Rules for the Aspiring Detective, Part One

The 1920s and 30s, commonly known as the Golden Age of Detective Stories, saw the rise of many of our most famous mystery writers. Among them were Agatha Christie, GK Chesterton, Margery Allingham, Dorothy Sayers, Dashiell Hammett, Ellery Queen, Josephine Tey and Raymond Chandler. Mysteries moved from primarily being the sphere of the short story to novel length, and different styles developed. The cozy mystery, the English country house, hard -- boiled, and locked room stories emerged, for example. It was during this period that, in a preface to Best Detective Stories of 1928-29, priest, mystery writer and editor Robert Knox laid down the 10 Rules for Detective Fiction. These rules are often referred to as the corner stone of mystery writing in the Golden Age of Detective Stories. Did he mean them to be taken completely seriously, or were they given tongue -- in -- cheek? Honestly, I can't tell. It's very hard to assign motive and intent to something done years ago. Whatever his attitude, the rules do promote the idea of fair play between the writer and reader, something many of us still appreciate today. Here, with my thoughts added, are those 10 rules.

Rule #1. "The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know." Thus the innocent sounding narrator can't turn out to be the murderer in disguise. The inverted mystery is an exception to this rule. In this type of story we know who did it, how and why. The fun is in watching the detective unravel the clues and track the miscreant down. For some reason, I think these inversions work better when seen than read. Examplers are TV’s Columbo and Law and Order: CI. Is there anyone who doesn't get a secret thrill every time Columbo turns to the bad guy and says, "Oh, just one more question..."

Rule #2. "All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course." This eliminates Gothic novels, generally defined as a combination of horror, mystery, and romance, which is fine by me. I'm not a fan of them, I don't even like Jane Eyre. (Sorry, April.) While I generally prefer to avoid anything smacking of the supernatural in my stories, Knox only asks that any such elements eventually be explained by rational means. Georgette Heyer's Footsteps in the Dark is one such book that I do enjoy; it's long been one of my favorites. A husband and wife, brother, sister and their aunt all move into the Priory, where strange noises and a ghostly monk soon begin to unnerve some of them. I like the common sense attitude of the other characters, the descriptions of the house, the humor, and the relationships between the everyone in this book. The final explanation may stretch my credulity a bit, but I still enjoy every reread.

Rule #3. "Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable." Alas for Nancy Drew! I'm certain she broke this rule many times, and I so glad. I grew up in a very straightforward farmhouse -- no secret passages there. Even Grandma's old Victorian only ran to a damp cellar and a few oddly shaped closets. I think there's something enticing about a house with hidden panels and winding passageways. Come to think of it, Footsteps in the Dark has some of those, too. Even C. S. Lewis used this idea for the wardrobe in his Narnia books -- not mysteries, I know -- but if it's good enough for Aslan it's good enough for me. (Is the tesseract in Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time the modern equivalent the old fashioned secret passageway? It's something to ponder...)

Rule #4. "No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end." How about nixing any ending which requires a long drawn out explanation? I love Christie’s What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw, but it does bog down a bit when Miss Marple begins to explain the railway timetable, curves in the track, and exactly how dear Elsa McG. saw what she did. On the other hand, I should be perfectly honest and admit that I don’t really care exactly how it happened, and I always just skip that part of the story, since I’m willing to take it on faith. She sat in one moving train and saw the murder being done on a different one, all right? Who cares how British rail allowed it to happen.

Rule #5 "No Chinaman must figure in the story."
This reference to a Chinamen really alludes to any of the mysterious foreigners equipped with weird, often animal like powers that could be found skulking around many mysteries of the age. I wish Conan Doyle had obeyed this last point. In my opinion The Sign of the Four is ruined in part by his interjection of a mysterious aborigine climbing up drain pipes, hiding in the attic, and shooting poisoned darts with his blow pipe. The unfortunately bizarre and unhuman characterizations of these foreigners is often embarrassingly bigoted to today’s readers. In fairness it should be pointed out that this rule does not, of course, apply to mysteries actually set in China, Chinatown, or a foreign country. In that case Knox would presumably rule out mysterious bands of Englishmen instead.

These are the first five of Robert Knox's rules. What do you think of them, in reference to your favorite mysteries, or any other books for that matter?
The rest of his list will be in my next post. In the meantime...

Read Well, Friend


Anna L. Walls said...

Thanks for stopping by my blog. Obviously I should visit here more often. Though mystery isn't really my cup of tea, in all things, life is a mystery. Great post. If you don't mind, I'm going to share it with some young writer friends of mine on Goodreads.

Teri K said...

Anna -- Share away.
Indeed, life is a mystery. It's also a constant balancing act of right/wrong, good/evil, the individual/community, etc. To me, that's part of what mysteries are about. The balance is disturbed, can it be restored, and at what cost?

Robyn Campbell said...

Teri, I have been writing a YA mystery. I actually started it and I put it on the back burner until I finish my MG book. But I can't wait to get back to it. I especially love #3, but they are all very helpful. Great, thoughtful post, girl.

How are you anyway? I hope life is good for you. *hugs*

Teri K said...

Robyn -
I've been OK, just dealing with lots of stuff. I'm glad to hear you're still writing.
Keep it up and be blessed.

April said...

NOOOOOOOO! Not Jane Eyre!!! Say it ain't so!