For the final time this year, then, let’s take another dive into one of Monsignor Knox’s detective fiction decalogue rules.
Here’s how things stand:
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 here’s Rule 3:
Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable. I would add that a secret passage should not be brought in at all unless the action takes place in the kind of house where such devices might be expected. When I introduced one into a book myself, I was careful to point out beforehand that the house had belonged to Catholics in penal times. Mr. Milne’s secret passage in the Red House Mystery is hardly fair; if a modern house were so equipped – and it would be villainously expensive – all the countryside would be quite certain to know about it.
10 thoughts on “#598: Reflections on Detection – The Knox Decalogue 3: Secret Passages”
The “kicking” of The Red House Mystery is no doubt due to its huge popularity (for many years after its publication) among the public. I’m not saying it was jealousy, but it was jealousy. And surely this popularity was not because of innovation or brilliance, but rather because TRHM is a celebration of the detective story with a lot of warmth and good humor. As such it has every right to employ the secret passage–Of course it would have a secret passage!
It’s a flawed book, no doubt, and I can understand Raymond Chandler paying into it in ‘The Simple Art of Murder’ because Chandler had no perspective on the type of story the detective novel was telling and TRHM is an easy target (given that it has, like, three characters and two of them are the sleuths…geeeeeee, who could the killer be?). Knox seems to come out of nowhere here, slap it while it’s not looking, and then run for cover with no further word of explanation.
Maybe I should reread it, in light of the classic GAD I’ve consumed since first encountering it (unsurprisingly, it ends up on a lot of “Hey, try this!” lists). A project for 2020, maybe…
Agree with all you write here, but just want to apply Knox’s rule to my reductionist list of genre expectations, again:
1. The puzzle shall indicate the solution.
2. The solution shall account for the puzzle.
3. The solution shall surprise.
The prohibition (or limitation) on secret passages would seem to reflect (depending upon how one looks at it and how the issue is presented) either #1 or #3. If a secret passage is presented at the denouement as an explanation without earlier indication (clueing) it would certainly qualify as as the type of post-equals-sign element that is tacitly agreed upon as unacceptable and referenced by expectation #1. And even if indicated, it might be considered a violation of #3 as a solution that has lost its power to surprise via over-familiarity.
Undoubtedly, Scott. Should a secret passage simply crop up at the end — which, for a second, I thought might have happened in TRHM, since I recall vaguely mention of it in the summary chapter — to explain how suspect A could be both in the vicarage and at the scene of the murder, heads would roll (or eyes, at the very least).
The concept of being surprised does then make it all the more interesting when we encounter a book from this (or any) era which legitimately surprises us — there’s a tendency to pre-empt what you know are going to be hoary rehashes of very, very old solutions (have just given up on a modern locked room novel which uses two of the oldest and then has the temerity to label itself brilliant). The secret passage is difficult to surprise with, then, because there’s either a passage for there isn’t. Hinting at one can only really be done through repeated use of it, since the possible ways to indicate its presence are rather limited.
So, yes, I agree with your summary above. Man, I need to get less verbose.
My stance on hidden rooms, secret passageways and invisible doors is very simple: only allowed in pre-1920s mysteries and acceptable post-1920s if the writer has a clever or innovative take on it. So pretty much what you said.
Someone on the old JDC forum compared the harsh criticism leveled against The Red House Mystery to taking a sledgehammer to a butterfly or stomping on a flowerbed.
There’s a Carr novel (of which I am a big fan and others seem to like much less) which drops a secret passage a bit out of nowhere, and I just hooted with joy when it happened. And one of the best discoveries in my Adventures in Self Publishing throws a passage at us for sheer kick and giggles which is also a great deal of fun — so, yeah, there’s a time and a place, and it’s probably the one conceit of classic GAD which can be subtly misused without appropriate care and so go on to ruin everything. Who’d be a writer, eh?
I am definitely going to reread TRHM at some point next year. Probably. It’s been a long time, and I feel it’s worth a revisit.
I know the Carr novel that you’re referring to, and it jumped to my mind immediately as an example of brilliant use of hidden passageway. The hidden passageway isn’t even really clued (in a roundabout way I suppose it kind of is), and I recall my initial horror that Carr had “violated a rule.” It’s so clever though in the way that it flips around expectations of what a secret passage should be used for. In fact, I’ll suggest that Carr could have flat out stated there was a hidden passage right up front, and I still never would have come close to the solution.
Yeah, you’re right — there’s that initial reaction of “Hey, hang on, that’s not really on, because now it explains everything” and then you think about it for a minute or two and go “Yeah, no, it doesn’t explain anything, actually” 😂
There was an earlier book which dropped in a secret passage, too, but it seems Carr grew out of them fairly quickly. Maybe after reading those Carolyn Wells novels Curtis posted about earlier he felt they’d been somewhat done to death…
‘I would add that a secret passage should not be brought in at all unless the action takes place in the kind of house where such devices might be expected. When I introduced one into a book myself, I was careful to point out beforehand that the house had belonged to Catholics in penal times. Mr. Milne’s secret passage in the Red House Mystery is hardly fair; if a modern house were so equipped – and it would be villainously expensive – all the countryside would be quite certain to know about it. ‘
In context you see his reasons for saying ‘hardly fair’ (it not being supported by any historical background). The final sentence reads less like harsh criticism than a whimsical wink at what novelists can get away with.
Is the Red House a modern house, though? I thought it was some old family pile…