North by Northwest Theme


On July 17,1959, North by Northwest premiered in Los Angeles. I'm a big fan of Hitchcock and North by Northwest is one of my favorite films, if only for that amazing crop duster scene. Here the master explains:
“Now in movies…the cliche of the man being put on the spot is usually a place of assignation and it takes the form of a figure under a street lamp at the corner of the street with the rain-washed cobbles shining in the night…this is the cliche atmosphere in which you put a man who has been deliberately placed in danger. Somebody is going to come along and bump him off. Well of course, this is such a cliche thing, you see, that one has to fight shy of it and run as far away from it as one possibly can because it’s all predictable. Now I decide to do something quite different… I take the loneliest, emptiest spot I can so that there is no place to run for cover, no place to hide, and no place for the enemy to hide.”

He turns the cliche fresh by reimagining the setting--and what a setting it was!

Also, the theme music is superb. It fits the driving suspense that doesn't let up! 


The Rules of Murder

Detective fiction is the new kid on the literary block. Unlike romance, which traces its roots back to the middle ages, the detective story burst on the scene in 1841 with Edgar Allen Poe and his brilliant detective Auguste Dupin.
Several decades later, Sherlock made his debut in  A Study in Scarlet and the game was really
afoot. By the twenties and thirties the so-called Golden Age of Detective Fiction arrived, with the likes of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers plying their trade. As many of these writers were based in London, it was perhaps inevitable that they formed their own society--the Detection Club.

Like any club worth its salt, there was an elaborate initiation ceremony, including this sacred 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 and not placing reliance on or making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?
Members of The Detection Club, detecting the Sunday Times
Personally, I have no problem with most of the oath, though I enjoy a little jiggery-pokery now and again. In addition to the blood oath, members were also expected to follow ten commandments in writing a mystery. The rules were set down in stone by Ronald Knox in 1928. Let's check out a few of these rules to see how well they've stood the test of time.

The criminal must be named in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow I have no problem with the first part as it's just a question of playing fair with the reader. Also, the interplay between the sleuth and killer is a big part of the fun in any murder mystery. However, I'm not so sure about about that last bit. If Agatha Christie had taken this rule to heart, she'd have never written the classic The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, where--spoiler alert--the killer narrates the tale. It's one of mystery's great novels and yet at the time of its publication, some contemporary reviewers were so upset, they  actually called The Grand Dame of Mystery a cheat.

Not more than one secret room or passage. I guess Dan Brown didn't get the memo.

No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end. A good rule as the real deal--or poison--is almost always preferable to some made-up concoction. I added "almost" because this was another rule Christie broke, most notably with the fictitious hypertensive drug Serenite in A Caribbean Mystery and equally fake sedative Calmo in The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side


 The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader. In other words, play fair with your readers, or else you won't have them for very long! In the opening chapter of Death at China Rose, I slipped in a little fact that virtually identifies the killer. Of course neither my sleuth nor the reader has the context to use that information at that early date--sneaky, but fair.

Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them. I've always found the twin thing boring and done to death, though an episode of Endeavour which involved  twins kept my interest. But then I'm nuts about Shaun Evans so anything his Morse does is fine by me! However, if a writer wants to go with twins, I'd advise caution. Extreme caution.

So, are the rules still viable? Before I get to my final verdict, here's  a quick cautionary tale.


When I attended the University of Florida, postmodernism was the big thing. In one of my classes the professor instructed us to write an paper without any rules.

Elvis Presley 
rocking his moneymaker in jail
I took him at his word and constructed a frenetic paper that incorporated everything from Derrida to Moby Dick to Elvis's phallus. (Trust me, you don't want to know.)

Writing the paper was a liberating experience. I jumped from topic to topic in a steam of consciousness that would have done Joyce proud. It was fun and I even got an A!

A year of so after the fact, I was going through some old papers and came across my forgotten masterpiece. A sappy smile on my face, I started reading. Pretty soon, my smile twisted into a grimace. The damn essay made no sense. It was just a bunch of random thoughts tied together with string and spit, signifying nothing. (Sorry, Elvis.) The fact is that rules exist for a reason. If you're going to break them, you too need a reason--a good one

My rule is that rules are useful, unless they're not!

Agatha Christie Memorial in London's West End

The Mousetrap

As every mystery fan knows, Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap holds the record for  the longest running play in the world.

As a lifelong lover of Christie, I'd long wanted to see The Mousetrap, and a few years ago, I got my chance. Even so, I wasn't sure the play was still fresh enough to entertain. On stage since 1952, The Mousetrap has been performed over 25,000 times! After that many years, things can get a little creaky.

Well, I was wrong--dead wrong!




Built in 1901, the cozy St. Martin's Theater is the perfect venue for a classic murder mystery. The interior is somehow both intimate and elegant, an Edwardian feast of burnished woods and heavy burgundy curtains flecked with gold. I overheard a woman complaining about the tight seating, but that is the price of communing with the past--asmall price, in my view.


But as they say, the play's the thing, and in this classic who-done-it, Dame Agatha didn't disappoint.
Writing a mystery is a bit like juggling, only instead of balls, you're juggling suspects. The writer strives to keep as many suspects in play as possible so that the reader--or viewer--is never quite sure who the killer is, until the last possible moment. But as the plot grows in complexity, it becomes more and more difficult to keep everything moving--inevitably balls are dropped or discarded as the suspect pool shrinks.


 The Mousetrap is a closed mystery. Because of a severe winter storm, the seven characters--along with the intrepid Detective Sergeant Trotter--are marooned at a guesthouse. One of them is a murderer, but which one?

Until the play's closing moments, any one of the suspects could have been the killer--that's the equivalent of juggling seven balls over two hours. Believe me, that's a lot of balls! As a mystery writer, I can only stand back in awe.


So maybe The Mousetrap is old-school. And maybe it creaks with the conventions of an earlier time. But all the elements that made Agatha Christie great are in this play. So take my advice, and put it on your bucket list.


Or even better, just hop the next plane to London.