Monsignor Ronald Knox (1888-1957) was British; as a Catholic priest, spiritual retreat leader, and writer he had a knack for expressing religious values with empathy, kindness, and humor. He had a particular interest in ritual and ceremony.
In addition to being a religious scholar, he also wrote mysteries, at a time when the puzzle mystery—long on complex, twisty plots and short on characterization—was all the rage in Britain. In 1928 he published his Decalogue of the Mystery: The ten rules of detective fiction.
1. Introduce the murderer early but the reader should not be allowed to know the murderers thoughts.
It’s not hard to imagine that this first rule was a direct result of reading Chrisie’s infamousThe Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which had been published just two years before. Today—with the multiplicity of narrators and styles in mysteries—it’s hard for us to imagine just how unfair many readers felt the Dame had been when she tricked her readers with the unreliable narrator, Dr. James Shepherd.
2. All super natural or preternatural agencies are to be ruled out.
Interest in spiritualism had a huge resurgence in Britain, and to a lesser extent, in the United States after the Great War. Popular fiction was awash with ghosts, seances, open tombs, and strange visions on mist-shrouded nights. I suspect that Knox, given his strong religious beliefs, found those conventions far most distasteful than the average reader did.
3. No accidents or unaccountable intuition.
I think he objected to this because it broke the rules of ritual. Detection must be carried out in an orderly fashion.
4. Only one secret passageway is allowed.
For me, this one conjures up a house like the one on the Clue board, awash with secret passages from the kitchen to the library, from the master bedroom to the secret garden gate, or from the attic to the cook’s bedroom. And all of the characters roaming around all night and not getting a whit sleep.
5. All clues must be shown at once.
He probably didn’t mean all the clues had to be out in the open by the end of page three, but rather that all clues did need to be out in the open sometime before the detective said, “And the killer is. . .”
6. Never make the detective the killer.
Not playing fair. Playing fields of Britain and all that. Very British.
7. No Chinamen.
Sorry, not at all politically correct, but that’s what he said. All too often people from exotic, distant locations were looked upon as good possibilities for killers. They were sinister, had access to exotic poisons (see rule #8 below), and were thought to be unencumbered by good British morals.
8. No undiscovered poisons.
9. No unprepared-for twins or doubles.
Darn. That eliminates the old family retainer, now half-blind and living in a grace-and-favor cottage on the grounds, who looks up at the heroine at precisely the right moment and says, “Why didn’t you know, missy, Lord Randall had an identical twin. His brother went off to Canada,* and we ain’t heard from him in years.”
*Why is it always Canada?
10. The stupid friend (of the detective) must never conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind, and his intelligence must be very slightly below that of the average reader.
Ah, this eliminates our beloved Dr. Watson saying, “What does it all mean, Holmes?” And Holmes—for me always Jeremy Brett, holding that long, aristocratic finger against his lips—replying, “It means, Watson, that treachery and deceit are afoot. We must go to the British museum immediately. There’s not a moment to lose.”
Can we update the decalogue? What are the things you’d like eliminated from the modern mystery? Here’s my pet peeve:
No intelligent, strong woman will be trapped alone with the killer because a) she didn’t bother to tell anyone she was going to the deserted mill alone and b) she forgot to charge her cell phone.
Writing quote for the week:
There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.
~W. Somerset Maugham, English novelist