RONALD KNOX’S TEN COMMANDMENTS OF DETECTIVE FICTION

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Ronald Arbuthnott Knox (17 February 1888 – 24 August 1957) was an English priest, theologian and author of detective stories. He was also a writer and a regular broadcaster for BBC Radio. Knox went to Eton College, England, and went on to win several scholarships at Balliol College, Oxford. He was ordained an Anglican priest in 1912 and was appointed chaplain of Trinity College, Oxford, but he left in 1917 upon his conversion to Catholicism. In 1918 he was ordained a Catholic priest.

In addition to being a Catholic priest, theologian, broadcaster, essayist and translator, he also wrote six popular novels in the detective fiction genre. Knox was a student of this particular form of literature and, typical of his astute and powerfully analytical brain, he came up with his own Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction. Here they are:

1.   The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.

Okay, this one is rather longwinded but it is logical. If you want your readers to be satisfied at the end, the criminal must be a character they have already met in the course of the book. Using a surprise hobo who has just drifted into town and decided to murder one of the local gentry is cheating. Knox was, of course, aware that this cheat was used in many of the fashionable crime magazines of the day, but found them just as abhorrent as we would do today.

Knox was much more subtle. Yes, the culprit must be a character in the story. But it must not be a character that the reader has had the chance to sympathize with. If the author pulls that trick, the reader feels cheated and is likely never to indulge the writer with any further book purchases. There are exceptions to this rule, nevertheless, as in the case of Agatha Christie’s brilliant “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd,” which was published in 1926. It didn’t hurt her sales one little bit. Evidently, Agatha had a different set of rules…

2.     All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.

This is not fantasy we’re dealing with here. It’s real life – well, sort of. Readers are creatures of habit – aren’t we all? – and demand that the author play the game. Here there are no fairies, elves, ghosts, saints, angels, demons or trolls to clutter up the literary landscape. Just give us the facts, right? Except this is fiction and not fact. The novelist Stephen King seems to have done a creditable job of mixing straight fiction with fantasy (as did C.S. Lewis’s pal, Charles Williams). So why is the whodunit exempt? Possibly because, like the hobo in rule 1, it is a device that is too easy and, again, leaves the reader feeling cheated.

3.     Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.

Here, Knox sounds peeved about the irritating way in which writers magically produce secret passages in old houses and trick switches in libraries that unlock secret doorways which swing out to allow the protagonist to pass on and discover the secret room. Too many of the thriller writers of the period produced this rabbit out of the hat. The word “secret” is key. Knox wants a straightforward mystery where the reader sees every hand that is played and there are no wild cards. The enjoyment is in guessing the culprit before the detective has revealed who it is, not in wildly surmising architectural anomalies and physical impossibilities.

4.   No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.

This, again, would be too easy. Foisting a South-East-Asian weed, or a sinister contraption on the reader smacks of cheating. It is a device that is favored by the writers of adventure stories. John Buchan wasn’t above the odd mechanism or appliance. He used that to give Richard Hannay pause in “The Thirty-Nine Steps” and it didn’t really come off. It was a lazy technique that could have turned out much more convincing if there had been some human interaction, rather than a scene in which the red-faced hero struggles with wooden beams, gears and cogs for half an hour, while the nefarious criminal makes his escape.

5.     No Chinaman must figure in the story.

Chinaman? What Chinaman? This harks back to the dying days of the British Empire when all sorts of foreign nationals were flooding into London to do commerce with the biggest power players on the planet. The Chinaman was regularly used as the evil mastermind character in the magazines of the day. In the 1920s the Chinese were seen as exotic, sinister and somehow not quite above board. Here they were infiltrating British society, selling their unfamiliar wares and slightly distasteful take on life to the masses in the great metropolis. They were trying to take over our lives, by Jove!

When you pick up any appliance, from a toothbrush to a garden hose, and find the words: “Made in China,” you have to ask yourself if things have changed significantly in a hundred years – including our attitudes.

6.     No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.

The premise of all classic whodunits is that the reader must be presented with all the same facts that the detective has. The purpose of this is to give the reader an equal chance to solve the puzzle. Coincidences, chance happenings and bizarre hunches rob the reader of that sense of being just as smart as the hero of the piece, because they are the hand of external agency in a world we thought was a level playing field. Readers are sensitive to that in the same way that cryptic-crossword solvers are sensitive to being given a fair chance to complete the puzzle by being given fair clues.

7.     The detective must not himself commit the crime.

In reality there is little room for this particular brand of shenanigan. Many detective novels are designed to be part of a series in which the detective solves crime after crime. If the culprit turns out to be the same person who is investigating, then the author has effectively shot him- or herself in the foot in terms of a putative sequel. It is true that the most convincing detective characters should also have their own faults and wrestle with their own demons. But the author must stop short of allocating blame for the main crime to the detective, otherwise what you end up with is a kind of moral anarchy in which the reader ceases to care about solving the crime.

8.    The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.

This is a tricky one. As mentioned, the reader should have the same chance to solve the crime that the detective has. But to the same extent the author must have enough latitude that he or she does not have to telegraph each clue. Often the best way to introduce clues is as asides, or in minor conversations, or in apparently insignificant details arising that are quickly passed over. In that case, the reader really does know each clue, but not its immediate significance for the solving of the crime.

9.   The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.

The Watson character’s purpose is to highlight the intelligence of the detective, ask the same questions that the reader is asking, and occasionally to summarize the investigation’s progress so far. The reason why he has to be dumber than the reader is to give the reader that superb sense of superiority that comes from being one step ahead of him. In a sense, the reader should be able to answer many of the questions that the Watson figure articulates.

10.  Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

These literary devices, by our time, have worn decidedly thin and smack of the lazy author who can’t resist pulling a fast one in order to solve chunks of the puzzle. Even if the author has prepared the reader for the appearance of the twin or double, the modern reader will experience a sense of letdown when the fact is revealed.

Virtually all of these “rules” have been broken by successful novelists who had the skill to hold the reader’s attention beyond the first few pages, through the ensuing story, right to the denouement. In fact, many of Knox’s rules seem superfluous, or at least partially inapplicable to modern day detective fiction. And yet, taken as a whole, they present us with the proposition that, in this particular genre, care must be taken over the telling, the explication and the execution of a story that is meant to be an entertainment which challenges the reader’s intellect and is worth the price on the cover of the book.

As for detective fiction the rules were codified in 1929 by priest Ronald

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_Age_of_Detective_Fiction

By S.S. Van Dine
September 1928 edition of The American Magazine

The detective story is a game. It is more–it is a sporting event. And the author must play fair with the reader. He can no more resort to trickeries and deceptions and still retain his honesty than if he cheated in a bridge game. He must outwit the reader, and hold the reader’s interest, through sheer ingenuity. For the writing of detective stories there are very definite laws–unwritten, perhaps, but none the less binding: and every respectable and self-respecting concocter of literary mysteries lives up to them.

Herewith, then, is a sort of Credo, based partly on the practice of all the great writers of stories, and partly on the promptings of the honest author’s inner conscience. To wit:

  1. The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.
  2. No willful tricks or deceptions may be played on the reader other than those played legitimately by the criminal on the detective himself.
  3. There must be no love interest in the story. To introduce amour is to clutter up a purely intellectual experience with irrelevant sentiment. The business in hand is to bring a criminal to the bar of justice, not to bring a lovelorn couple to the hymeneal altar.
  4. The detective himself, or one of the official investigators, should never turn out to be the culprit. This is bald trickery, on a par with offering some one a bright penny for a five-dollar gold piece. It’s false pretenses.
  5. The culprit must be determined by logical deductions–not by accident or coincidence or unmotivated confession. To solve a criminal problem in this latter fashion is like sending the reader on a deliberate wild-goose chase, and then telling him, after he has failed, that you had the object of his search up your sleeve all the time. Such an author is no better than a practical joker.
  6. The detective novel must have a detective in it; and a detective is not a detective unless he detects. His function is to gather clues that will eventually lead to the person who did the dirty work in the first chapter; and if the detective does not reach his conclusions through an analysis of those clues, he has no more solved his problem than the schoolboy who gets his answer out of the back of the arithmetic.
  7. There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better. No lesser crime than murder will suffice. Three hundred pages is far too much pother for a crime other than murder. After all, the reader’s trouble and expenditure of energy must be rewarded. Americans are essentially humane, and therefore a tiptop murder arouses their sense of vengeance and horror. They wish to bring the perpetrator to justice; and when “murder most foul, as in the best it is,” has been committed, the chase is on with all the righteous enthusiasm of which the thrice gentle reader is capable.
  8. The problem of the crime must be solved by strictly naturalistic means. Such methods for learning the truth as slate-writing, ouija-boards, mind-reading, spiritualistic séances, crystal-gazing, and the like, are taboo. A reader has a chance when matching his wits with a rationalistic detective, but if he must compete with the world of spirits and go chasing about the fourth dimension of metaphysics, he is defeated ab initio.
  9. There must be but one detective–that is, but one protagonist of deduction–one deus ex machine. To bring the minds of three or four, or sometimes a gang of detectives to bear on a problem is not only to disperse the interest and break the direct thread of logic, but to take an unfair advantage of the reader, who, at the outset, pits his mind against that of the detective and proceeds to do mental battle. If there is more than one detective the reader doesn’t know who his co-deductor is. It’s like making the reader run a race with a relay team.
  10. The culprit must turn out to be a person who has played a more or less prominent part in the story–that is, a person with whom the reader is familiar and in whom he takes an interest. For a writer to fasten the crime, in the final chapter, on a stranger or person who has played a wholly unimportant part in the tale, is to confess to his inability to match wits with the reader.
  11. Servants–such as butlers, footmen, valets, game-keepers, cooks, and the like–must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. This is begging a noble question. It is a too easy solution. It is unsatisfactory, and makes the reader feel that his time has been wasted. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person–one that wouldn’t ordinarily come under suspicion; for if the crime was the sordid work of a menial, the author would have had no business to embalm it in book-form.
  12. There must be but one culprit, no matter how many murders are committed. The culprit may, of course, have a minor helper or co-plotter; but the entire onus must rest on one pair of shoulders: the entire indignation of the reader must be permitted to concentrate on a single black nature.
  13. Secret societies, camorras, mafias, et al., have no place in a detective story. Here the author gets into adventure fiction and secret-service romance. A fascinating and truly beautiful murder is irremediably spoiled by any such wholesale culpability. To be sure, the murderer in a detective novel should be given a sporting chance, but it is going too far to grant him a secret society (with its ubiquitous havens, mass protection, etc.) to fall back on. No high-class, self-respecting murderer would want such odds in his jousting-bout with the police.
  14. The method of murder, and the means of detecting it, must be rational and scientific. That is to say, pseudo-science and purely imaginative and speculative devices are not to be tolerated in the roman policier. For instance, the murder of a victim by a newly found element–a super-radium, let us say–is not a legitimate problem. Nor may a rare and unknown drug, which has its existence only in the author’s imagination, be administered. A detective-story writer must limit himself, toxicologically speaking, to the pharmacopoeia. Once an author soars into the realm of fantasy, in the Jules Verne manner, he is outside the bounds of detective fiction, cavorting in the uncharted reaches of adventure.
  15. The truth of the problem must at all times be apparent–provided the reader is shrewd enough to see it. By this I mean that if the reader, after learning the explanation for the crime, should reread the book, he would see that the solution had, in a sense, been staring him in the face–that all the clues really pointed to the culprit–and that, if he had been as clever as the detective, he could have solved the mystery himself without going on to the final chapter. That the clever reader does often thus solve the problem goes without saying. And one of my basic theories of detective fiction is that, if a detective story is fairly and legitimately constructed, it is impossible to keep the solution from all readers. There will inevitably be a certain number of them just as shrewd as the author; and if the author has shown the proper sportsmanship and honesty in his statement and projection of the crime and its clues, these perspicacious readers will be able, by analysis, elimination and logic, to put their finger on the culprit as soon as the detective does. And herein lies the zest of the game. Herein we have an explanation for the fact that readers who would spurn the ordinary “popular” novel will read detective stories unblushingly.
  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 deduction. They hold up the action, and introduce issues irrelevant to the main purpose, which is to state a problem, analyze it, and bring it to a successful conclusion. To be sure, there must be a sufficient descriptiveness and character delineation to give the novel verisimilitude; but when an author of a detective story has reached that literary point where he has created a gripping sense of reality and enlisted the reader’s interest and sympathy in the characters and the problem, he has gone as far in the purely “literary” technique as is legitimate and compatible with the needs of a criminal-problem document. A detective story is a grim business, and the reader goes to it, not for literary furbelows and style and beautiful descriptions and the projection of moods, but for mental stimulation and intellectual activity–just as he goes to a ball game or to a cross-word puzzle. Lectures between innings at the Polo Grounds on the beauties of nature would scarcely enhance the interest in the struggle between two contesting baseball nines; and dissertations on etymology and orthography interspersed in the definitions of a cross-word puzzle would tend only to irritate the solver bent on making the words interlock correctly.
  17. A professional criminal must never be shouldered with the guilt of a crime in a detective story. Crimes by house-breakers and bandits are the province of the police department–not of authors and brilliant amateur detectives. Such crimes belong to the routine work of the Homicide Bureaus. A really fascinating crime is one committed by a pillar of a church, or a spinster noted for her charities.
  18. A crime in a detective story must never turn out to be an accident or a suicide. To end an odyssey of sleuthing with such an anti-climax is to play an unpardonable trick on the reader. If a book-buyer should demand his two dollars back on the ground that the crime was a fake, any court with a sense of justice would decide in his favor and add a stinging reprimand to the author who thus hoodwinked a trusting and kind-hearted reader.
  19. The motives for all crimes in detective stories should be personal. International plottings and war politics belong in a different category of fiction–in secret-service tales, for instance. But a murder story must be kept gem¸tlich, so to speak. It must reflect the reader’s everyday experiences, and give him a certain outlet for his own repressed desires and emotions.
  20. And (to give my Credo an even score of items) I herewith list a few of the devices which no self-respecting detective-story writer will now avail himself of. They have been employed too often, and are familiar to all true lovers of literary crime. To use them is a confession of the author’s ineptitude and lack of originality.
    1. ​Determining the identity of the culprit by comparing the butt of a cigarette left at the scene of the crime with the brand smoked by a suspect.
    2. The bogus spiritualistic séance to frighten the culprit into giving himself away.
    3. Forged finger-prints.
    4. The dummy-figure alibi.
    5. The dog that does not bark and thereby reveals the fact that the intruder is familiar.
    6. The final pinning of the crime on a twin, or a relative who looks exactly like the suspected, but innocent, person.
    7. The hypodermic syringe and the knockout drops.
    8. The commission of the murder in a locked room after the police have actually broken in.
    9. The word-association test for guilt.
    10. The cipher, or code letter, which is eventually unravelled by the sleuth.

S.S. Van Dine’s Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories

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