This week’s blog is by B.K. Stevens, author of the recently released YA martial arts mystery, Fighting Chance. Bonnie attended Bouchercon last month, and reports on the YA panel she participated in.
On a brisk, sunny day in early October, I participated in an unusual panel at the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention, held this year in Raleigh, North Carolina. The panel’s topic wasn’t unusual—these days, most mystery conferences devote a panel or two to young adult novels—but the panelists were.
On most YA mystery panels, all the panelists are middle-aged YA authors, like me. This time, three panelists were real, live young adults, members of a Georgia high-school mystery book club called The YA Review Team. They brought along a list they’d put together, titled “Ten Things We Wish YA Writers and Editors and Publishers Knew about Actual YAs (Like Us).” (For the full list, go to http://ccatmystery.blogspot.com/).
I enjoyed the list’s honesty, its insights, its humor. And I was struck by its similarity to some lists put together almost a century ago, during a period known as the Golden Age of mysteries. It was exciting to see these young readers affirm principles that helped shape the modern mystery.
The Golden Age of mysteries is usually seen as the 1920s and 1930s, when British authors such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers wrote their classic whodunits, and American authors such as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammet created their hardboiled private detectives. These authors were deeply aware that they were doing something new, writing stories and novels that would define a genre. And, especially on the other side of the Atlantic, some of them decided to set down tongue-in-cheek but deadly serious rules to guide the writers who would follow them. I see a lot of parallels between these long-ago rules and some of the items on the YA Review Team’s list.
For example, the YA Review Team insists the center of a mystery should be a detective who does some actual detecting: “Mysteries should be solved by the protagonist, through the clues she or he discovers.” Back in 1928, golden age author S.S. Van Dine made the same point in “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories.” “The detective novel must have a detective in it,” Van Dine says. “His function is to gather clues that will eventually lead to the person who did the dirty work.” Also in 1928, Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers helped found the Detection Club, devising an oath for its members to take. The first item in that oath? “Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them, using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them?” Golden Age mysteries center on using the intellect to interpret clues and solve crimes. The YA Review Team believes that standard still holds.
The YA Review Team also stresses the importance of playing fair with readers: “Readers should have access to the clues—we don’t like having solutions pulled out of magic hats at the end.” Van Dine makes the same point. “The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery,” he says. “All clues must be plainly stated and described.” And the Detection Club oath makes members swear “never to conceal a vital clue from the reader.”
What about the villain? The YA Review Team has strong opinions. “Villains are characters too,” the team says. “Don’t spring them on us at the end of the book. Develop them as fully as the other characters.” Golden Age authors agree. “The culprit must turn out to be a person who has played a more or less prominent part in the story,” Van Dine says, “that is, a person with whom the reader is familiar and in whom he takes an interest.” And in “A Detective Story Decalogue” (1929), Ronald A. Knox stipulates, “The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story.”
I could point out more similarities, but you get the point. The standards set by Golden Age writers still matter to mystery readers today, including YA readers. And some of today’s young mystery readers might just be tomorrow’s leading mystery writers. Could we be headed for a new Golden Age?
What are your own rules for mysteries? When you read a mystery, what makes you feel the writer has treated you fairly, and what drives you crazy with frustration? You might want to check out these Golden Age statements:
The Detection Club Oath— https://cburrell.wordpress.com/2007/09/10/oath-of-detection/
- S. Van Dine, “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories”— http://gaslight.mtroyal.ca/vandine.htm
Ronald A. Knox, “A Detective Story Decalogue”— http://www.thrillingdetective.com/trivia/triv186.html