It may surprise you to learn that I think about the Knox Decalogue a lot. But, like, a lot a lot, “maybe I should write a lecture on the Knox Decalogue and tout it round the various crime conventions” a lot. Instead, because I work full time and am nowhere near famous enough for that to be an option, I’m going to go through the rules one at a time and share some thoughts on here.
Yes, that’s ten rules and four or five Tuesdays in a month; I don’t know how to resolve that. Hopefully some of them will be two-parters. For bookmarking purposes, here’s where the links will go:
Introduction Rule 1: The Criminal
Rule 2: The Supernatural
Rule 3: Secret Passages
Rule 4: Undiscovered Poisons
Rule 5: No Chinamen
Rule 6: No Accidents
Rule 7: The Detective-as-Criminal
Rule 8: Declaration of Clues
Rule 9: The Stupid Friend
Rule 10: Twins
And, yes, I have already spoken about this in a podcast episode. But, dude, I didn’t even scratch the surface. Said surface shall, alas, be rendered unrecognisable with all the scratching that I intend to do in these posts. It is an itch I’ve been carrying around for a long time.
This was going to be a post about the first rule, but by the time I had explained my motivation and intent it already seemed long enough, so I guess we’ll actually start the rules next week. See, my intent is not so much to provide some new historical context or interpretation — see above, I work full-time — largely since I’d hate to give the impression that I’m anywhere close enough to an expert to make those sorts of surmises, you’d need a John Curran, a John Norris, a Curtis Evans for that sort of historical and contextual piece. Instead, I feel there’s a perspective on the Decalogue overall which has gone missing, and which overlooks the by-no-means-an-inevitability of GAD that we now get to treat as inevitable and closed but which, at the time, was a fairly revolutionary phenomenon worthy of observation.
To illustrate the misunderstanding that has developed, I draw your attention to this panel discussion at the Edinburgh Festival in 2016, featuring Val McDermid, Abir Mukherjee, and Lucy Ribchester, and chaired by Mariella Frostrup. If you’re not in the UK you might have trouble listening to it, so I’ve transcribed the opening below:
The early crime critic Ronald Knox penned his ten rules of detective fiction back in 1929. These included the illuminating ‘Not more than one secret passage or room’ and making sure the Watson sidekick was slightly less clever than the reader. And perhaps most obvious, that the detective himself — it was only himself in those days — doesn’t commit the crime. So after 30 novels, Val, do you have any such ‘golden rules’?
I don’t think so, no, I think everything’s up for grabs. The Ronald Knox rules, we read them now and we laugh at them, but at the time they came out writers took them very seriously, and they contain such other gems as ‘There shall be no Chinaman in the story’ [laughter] and ‘There shall be no twins’ — identical twins are verboten. And the solution mustn’t come to the detective in a dream. Now, I have read crime novels that break all of those with gay abandon, so I think these days, because the genre has transformed itself, and continually reinvents itself, I think nothing is off-limits. There are no rules, you find the way to tell your own story.
Abir Mukherjee, did you investigate the rules of the genre before you set out on your first novel?
I did, which was a shame because my first one was gonna be about dreaming Chinamen [laughter] so I had to start again. But for me I think the only rule is “Forget Knox’s Rules”. You follow your heart, you follow the story you want to tell, and your characters will tell it for you, I think.
Amusingly, at around the 23-minute mark, McDermid then goes on to criticise the “snobbery” of people who haven’t read the genre “properly” — amusing because, well, the four people involved in this discussion clearly haven’t read Knox’s rules properly (as in most cases, they’re referring to the pithier, shortened versions which strip out most of the detail and justification) and clearly lack any understanding of the context in which they were written and which informs their construction. Ribchester even goes on to say that had she know there were rules for writing a crime novel then she probably wouldn’t have tried writing one to begin with…and, well, let’s unpick all of the above, shall we?
It’s not that these people aren’t intelligent enough to understand what they’re criticising — McDermid is the only one of the three authors I’ve read, and she’s written some excellent books and expresses herself admirably in interviews — it’s that they’ve allowed a modern prejudice and preconception to colour their (yes, by no means deep) interpretation of the Decalogue. The problems begin to an extent when Frostrup takes the time to assert both confidently and woefully incorrectly that “it was only himself in those days” where detectives were concerned — you can, I’m sure, provide plenty of your own examples to the contrary, and three minutes on Google will help you out if not — and so the old “No Chinaman” rule can also be trotted out to prove how damn woke we all are now and how much more insightful modern crime fiction is in comparison to this olde worlde stuff that only allowed men to detect and viewed all foreigners as suspicious like the bunch of racists and xenophobes everyone was back then.
Now, this callout culture of pointing out what someone did wrong as a form of self-embiggening isn’t going anywhere any time soon, but the shame of it is that it is fraught with a wilful blindness that conveniently ignores what came before that makes what’s possible now actually, y’know, possible. If you choose to dismiss the Knox Decalogue because it seems a bit racist and Noachian, and if you balk at the idea of “rules” being a bad thing where detective fiction is concerned, then you don’t really understand that whereof you speak. “[A]t the time they came out writers took them very seriously” McDermid says, managing to entirely overlook the entire point of them being taken seriously in the first place. Nobody went to write a detective novel in 1930, read Knox’s list, and thought “Hmm, I better take that Chinaman out of the narrative”…only to replace him with a Dutchman or a Serbian: by not appreciating what The Chinaman per se represents, and we’ll get to that in week 412, I suggest that you overlook one of the key facets of detective fiction, which — as McDermid correctly suggests — has been slowly and steadily reinvented as the crime fiction of today.
Equally, Ribchester shuddering at the idea of rules, of everyone being hidebound and so boxed in writing on dilapidated, rusty rails, misses the point by an almost Olympic record distance. Of course there are rules, there are always rules in any universe you create in genre fiction, and you’ve only written a crime novel because you’ve adhered to expectations like a crime, a detective, a solution that works in the setting and milieu provided…if your solution relies on aliens coming down with 55 pages left, what you’ve written is SF, if your book is about two people bonding over the aftermath of a crime whose commission and solution has no bearing beyond bringing them together to overcome differences and difficulties to find love, you’ve written a Romance. If everyone’s on horseback and living in the 1800s, you’ve written a Western — someone writing inside of a genre and then poo-pooing the concept of “rules” as a limiting, square, moribund, Bad Thing does not understand genre fiction (and Knox is ahead of you there, too: “Rules so numerous and so stringent cannot fail to cramp the style of the author, and make the practice of the art not difficult only, but progressively more difficult.”)
If Mukherjee’s only rule really is “Forget Knox’s rules” then he has no detective, no crime that the reader can follow, no need to describe the crime scene as the opening passage of his book (which he reads at a later point) does, there’s no sense of scale or suitability where motive is concerned, there’s no clever misdirection or utilisation of intelligent plotting…so what’s he writing? Isaac Newton famously said “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants,” whereas this lot seem to say “Well, there might have been giants once, but I heard a giant tried to kill that beanstalk guy so we should probably ignore anything they did”. It’s especially cloth-eared because of how proud Mukherjee seems to be when he starts talking about his novel looking at the difference between truth and justice — how one can be found but not necessarily always the other. Which, like, is a core concept of GAD. Shoulders of giants? This entire conversation is taking place in the footprints of giants, thoroughly unaware that there’s anything beyond the walls they’re hemmed in by.
“I’m a Libra!”
Now, the above isn’t my sole motivation, but it does help exemplify the ignorance and dismissal that has cropped up around the formation of GAD. And, sure, those authors probably aren’t as enmeshed in the 1930s era of the genre as I am, but I also feel there’s a tendency even among we enthusiasts to overlook, to take for granted, what happened when GAD became a going concern.
So my plan with this series, however long it runs for, is to unpick piecemeal what the Knox Decalogue means to me — how I see it informing, enriching, enlivening, enabling the precepts of GAD, and how the formalisation of observations, never with the intent of prescribing what should and shouldn’t be written. You’re more than welcome to disagree with what I say, I never claimed to be an expert on any of this, I just happen to write about it a lot, and I hope that I’ll gradually encourage some re-examination of the Knox Decalogue and idea of what it meant when Knox sat down to codify what he was observing happening in the genre. It’s going to be a mighty fine pedagogical time, and I look forward to three of you having the patience to stick with me through it all.
The full text of Knox’s introduction and each of the rules can be found here at the GADetection wiki if anyone wishes to read long at home, and I’ll see you next week to discuss why the criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story…