Sunday 1 March 2009

Ronald Knox and the Rules of Detection

Ronald Knox, about whom I posted the other day, was a keen Sherlockian, and an intellectual student of the genre. He was involved with the Detection Club right from the outset, and was among the contributors to Club publications such as Behind the Screen and The Floating Admiral.

He is, however, probably best remembered by mystery fans today for his ‘Decalogue of Detective Fiction’, which began life as a lecture and later formed the preface for a volume of short mystery stories which he edited in 1928. He argued that the detective story is a tale told back to front, with the body appearing early in the story and the detective trying to establish the facts which led to the murder. He argues that the formality of the true detective story (as opposed to the thriller, which depends for effect on shock value) required a set of governing rules and he set out his own idea of the ten commandments of the genre.

The first commandment, for instance, is that 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’. Even today, this concept seems to me to have some merit in relation to the whodunit, but like all rules it can be broken to great effect by writers of talent. Some of the other commandments (‘not more than one secret room or passage is allowable’) are a touch facetious while ‘the detective himself must not commit the crime’ is a rule which, if rigidly enforced, would have deprived us of a number of classic crime novels.

So Knox’s commandments are fun, and a historic curiosity, but not much more than that. However, I can’t help wondering - do readers of this blog have any commandments of their own for modern day writers? If so, let me know!


Uriah Robinson said...

Martin, my first commandment for authors should be don't allow an inaccurate or misleading blurb on the cover of your book that may annoy the reader, or potential reader.

Philip Amos said...

Here's three to start with:

1.Thou shalt not have your detective regularly provide commentary upon cd collections and other music sources just because Ian Rankin and John Harvey started doing it and regardless of how meaningless it is to many readers and how stunningly irrelevant it is to the story in hand.

2.Thou shalt not have your detective in an oh-so-tricky romantic relationship with another detective (or anyone else, come to think about it) just because everyone else is doing it, nor lard your novel with any romantic interludes of such length and of such a nature that, packaged separately, they would be avidly taken up by Mills and Boon.

3.Thou shalt not, in addition to 1 and 2, do anything else to deepen the trend toward convention and formulaic writing that, the existence of some crackerjack crime writers notwithstanding, poses a nasty threat to the British school of crime writing and which I mortally fear is even now infecting Scandinavia.

I do have 127 more, but I also have a deadline to meet, so that will have to do for now.

Anonymous said...

I'm 99% sure you will have, but just in case, have you read Josef Skvorecky's "Sins for Father Knox"? If not, the Faber&Faber edition is apparently still in print, although I have my doubts - but there are plenty of cheap copies on the secondhand market.

It's a short story collection that isn't only entertaining in it's own right, but also plays a decalogue-inspired game with the reader.

I enjoyed it immensely, but also found it a little depressing, knowing I could never produce anything as clever myself!

Martin Edwards said...

Super comments, thanks.
The new commandments so far are definitely thought-provoking!
Rafe, the book has shot up my TBR list only this week! And by the way, I'm glad to see your own novel is garnering praise from various quarters.

Anonymous said...

It may well be in print - I was reading in this week's Bookseller POD supplement that Faber is issuing all of its out of print backlist POD - so long as it can find the copyright holder first.

Uriah's rule is of course sensible, but I think that authors probably have very little control over what is written on the cover blurb and other publisher marketing (including cover design). Authors might be involved in the cover but not in a "decision making capacity" as a general rule (there are exceptions).

My rules:

(1) nothing gratuitously yukky please
(2) can the story please make logical sense and not involve the supernatural etc as part of any explanation
(3) if the perpetrator to a crime is going to be identified, please can the character not be someone who appeared briefly in a paragraph in chapter 2 and then was not mentioned until the denouement?

I can probably think of more but like Philip I have important things to do it is 4 pm so I must put the kettle on and make a cup of tea for my hard-homeworking daughters!

Dorte H said...

I really liked Philip´s rules! Very useful :)
In Scandinavia many of the current crime writers are women, and though they have not set down rules for their writing themselves, some researchers of crime fiction have made ´the ten commandments of femikrimi´. Thus they have tried to ´charter´ feminist crime fiction, but perhaps in a rather rigid way. You can see my translation of the rules here if you should be interested:

Martin Edwards said...

Maxine, your rules are much to my personal taste. Number 3 (which echoes Knox) is sometimes overlooked, which I think is a mistake.(By the way, I too am surrounded by homework...)

Dorte, the feminist rules are fascinating, though a bit daunting to any man! I must add your excellent blog to the blogroll, by the way.

Xavier said...

I did my own decalogue some time ago; anyone bored enough to care may read it there.
Most (but not all) of Knox's commandments are irrelevant today, but it's only because the excesses and cheap tricks they addressed are now largely extinct or have morphed into other, more up-to-date excesses and cheap tricks. "Chinamen" for instance have been replaced with Russian mafiosi and/or Middle Eastern terrorists but the point remains.

Dorte H said...

I am glad you like my blog more than these highly feminist commandments :) I think a discussion of these kinds of rules can be interesting and make you see subgenres in a new light, but personally I do certainly not see women as victims and men as (potentional) murderers.

Martin Edwards said...

Xavier, you're spot on about the terrorists - with a few exceptions, I don't find those books too inviting.
Dorte - suffice to say that I agree!

crimeficreader said...

I agree with the points raised and have a couple of others.

Thou shalt not base a story on a premise that only comes out at the denouement and is so unrealistic and unlikely that the reader will not be required to suspend disbelief, but will be seen running to the kitchen, grabbing a knife to quickly cut the umbilical cord to their disbelief. However good the story and the writing before, the memory will remain that, at the end of it, the plot sucked.

In the world of modern PR and promo and getting your name out there to sell your books, thou shalt not become a literary festival whore. This is called "over-exposure" and leads even dedicated readers to think "nothing new to say, heard it all before, so not worth the money". Retention of some element of author mystery is a good thing; over-exposure can lead to a loss in readership.

Lastly, when in the public arena, thou shalt ensure that before leaving the loo, the washing of hands is effectively completed. Failure to do so can lead to readers declining to seek the signing of their copies, or even further purchases. Afterall, who wants an author's grubby hands - yes, indeed, provenly grubby through observation - over their books and pens? And once an author is perceived as grubby, their tales may not hold attraction any more. Well, we don't buy out of date dairy products in supermarkets, do we?

Ooh and lastly, thou shalt not add anything quirky and unusual into the novel unless it is relevant to the plot. Irrelevance leads to great annoyance in the reader and the potential loss of that reader.

gryphondear said...

Writing a list of commandments presupposes that someone will come along to break them--usually brilliantly, leaving the rule makers with egg on their faces.

I do like Robinson's rule on blurbs and think it should be extended to cover artwork. (Case in point: A Lie for a Lie by Emilie Richards, which has what we Yanks call a carnival, complete with ferris wheel on the cover. The story involves a circus that includes animal acts, but never mentions mid-way rides.)

Come to think, mis-leading cover art abounds in nearly every genre. It should be severly discouraged. No one wants to see a red-haired fellow with a whippet on the cover when the protagonist is described as swarthy and accompanied by a Siamese cat.

;^) Jan the Gryphon

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Crimefic, some thought-provoking observations there. For instance - 'author mystery'. I take the point about festivals. But might it also apply to blogs? Are authors who write blogs in danger of over-exposing their opinions and anecdotes?

Martin Edwards said...

Jan, I very much agree. Mind you, the poor author is usually fairly helpless as regards cover art. Publishers approach it in an odd way. I know one notable author who was cross that a book of his depicted poison on the cover when the actual means was shooting. And I had a book whose cover showed a corpse in a location where nobody died in the book. Amazing.

crimeficreader said...

Interesting question! And I sincerely hope I haven't worried you. I don't know how you manage a post a day and you certainly never bore me, I arrive here at least once a day to read your posts and the comments they attract.

I think variety is the spice of life in an author blog. Those who drone on and on about the writing process are all writing different variations of the same thing and tend to be boring. Any author thinking of starting one now and going down that road will have a hard time, I think.

Strong opinions, personal and political are risky unless you can balance them. Minette Walters just pulled off a major coup on this one, in my opinion. She was on Celebrity Cash in the Attic and admitted she was an atheist. And the charity she was raising money for? One involved in the conservation of churches. Why? Because she believes they are part of our heritage. Utterly brilliant! I doubt that she lost one church-going reader with that one.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Crimefic, very kind as ever. I do think there is a risk of becoming repetitive with an author blog, which is one of the reasons I try to vary the type of subjects within the genre that I focus on. I suppose ultimately one of the keys, as with any writing, is to be interested in what one is writing about, and to communicate that interest with enthusiasm.

Vicki said...

I only tried reading the Skvorecky book once so, in fairness, I should give it another shot. Often one is simply not in the right mood. And, no, with apologies, I do not know much more about the Detection Club or any archives thereof. This aspect of Knox's writing is largely ignored as it makes up such a small percentage of his life's work. Even Waugh does not seem particularly interested in it and provides only little information in his bio.

As a reader I'm fascinated by the other comments. I wholeheartedly agree about cover art. I have been wantonly led astray more than once by this underhanded publishers' ploy!

And I second the comment about the supernatural. It's a cop out. That includes alter egos. In a different field, but to the point, I was very disappointed by the ending to 'Fight Club'. It had such a promising plot.

Please do let me know how you like Knox's mysteries when you get a chance.