent an innocent person suffering. In Dorothy Sayer's story "The Image in the mirror" twins are used. In her story "Striding Folly" there is a supernatural element (though the mystery is eludicated without it).

    On thinking it over, I'd like to add two "rules" of my own:

    1. The murder plot must not be so elaborate that it strains credibility (e.g., in the AC books I didn't like "They do it with mirrors" and "Dead man's folly" for that reason).

    2. The narrative must not be overloaded with details, so that it feels like a list of events rather than a story.

    de Vine's rules which I mentioned above emphasize the "purity" of the mystery story, and in my opinion they make the mystery story rather sterile:

    e.g. There must be a murder (In Dorothy Sayer's "Gaudy Night" there is no successful murder, but it is a great mystery story)
    There shouldn't be a love interest (in practically all of Patricia Wentworth and Charlotte Macleod's books there is a love interest)
    There should only be one detective (in Dorothy Sayers and Margery Allingham there is an intelligent cooperation between the private detective and the police detectives, and in Charlotte Macleod's books there is usually a husband-wife team of intelligent detectives; in other writers such as Ngaio Marsh, there is a police team. in all these cases, the reader isn't confused but rather the story is enriched).
    This is a matter of personal preference - some people prefer the "pure" detection story, others (like me) find that rather sterile and prefer a mystery which also has human interest. Also, I find the use of the "straight man", the "Watson", started by Conan Doyle with Watson and continued by Agatha Christie with Hastings (and to a lesser degree with Ariadne Olliver, Nurse Leathering and others) to be disrespectful to the reader (who is supposed to feel himself more intelligent than the "Watson".
  • amylouamylou Wrexham, N. Wales
    Thank you for your insights @taliavishay-arbel and @Dr.Sheppard
    Very interesting points. I had no idea The Detection Club created their own list of rules for writing murder mystery. This will come in very handy.
    Unfortunately we are not allowed to use Wikipedia as a reference in our essays as it's not deemed a 'credible academic source'. However, the Wikipedia bibliographies are great to use in reference lists.
    Thank you as well if you filled in my questionnaire, your answers will be a great help.
  • Amylou, you may also want to check out Murder in the Making by John Curran. He discusses several lists of rules for detective fiction and argues that Agatha Christie's greatness stemmed from her clever bending of these rules.
  • amylouamylou Wrexham, N. Wales
    Thank you @P_Lombard
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