As such things go, detective fiction is the new kid on the literary block. Unlike romance, which can trace its roots back to the middle ages, the detective story burst on the scene in 1841 with Edgar Allen Poe’s detective Auguste Dupin.
Several decades later, Sherlock burst on the scene 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, when the likes of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers plied 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 a 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?
Personally, I have no problem with most of the oath, though I confess to enjoying 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 take a look at five of Ronnie’s rules and see how they’ve stood the test of time:
Rule 1: 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 no 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. In fact, some contemporary reviewers were so upset, they actually called the Grand Dame of Mystery a cheat!
Rule 2: There must not be more than one secret room or passage.
I guess Dan Brown didn’t get the memo.
Rule 3: No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
An excellent rule as the real deal–or poison–is almost always preferable to some made-up concoction. I added “almost” because this was another commandment that Christie broke, most notably with the fictitious hypertensive drug Serenite in A Caribbean Mystery and the equally fake sedative Calmo in The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side.
Rule 4: No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
This depends upon how intuition is defined. A gut feeling or sudden insight is valid only when the insight is based on information that the sleuth has gathered.
Rule 5: 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.
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. Taking him at his word, I wrote 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. A writer can break any rule she pleases, but only if it serves a purpose.
In other words: Rules are useful, unless they’re not!