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:
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.