Sometimes I regret saying I’ll do stuff; this week, I regret saying I’ll explore each of the rules of Ronald Knox’s Detective Fiction Decalogue in depth. Mainly because I’m busy, and so I’m not going to do this as well as I otherwise might. And that frustrates me doubly, because Rule 2 is the one that got me thinking about this in the first place.
If you’re interested, here’s how things stand:
And Rule 2, concerning the supernatural, runs thus:
All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course. To solve a detective problem by such means would be like winning a race on the river by the use of a concealed motor-engine. And here I venture to think there is a limitation about Mr. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories. He nearly always tries to put us off the scent by suggesting that the crime must have been done by magic; and we know that he is too good a sportsman to fall back upon such a solution. Consequently, although we seldom guess the answer to his riddles, we usually miss the thrill of having suspected the wrong person.
Now, let’s set some ground-rules. As discussed last week, yes, it would be entirely possible to set a detective story in a world in which ghosts and other supernatural elements exist and are able to interact with its corporeal denizens. Establish the rules of such a place clearly and fairly, and go about writing your detective story and you’ll have no complaints from anyone, least of all Monsignor Knox. But, for the sake of ease and clarity, Knox was talking here — and I shall be talking similarly for however long this takes — about flesh-and-blood crimes committed by flesh-and-blood killers in a world where no ghostly intervention is possible.
Yes, there have been novels in which a ghost investigates its own murder — there was even a film starring Patrick Swayze, you may remember — and, again, while not dismissing that per se, what we’re not allowing is for any contact across the, er, veil of death: no seance in which a legitimate ghost actually tells those present who killed them, no manifestations of ghostly presences out of thin air to spur their son into a frenzy of bloody vengeance: ghosts, goblins, and associated happenings do not exist in Ronald Knox’s Detective Decalogue. Equally, no psychic abilities to determine the thoughts of another (there’s enough dodgy psychology in GAD as it is…) — no tea leaves, no crystal balls, no monsters from the deep, no telekinesis, no special powers of any kind.
“Did somebody say ‘ball’?”
What I want to say is “these stories take place in our real, everyday world” but I know someone would crop up in the comments with “Well, how do you know there aren’t ghosts helping the police solve crimes?” and, honestly, I do not have the patience for that this week. Kindly refrain. If you want ghosty-wobbles and SF nonsense, there’s always The X-Files (good heavens, I did not appreciate how many callbacks I’d make to that post when I wrote it…) or Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased).
As before, I think there are two prongs to this.
The first is simply one of expectation, to be assured that we the reader is getting up front a rational tale which we can engage with, and hopefully solve, from a purely rational perspective. Take the work of, say, William Hope Hodgson as an example: his Carnacki the Ghost-Finder stories are well-known and highly-regarded as a point in detective fiction where the irrational and the rational rubbed shoulders, knees, and toes: ‘The Thing Invisible’ (1912) remains oddly popular and widely anthologised for the way it rationally explains a way of stabbing a man who was alone in a building at the time. And yet there’s another Carnacki story I read back when I first heard of Hodgson’s work in which a ghostly whistling is heard coming from an empty room, and upon further and deeper investigation Carnacki discovers — spoilers, but it has been over a hundred years — that the floorboards pucker like lips and physically whistle because the room is possessed by a, er, vengeful(?) spirit.
Now. In the universe of Carnacki this is all well and fine — and, indeed, the lack of certainty as to whether we were getting a rational or a ghostly explanation is precisely the kind of thing I suggested would have done The X-Files some good in the post linked above — but for the detection fan, and the reader expecting a rational story, you can see the obvious disappointment that would result. If you wonder how the killer vanished from a watched, snow-surrounded room in The Hollow Man (1935) and after 200 pages of logical, precise investigation it turned out that the killer was a floaty demon thing that could pass through walls…well, the book wouldn’t have the reputation it does. If the murder in Mystery at Olympia (1935) was accomplished by psychic energy rather than the labyrinthine methods employed…again, we’d all dismiss it, wipe the book from the memory of history, and wonder what John Rhode put in his tea that week. Remember, these are explanations coming about in the world those books already exist in, with not one detail changed beyond this sudden preternatural development at the end.
The novel of detection is a game — the rules are clear, the author shows the reader what is needed, and the reader is able to pick up what they believe to be the salient points and thus turn in a solution, correct or otherwise. Without that clear delineation in responsibility on both sides, the whole (ahem) spirit and intent of the enterprise goes out of the window. We, as a reader, do not appreciate the intelligence of a plot device that we could not anticipate, and the ghost leaning over the barrier twixt life and death to lend a hand or point a finger comes from so far outside the acceptable as to be genre-destroying. Where is the magnificence of the detective’s achievement if someone else — corporeal or otherwise — is simply able to relay what they saw and so solve the case? A detective who was able to enter the mind of witnesses would essentially be using an invisibility cloak to insert themself into a scene they did not need to detect the truth behind: simply go from person to person until you “see” them committing the murder, end credits. That’s certainly something, but it’s not detection.
“About that ball, though…”
It’s not a problem if you know you’re getting a genre-straddling story, but what if you don’t? There has, in the last year or two, been a novel published by a popular novelist in which the following situation presents itself: a man seen in two places at once, one of which is the location of a terrible murder, the fingerprints of the suspect being found at the scene when he was also definitely miles away. The talent involved in providing a rational explanation here is immense, witness Through a Glass Darkly (1932/1950) by Helen McCloy, which goes to hugely creative lengths to stitch such a seemingly wondrous possibility into the achievable world. In this recent novel, a huge amount of time is spent breaking down the various testimonies, examining possibilities, trying permutations, and in the end it turns out that the murder was committed by…a sort of demon-thing that can mimic people. And the book to get to this answer is 600 pages (and, yeah, that sort of spoils who the author is — but, c’mon). Wow. How inventive. Form here, why not Mr. Ratchett’s murderer being a imp that scampered away over the snow too quickly to leave a footprint, or Betty Kane being able to accuse Marion Sharpe and her mother of kidnap and ill treatment because she’s psychic, floats through walls, can stop time, and is able to wipe memories at will? Robert Blair wouldn’t stand a chance then.
Yes, I’m labouring a point, and yes I’m preaching to the choir, and yes the same thing goes for a detective who is able to enter a special trance or have lucid dreams and thus stumble upon the key moment of realisation that still dogs the genre even to this day under a different name: the moment of sudden intuitive inspiration. Detection requires the detective to amass information, and usually requires them to look at it in a particular way, but the beauty of seeing your protagonist succeed is is knowing that they’ve done so by their own talent, their own doggedness, and not simply having the answer handed to them by an obsequious man-of-all-work who lives in their head. Make Papa Poirot into a slightly objectionable foreigner who has convenient dreams and he’s far less compelling a presence. If Joseph French is led to the killer’s door by the vengeful spirit of the victim, you rob that character of everything that makes him him. Your detective becomes a passive presence in their own story, and the reader a passive witness to something they wish to actively engage with.
Along with Hodgson, a number of authors wrote both rational and irrational solutions to their mysteries; Walter S. Masterman started out with a very good debut impossible crime, but as Robert Adey notes, “then moved on to the more sinister worlds of giant toads and other misshapen monsters”, and part of the difficulty in reading more Masterman is knowing which of his novels fall into which camp. We read detection for the retrospective realisation of how thoroughly we have been (hopefully fairly) hoodwinked, and being unsure up front if that’s what’s going to happen makes us less likely to want to risk the time and money that could be put towards something which will do that. I’d wager this, as much as his until-recent unavailability, has contributed to Masterman’s obscurity.
“I’m sorry to interrupt, but–“
But there is a flip-side to this, as Knox acknowledges. The gods of reason such genre adherence invokes demand a certain sacrifice: namely that the reader knows automatically that any such spirit-world shenanigans can be dismissed without compunction. The eldritch phantasms may carouse as freely and loudly as they wish through the pages of a novel of detection, but come the end they’ll always be so many wires, so much cheesecloth. And as such the supernatural trappings are little more than set-dressing on an otherwise mundane story to disguise the “growing difficulty, for the author, of finding ways in which he can deceive his reader without either breaking the rules, or using gambits which have been used ad nauseam before”. Hence, as Knox so kindly puts it, we often “miss the thrill of suspecting the wrong person”, i.e., it’s bloody obvious whodunnit.
And so the preternatural — prophetic dreams, bilocation, seances, demonic possession — tends to lends itself more to the howdunnit than the whodunnit (though Arthur Conan Doyle crafted a fine whydunnit from supernatural origins) and as such limit its usefulness in the genre. And so the argument against phantasmagoria is strengthened in part even further, given that the howdunnit — the impossible crime — proved to be a difficult beast to tame (though it’s telling that a sizeable portion of the people reading this are itching to point out Rim of the Pit (1944) by Hake Talbot or The Reader is Warned (1939) by Carter Dickson in defence of the other side, showing how damn arresting the concept is when used well). And yet we, like gamblers, tend to remember the wins rather than the losses. Through a Glass Darkly, mentioned above, does good work, but never really convincing work in misguiding you to believe that bilocation is possible. Norman Berrow’s giant killer thumb is wildly enjoyable, but does anyone ever really buy into it? I think not.
Detective fiction — classic detective fiction — never shied away from doing the difficult thing, but equally the desire is to see the genre do what it does to the best of its abilities as regularly as possible. No-one becomes a fan of a genre that hits the mark one book in ten, and since we know that the magical elements of any detective novel as Knox sees them can be dismissed, there’s an argument that the supernatural should be banished from the genre altogether. Ether that, or we give up our pious belief in genre as a construct and accept that sometimes the answer is simply going to be “Yup, it was aliens”. Of the two options, I think I like the second one least.