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January 10, 2014

The Rules of Detective Fiction

Two weeks ago we ran a quiz question on the “Ten Commandments” of mystery writing, and here’s a long answer (the short answer: 4). As issued in 1929 by the right Reverend (and later Father) Ronald Knox, the rules were as follows:

    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.
    All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
    Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.

    No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
    No Chinaman must figure in the story.
    No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
    The detective himself must not commit the crime.
    The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.
    The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
    Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

The prohibitions against love-interests (they “clutter up a purely intellectual experience with irrelevant sentiment”) and servants-as-bad-guys (“if the crime was the sordid work of a menial, the author would have had no business to embalm it in book-form”) were among the Rules coined in 1928 by mystery-writer S.S. Van Dine, creator of the “Philo Vance” series. If Van Dine’s attitude strikes you as….well, if it makes you look with increased fondness on Father Ronald, you’re not alone: Ogden Nash wrote a lovely little poem that reads in its entirety

    Philo Vance
    Needs a kick in the pance.

And Raymond Chandler labeled him “the most asinine character in detective fiction.”

Here at Felony & Mayhem, we have thought long and hard about the rules of detective fiction. We have come up with our own Commandments. They are as follows:

1. Tell a good story
2. Tell it well
3. If at all possible, avoid having an animal solve the crime

Beyond that, we keep an open mind. How about you? Do you have any deal-breakers, when it comes to mysteries?



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