Friday, October 07, 2011

Rules were made to be broken...

[Note: I am trying out something new today on the blog: instead of reviewing a book, I am discussing my impressions on a topic and trying to put them in a cohesive article. Feedback on this experiment is much appreciated, as I would like to include more posts like this in the future and would like to improve them.]

"This means war!"
—Daffy Duck, Who Framed Roger Rabbit

My reaction to James' book...
In her book Talking About Detective Fiction, P. D. James has a curious fixation for Ronald Knox and his “Ten Commandments” for detective fiction. This is one of the many points about the book which rather annoy me. Knox was not the only one to come up with rules, but James never even mentions this. She seems to believe that everyone took these rules as Law, and that any deviation was frowned upon with nothing but scorn. In fact, she goes on to say that “Rules and restrictions do not produce original, or good, literature, and the rules were not strictly adhered to.” This is a stunningly silly statement—if it were true, we might as well throw every book of poetry into the rubbish bin, because they all adhere to one rule: they must not be written in prose. 

If all goes well, you will hear more about James’ book and my problems with it in a few days. But for now, I’d like to examine Father Ronald Knox’s Decalogue. Just how futile is this attempt to define rules for the genre?

I. 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.
This is a rule that Agatha Christie famously broke in one of her novels, and some readers have never forgiven her for it… even today! I used to be a regular contributor to the Agatha Christie forum, and back then, one member always went into a furious rant over just how atrociously bad this book was. I kept pointing out just how fair it played—every clue was placed there and there were no explicit lies, just carefully sidestepping around the issue of giving information on a point or two.

I think Knox was trying to make a distinction between Christie’s level of ingenuity and that of second-rate hacks who would try clearing suspicion by having X wonder in their thoughts “Oh! This is so horrible! Who could be behind these murders???” only to have X turn out to be the killer. After Christie came up with this twist, many derivative carbon copies were written… including one by Christie herself, late in her career.

II. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
This really depends on what you are trying to write. For instance, when I examined Paul Doherty’s Ghostly Murders, I remarked that the supernatural is required for the mystery. In fact, the mystery revolves around the supernatural— why are ghosts haunting the church and what reparation can be made to get rid of them? Here, the supernatural is perfectly permissible—in fact, I’d love to read more of these hybrids between mystery and ghost story.

However, if your detective is trying to find out just how an assassin got in and out of a sealed room to behead Lord Ragamuffin and then place his head inside a chocolate cake, you can’t just blame it on the ghost of the first Lady Ragamuffin, who returned from the dead and killed her husband because of his second wife’s atrocious taste in ties. It’s “bad form”, but it also makes everything you’ve read seem futile, when such things do not happen in real life and thus, no detective could use their intelligence to get to the truth. After all, isn’t that one of the facets of detective fiction: the use of intelligence, rational thought, and ingenuity to discover the underlying truth about something? Isn’t that thrilling quest for truth one of the reasons we read the genre?

The again, as John Dickson Carr proved in one of his greatest books, you can still include the supernatural in a genuine detective story without that sense of futility. Carr basically takes this rule, smashes it into pieces on the floor, and runs over it with a steamroller before handing it back to you with a smile.

In fact, that’s why I think rules are a rather futile exercise: the best books will do precisely this with almost any rule you can come up with. The problem arises when second-rate hacks decide to write their own derivative versions, without any shred of ingenuity behind the proceedings. This is when stuff like the supernatural or the secret passage (which we’ll get to next) becomes a problem.

III. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
This rule more or less makes sense, especially in terms of the locked-room mystery. How did the assassin kill Peggy Ann in her locked kitchen, with all the appliances except the stove shoved against the door and windows to prevent entry? What’s that? If you turn all the burners on the stove a certain way, you uncover a secret passage? Well… that was silly.

A story can get away with a secret passageway or a hidden room when it demonstrates true ingenuity about it: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Norwood Builder is a brilliant Sherlock Holmes story that hinges on such a thing. However, you’re able to deduce the existence of such a room and to what use it has been placed: it isn’t sprung on you as the “surprise ending” that wouldn’t have fooled a five-year-old.

What I’d really like to read one of these days is a locked-room mystery with a secret passage, where the passage is a complete blind. The police discover the passage from the get-go, but immediately see a problem—the passage has a thick coating of dust, accumulated over decades, and it’s entirely unbroken.

IV. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
The first part of the rule makes sense: don’t blame your murder on a mysterious poison unknown to science! Oh, you can create a fictional poison—just as long as you explain how it works. There’s no problem there. That demonstrates true ingenuity. In the hands of a hack, though, “mysterious poisons unknown to science” are examples of a disappointing cop-out ending that just about nobody likes.

The second part of the rule instils more of a mixed reaction in me, though. I like things explained—John Rhode came up with a devilish way to commit a murder by having a tree branch fall on his victim in Death on Sunday. His explanation comes early on, but it could just as easily have been converted into an impossible crime story. Having a long-winded technical explanation might not be the most exciting trick in the book, but it can show ingenuity nonetheless.

V. No Chinaman must figure in the story.
One of the most controversial rules of this Decalogue, it makes sense to me. Hacks would use the “sinister Chinaman” cliché as a cop-out ending: all Chinese people were evil, they were all trying to take over the world, etc. etc. This kind of twist shows no ingenuity whatsoever, and it is very racist to boot. It’s all part of the infamous “Yellow Peril” craze, and this rule should be considered in that light for it to make sense. Otherwise, you might think Father Knox was being a bigoted racist… which in fact is a common mistake, not just about Knox, but about the entire genre!

There’s nothing wrong with having Chinese characters in mysteries, though. Charlie Chan, created by Earl Derr Biggers, was not only a likeable Chinese character, but also a Chinese detective.

VI. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
This is debatable. Sometimes, the detective hears a scrap of conversation from two strangers and exclaims “What a fool I’ve been! Of course!!! Johnny Depp plays Captain Jack Sparrow in four movies! That’s the key to the whole affair!” I think this is a perfectly fair and ingenious way of solving the crime, especially if the detective’s explanation of why that comment helped solve the crime makes sense. You just don’t want the relation to the clues and the problem to be too tangential—that’s one of the problems about John Dickson Carr’s Panic in Box C, where an old baseball player’s name seems to be key to the problem, but in reality, the relationship is unsatisfactory.

Far less contestable are the endings where the detective goes to a party and overhears X confessing to Y that X killed Z out of love for Y. It’s one of the most unsatisfying cop-out endings out there is, and by the way, it's the way the mystery is solved in Sister Carol Anne O’Marie’s Murder at the Monks’ Table. It’s simply not a mystery in my view—it’s just a book where somebody is killed and somebody confesses, with no detection involved whatsoever.

VII. The detective must not himself commit the crime.
It’s best not to dwell on this too often, because it has been carried out before. Sometimes, these twists are brilliant—other times, they’re just derivative “shock” endings. There’s a fine line between being derivative and being ingenious, and unfortunately, ingenuity has not prevailed as often in this category…

VIII. The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
Well, yes and no. I want to be given all the clues, but if you’re given every clue to deduce the culprit’s identity, you probably won’t be mad if the off-stage phone call confirms the detective’s guesses that Q lived in Barcelona thirteen years ago and killed K for throwing a gum wrapper on the sidewalk. But again, if you simply hide the clues from the reader, there’s no fun in any of that. The mystery is a great big fencing match between reader and author, where the author tries to outfox the reader all while playing scrupulously fair with the rules. I don’t know about any of you, but I never play chess with someone who knocks your pieces over when you’ve gone to answer the telephone.

IX. 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.
This seems to me like more of a guideline to authors who don’t know where to start with mystery writing. The Watson is not even necessary, as has been proven time and time again. Father Brown generally works alone, but his occasional companion Flambeau is a brilliant ex-arch criminal who lacks the outlook on human nature Father Brown has gotten from his years as a priest. Hercule Poirot abandoned Captain Hastings after a while and went on memorable investigations alone, like the tour-de-force Five Little Pigs. So not only is a Watson not required, he doesn’t have to be stupid.

X. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.
It’s a good thing Knox included that “unless we have been prepared” clause, because I would’ve whipped out Ellery Queen’s The Siamese Twin Mystery in response. Not only is this a brilliant mystery story, conjoined twins are major characters in there. Like the ban against “Chinamen”, this seems like a ban for the cop-out endings.

“Mary, why didn’t you tell me you saw me strangle Mrs. Featherblossom in the alleyway? I would’ve been able to tell you about my evil twin brother Patrick who escaped from Dartmoor a year ago and has been committing murders posing as me!”
“Oh, John! I didn’t know if I could trust you!”
“Oh, Mary!”
“Oh, John!”

Once again: it’s possible to break this rule with ingenuity, but when the hacks get their hands on this twist, it is tiresome.

In fact, this seems to be the major facet of Ronald Knox’s Decalogue. Despite the impressive “Ten Commandments” title, Golden Age authors probably didn't take them that seriously. Each rule here has been broken in the best of mysteries, which will defy any attempt to create a set of rules. Only one rule stands: fair play with the clues. And I don’t think this is such a bad thing. It’s simply something that defines the genre, just like poetry is defined by verse. If an author can’t work with such a stricture, they’re in the wrong genre and they ought to leave the mystery alone right away.

An incentive
to play fair...
In order to engage the reader’s active participation, there is an unwritten reader-author contract, where both sides agree to play fairly. This isn’t because breaking rules is “bad form to say the least”, but because by sticking to this fair-play standard we can gauge an author’s ingenuity and separate the ones worth reading from the derivative hacks it’s best to forget.

The mystery is not a mere crossword puzzle in prose, but a story about the use and misuse of intelligence and human ingenuity—the murderer will use it for his or her own gain, but the detective will use this in a quest for truth and justice. This doesn’t mean “order must be restored” and any lawbreaker must be captured. In fact, it was fairly common to have sympathetic murderers given an opportunity to escape, and not necessarily via the suicide route. In The Mad Hatter Mystery, the killer is exposed in front of a police officer, Hadley. He decides to forget all about it after hearing the full story. You see that? Social commentary, my friends!!! Social commentary!!! Someone alert the Literary Art brigade!!! What endings like this try to say is that the law is not necessarily equivalent with true justice. Corruption and bureaucracy often get in the way.

Golden Age mysteries are severely underappreciated for these facets, which are often simply ignored. P. D. James ignored the richness of the genre in her highly selective book, and makes gross generalisations of exactly this sort. Mysteries really deserve more respect. All this talk about rules “restricting the genre” is nothing but pure bunkum. For all the discussion about rules, it seems to me they all boil down to personal preferences and guidelines that differentiate between the real geniuses like John Dickson Carr and the literary hacks you will find in any genre.


  1. Excellent article. Not only do I not object to this experiment, but I strongly advise you repeat it as often as you please.

    Now, to the Barronness. I know it's wrong to fire on an ambulance but her bit about "Rules and restrictions" not producing "original, or good, literature" suggests she has some homework left to do. You are right that this de facto excludes poetry; one might also add tragedy or noh. Besides, the idea that rules are inimical to creativity is (comparatively) recent; for most of its existence literature like other arts was all about rules. Only in the 18th-19th centuries did the notion arise that true genius meant breaking free from rules and being innovative and original. Had the detective story appeared two centuries sooner, it would've been hailed as a major art.

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Xavier! It means a lot to hear positive words coming from such an intelligent blogger such as yourself.

    Your theory is an interesting one, I must admit. I think you see a precursor of the mystery in "Hamlet", if you're willing to stretch definitions! After all, Hamlet isn't just satisfied taking the Ghost's word that Claudius is the killer. He knows that it could just be a product of his own imagination, or even a lie. So what does he do? Test the theory out by putting on the infamous play! That's detective work right there-- in fact, "Hamlet" would be brilliant if rewritten as a mystery. (Wasn't there discussion recently about Innes doing just that?) "Macbeth" comes to mind as something with plenty of potential like this as well.

    So... if Shakespeare is "Real Literature" and "Hamlet" is a precursor to mysteries... what stands in their way as being good literature? I say nothing but critical snobbery.

  3. I always assumed that Knox's decalogue was meant to be a joke. There is something rather funny about a Roman Catholic priest creating 'Ten Commandments' of Detective Stories. When you boil it down, the instruction to budding writers is "Be fair to the reader". If you are going to create a puzzle problem, it must be solvable from the information given, but this is not something that can be codified into a set of rules. I would think that pretty much any of these rules can be broken if the writer is good enough. The idea of anyone actually looking at them and thinking "Oooh, better not do that!" is quite comical, and poor old PD James doesn't appear to have got the joke.

  4. Very interesting. Robert Frost said free verse was like playing tennis without a net, as I recall.

    The rules are interesting and fun to talk about, but it's really all about one thing, in my view: promoting Fair Play (J. J. Connington said this is what it all boils down too, as I mention in my CADS 61 article). In may be a case that an individual rule here and there is not absolutely necessary for that. Christie may violate that one rule in Roger Ackroyd, but she's still fair play. On the other hand, some authors violate that rule in a clumsy fashion and are not fair play.

    On the social commentary aspect, Golden Age books are loaded with it--and it's not just the Criem Queens. There's a great deal of it even in the "Humdrums." People will be surprised to find that Street, Crofts and Connington (not to emntuion Wade) project quite different personalities. I don't see how fair play precludes social commentary.

  5. Sextonblake:

    This is so true! Who actually said to him/herself, oh, I can't include that, Father Knox said No! And how can people forget that Knox was always being facetious. If they had read his own detective novels, they would be aware of this.

  6. Josef Skvorecky wrote a fine collection of short stories, Ten Sins for Father Knox, in which he deliberately broke each rule in turn

  7. Well said. I suspect I'll have at least one reader for my forthcoming novel, The Chinese Twin Ghosts in the Third Secret Passage.

  8. Very interesting post. Please write more articles like this.

    I agree with the first part of the first rule. The Murdrer should be introduced early on. It's highly irritating to find some last-minute entrant turning out to be the murdrer.

    But where would Agatha Christie's masterpiece be had she adhered to the second part of the rule?:)

    BTW, I have highlighted this post in one of the hops I participate. In case, you are interested, have a look:

  9. Sextonblake, your theory is an interesting one... I think you might have something there.

    Curt, I'm liking JJ Connington already with all this stuff I've heard about him from you. I look forward to some of his books arriving via Interlibrary Loan! And since I used the university's, it won't take three months, but a few weeks. :)

    Roger, TomCat did a fine review of that book early on in his blog.

    Bill, that actually sounds like something I'd read!!!

    neer, thank you very much for the plug. :)

  10. If I weren't so tired at the moment, I would probably be tempted to write a lengthy response or even an addendum to one or two points you made. But overall, it's an excellent deconstruction of Knox's rules.

  11. A wonderful article! I had always thought that Knox's rubric was a dig at his friend G K Chesterton, famed - in the Father Brown stories - for his inscrutable Orientals and other distractions which never turned out to have any bearing on the story anyway.

    But then Knox's dig would have been unfair as the Father Brown tales were not detective stories but modern moralities, where the priest - in his intuitive access to divine wisdom - needs to do no conventional detective work at all.

    I hope to write a story soon in which a priest with an emblematic umbrella unfailingly intuits the murderer, and invariably gets it wrong.

  12. John: I never saw Brown as using divine wisdom, but rather by thinking his way into the criminal's mind. In that sense he is not really any different from Hercule Poirot, who eschews forensics in preference for psychology in the later novels.

    Knox's ability to spoof people with a straight face can be seen in his 1928 radio spoof BROADCASTING FROM THE BARRICADES, where he produced a story about armed revolution taking place in London, with government ministers being lynched and the Houses of Parliament in flames. This was all done 'as real', prefiguring Orson Welles better known WAR OF THE WORLDS broadcast by a decade. You can find the script in his book ESSAYS IN SATIRE, where he ridicules the techniques of Biblical scholars by using their methods to analyse the Sherlock Holmes stories.It's a delightfully straight faced send up, and I think that the 'rules' should be read in this manner.

  13. This is great- you are missed at the Agatha Christie forum.

  14. What a great article! I agree that many rules are made to be broken, especially in something as creative and subjective as writing. In the right hands, even prose can be made into poetry. I especially liked this: "It’s simply not a mystery in my view—it’s just a book where somebody is killed and somebody confesses, with no detection involved whatsoever." - so absolutely true.

  15. It's been Thanksgiving weekened here in Canada, but I'm back now. :)

    Thanks for the positive comment, and I assure you that if you do decide to take up your pen in a response to my words, I'll welcome such an article.

    @John Yeoman
    Although Father Brown doesn't do conventional detective work, I think Chesterton perfected the detective story, whereas Conan Doyle made it popular. I say this because Chesterton manages to conceal a major clue time and time again in plain sight, and when he expounds on it, you think to yourself "Of course!". At their best, the solutions feel inevitable. Look at that brilliant clue in The Oracle of the Dog, for instance... Sextonblake's comparison to Poirot seems quite apt to me.

    That sounds like a riot! I'm on the 10th floor of the library right now, and in a few minutes, I'll go down to the 9th floor and find that book before heading off to class.

    I miss the AC forum, but to be honest, most of my more recent contributions weren't doing much. I've read AC's stuff multiple times and I'm covering new ground now, discovering wonderufl stuff like John Dickson Carr or Ellery Queen at every turn. I do come back and update members on what I've been up to from time to time, but two major factors killed my participation: first, the amount of spam became apalling, and the site redesign made it harder to see what topics had been updated since my last visit, which made posting more of a chore. Second, serious discussions about a book's flaws and strengths were rare. It felt more like I was promoting the books in question instead of discussing them-- people could always be found who disagreed with my opinions, but rare was the person who tried giving solid points to back their opinion as well.

    Thank you for the very kind words, but I think that there will always be *some* ground rules! A romance novel will inevitably be about a romance, for instance. If there's no romance, it can't be a romance novel, can it? It might not be about *finding* romance-- maybe it's about a disintegrating romance. Or maybe, like "Quo Vadis", there's other major storylines: historical, religious, action-oriented, whatever. But the romance is always there.

    Something similar applies to detective fiction-- there must be a mystery and it must be detected. Fair play with the clues is what seperates genius from the derivative that you will unfortunately find in every genre.

  16. To be fair to James, I think that by her rules quote she meant exactly what you said:

    "rules are a rather futile exercise: the best books will do precisely this with almost any rule you can come up with."

    I think James was thinking about "literary rules" such as, say, the "one event - one day - one place" rule of Classicist drama, not something so elementary as "poetry must not be prose". In fact, the latter is not a rule - it's a definition or a tautology. So this statement of hers stands, IMO.