Wednesday, October 5, 2016

So You're Going to Write a Mystery? Kurt Steel Has Some Tips For You

Kurt Steel's "So You're Going to Write a Mystery," is, like crime writer Todd Downing's "Murder Is a Rather Serious Business" (collected in my book Clues and Corpses: The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing), a 1940s trade article advising would-be mystery writers on just how to go about it.  At about 2400 words it's shorter than Downing's piece, but still interesting in its own right.  The two men, by the way, had very closely contemporaneous crime writing careers, Downing publishing nine detective novels between 1933 and 1941, seven of them about amateur sleuth Hugh Rennert, and Steel publishing ten detective novels between 1935 and 1943, nine of them about series sleuth PI Hank Heyer.  Death curtailed the career of Steel, who was two years younger than Downing but died at the age of 41, while Downing simply retired from fiction writing, as far as we know, though he lived on for over thirty years.

A reading of "So You're Going to Write Mystery" makes clear that what one might call Kurt Steel's aesthetics of mystery writing were similar to those of Raymond Chandler, who followed Steel into print with a novel, The Big Sleep (1939), by four years, although he had been publishing short fiction in the pulps since December 1933, with the appearance of "Blackmailers Don't Shoot" in Black Mask.  Both men cited Dashiell Hammett as a guiding angel, though Steel in the article also discusses S. S. Van Dine, to whom deference still was paid at this time by many in the United States (where he had once been a huge bestseller) as one of the leading exponents of the classical, puzzle-oriented mystery novel.

In the beginning of the essay Steel (who was actually NYU philosophy professor Rudolf Kagey) jumps right into a problem that then much preoccupied mystery fiction theorists of the day (and would continue to do for decades to come, as, for example, when Julian Symons and Jacques Barzun jousted over the question in the 1970s): the distinction between the mystery as story and the mystery as puzzle.  Steel was most definitely in the story school, as he saw it.

Rudolph Kagey (aka Kurt Steel) in the classroom
at left are three NYC policemen who were taking special classes at NYU

"The problem of compiling a puzzle is one which belongs properly to the realm of logic and mathematics," Steel pronounced.  "As such it has nothing to do with the problem of writing a story.  Nothing whatever.  If you intend to write mysteries, you must understand that, and you must bear it in mind constantly.  You must learn, first of all, to write a story, a yarn, fiction that is honest and true in its own right, about people who are real with that impelling reality that people in well-written fiction have always had since Homer's day."

Steel declared that the "traditional detective story," by which he meant one centered strictly on the murder problem ("Who killed Cock Robin?"), is "simply a freezing of this universal pattern into one small and cramping mold.

the classic confession scene
"[T]o write a mystery story that has one chance in a hundred of making the magazines that pay, or which will have more than a one-day sale as a book," he advised mystery writing neophytes, "you must concentrate on some age-old problems of craftsmanship in addition to making a pretty puzzle and hiding clues.  You must learn to create characters, characters equipped with full complements of the vital juices; you must learn to describe a scene so that it sticks in the reader's mind...; you must learn the genuine springs of love and hate and fear and malice and charity and dip your story deep in them; you must, above all, never cheapen your story by sacrificing what you know to be the truth in order to achieve a flashy effect."

Like other prominent mystery fiction theorists at the time like Chandler and Dorothy L. Sayers, Steel was calling on the mystery story to move into the mainstream of fiction by adopting the qualities of the so-called "straight" novel; not relying "merely" on the puzzle to carry the tale, but rather the qualities of good writing, characterization, setting and scene.

"If you expect to be a success at writing mystery stories, you must set yourself to impressing people in such a way that they will not readily forget the stories you write.  That is the test.  To do that you must create something, not merely record the intricacies of the puzzle....a cash customer's experience in reading your story must be predominantly emotional. He must, in the act of reading what you have written, feel sympathy, suspense, hatred, grief, concupiscence, jubilation.  In short, he must participate in events which are dramatic because they involve the lives of genuine people brought together only incidentally by crime...."

Steel turned for an example to Dashiell Hammett's keystone hard-boiled text, The Maltese Falcon:

creator of the "blond Satan"
Dashiell Hammett
"If you will read (or re-read) Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon you will see what I mean.  Who cares whether a ragpicker or a Kleagle or Floyd Thursby actually killed Miles Archer?  But what reader can put that book down after the first paragraph, in which he meets Sam Spade who "looked rather pleasantly like a blond Satan"?  And who, on finishing the book, can forget Brigid O'Shaugnessy, Joel Cairo, Gutman, Spade himself (who, despite the brevity of his career, deserves to live in the company of Vidocq and Holmes)?

The Maltese Falcon
is a book you don't forget, and it is that because it is a whale of a good yarn about fascinating people."

This emphasis on the mystery as being dependent primarily on the reader's emotional rather than ratiocinative engagement certainly goes against the Barzun school of mystery criticism, which cherishes the problem-oriented detective novel above all other forms of mystery. However, Steel did not, as Chandler sometimes seemed to, utterly discount the matter of the puzzle. 

sitting in judgment
S. S. Van Dine
Concerning the "construction and development of puzzles," Steel advised readers to consult S. S. Van Dine's Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories

Seventeen of the rules, Steel pronounced, "should be committed sternly to heart by anyone who tries to construct detective stories," as they "give a brilliant and simple chart of the pitfalls to be avoided."

Steel doesn't say what are Van Dine's three offending rules, but I feel confident that two he had in mind were the ones dealing with love interest and, to quote Van Dine's memorable term, "literary dallying":

#3 There must be no love interest in the story.  To introduce amour is to clutter up a purely intellectual experience with irrelevant sentiment.

#16 A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no "atmospheric" preoccupations. Such matters have no vital place in a record of crime and detection.

Then there's the one (#17) that proscribes professional criminals as culprits, on the ground that the crimes such people commit "are the province of the police department--not of authors and brilliant amateur detectives."  Sniffed Van Dine: "Such crimes belong to the routine work of the Homicide Bureau."  (And. I might add more cynically, it saves the author from having to learn about police procedure.)

Steel offered three substitutions for Van Dine's "dubious trinity":

the sharp slap of reality
1. The detective...should not monopolize the spotlight to such an extent that his associates become mere lay figures slipping in and out of the wings at his bidding.  In my own case I have always tried to round out the cast of every story with several characters, each of which is interesting in his own right and with whom my Hank Hyer must share the stage whether he likes it or not.

2. The detective should be mortal like his opponent, not an observer of human frailties from the arctic eminence of his infallibility.  I have always been very careful to record Hyer's shortcomings candidly, never to gloss over his mistakes and the jams in which they land him.  Anyone who likes Hyer, likes him as a human being, not a calculating machine.

3. The pattern of the story should be such that minor characters are permitted to manifest a wider range of emotional response than merely fear, bewilderment, and prostration at the genius's feet.  That is, they should reveal idiosyncrasies, get into peripheral scrapes, make love.  In Judas, Incorporated I have extended the emotional latitude to include Hyer himself.
a chess problem
While Steel paid due, with exceptions duly noted, to Van Dine's rules, he nevertheless diagnosed readings of Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, Red Harvest and The Thin Man as a "safe antidote to [Van Dine's] formalism.  These books of Hammett's are superior to anything Mr. Van Dine has written himself precisely because they break three of his cherished rules."

No "oh-so-irritating wise guy crap here" (see my immediately previous post).  Just well-meant advice for neophyte mystery-writers. How on point do you find it?  Certainly it was in accord with the temper of the times, as most modern crime fiction, I believe, tries, at least, to follow ideas similar to those laid out in Steel's three addenda. 


  1. I agree with Van Dine about the romantic angle (for the detective at least). Many a novel has set my teeth on edge because the detective fell in love with the lady (usually accused of the crime) and started behaving like a love-sick teenager. J.D. Carr's otherwise interesting THE BLACK SPECTACLES was utterly ruined for me because of this trope.

    1. Agree totally about The Black Spectacles, what made that worse was that it was a cop who falls head over heels in love at first sight basically and proceeds to let it impact how he carries on the case. Carr wasn't the best person on love, though great with locked rooms. His lovers tend to act like adolescents. Steel actually handles the love element with his sleuth nicely in Judas, Incorporated, which I'll be talking about soon.

    2. Looking forward to your post on Judas, Incorporated. As for Carr,he was a genius in creating atmosphere and locked rooms but sometimes he went completely off as in the 'shotgun wedding' episode in BLACK SPECTACLES.

    3. Yeah, Carr is masterful with atmosphere when the bickering lovers don't intrude. I did a post of four capsule Carr reviews at this blog and each book excelled in that regard.

      As for amor I agree with TS Eliot, if you can't do it well, leave it out, or leave it as a postulate, as he put it.

  2. "And. I might add more cynically, it saves the author from having to learn about police procedure."

    Something that some "mystery" writers still published in modern times are guilty of.

    Better to look to Van Dine than Carolyn Wells for advice on detective fiction writing. I like what he has to say and it still works as excellent advice for budding detective fiction (not crime fiction) writers. With all the interest in Golden Age revival and reissues of the long forgotten detective novels I still wonder when the Renaissance of detective fiction writing will take place.

    1. I tend to agree that Van Dine got a little dogmatic in his rules, he himself even broke the one about love interest, but then he was looking on the detective novel as, as he says, an intellectual experience, where Steel is saying you have to draw people in emotionally. By the Forties Steel probably was generally right, at least in terms of garnering sales.

  3. Curt, recently I read two mysteries which had a romantic angle. Trent's Last Case was quite ruined as Black Spectacles while Before the Fact was a very very strange story.

  4. "Literary dallying." Delicious phrase!