It was, by pure chance, this time last year that I started a series of posts examining Ronald Knox’s Ten Commandments for Detective Fiction rule-by-rule and, well, we’re back to continue what I started. Woo?
Here’s the list of links that will gradually fill in as this undertaking progresses:
And here is Rule 4 in all its glory:
No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end. There may be undiscovered poisons with quite unexpected reactions on the human system, but they have not been discovered yet, and until they are they must not be utilized in fiction; it is not cricket. Nearly all the cases of Dr. Thorndyke, as recorded by Mr. Austin Freeman, have the minor medical blemish; you have to go through a long science lecture at the end of the story in order to understand how clever the mystery was.
In essence, this rule covers two extremes: don’t stray into pure fiction, and don’t lean so far into fact that you stop writing fiction and start writing a textbook. Knox, fundamentally, wishes to admonish the writer who is too keen — perhaps too lazy in their writing — to do either, and the reason for this, while I shall expound upon it today, can essentially be boiled down to a single one: ignorance.
Broadly speaking, I’d suggest there are three kinds of ignorance at play here:
1: The Reader’s Ignorance of the Clues
The detective novel, in which the reader is given the clues and yet remains in suspense about the eventual outcome until the author reveals it, relies on the reader’s ignorance of those clues as clues until the moment of revelation. Thus, while your clever reveal that the innocent-seeming archery teacher was in fact the Great-Aunt’s stepsister’s adopted son Tony, and this reveal comes about from recognising that arrows intended for flights of between 20 and 100 metres are feathered from the genus Aquila but he was preparing for the annual Scouts’ archery competition 25m shoot with the feathers of a hawk eagle (of the genus Nisaetus)…well, the long-winded essay on bird gena and arrow flight lengths delivered seemingly at random two-thirds of the way through is going to stick out like a sore thumb (for anyone worried I’ve just spoiled the world’s weirdest mystery, this example has been wholly invented by me).
Which is not to say that simply spotting that something is relevant is the same things as knowing how it’s relevant — I can point you to several novels in the genre where I know a clue has been given to me but I’ve no idea what it is or how to use it — but, generally, I think we prefer to know that we’re ignorant of being informed rather being informed of our ignorance. This can often be more of a difficulty with short stories, where the limitations of space often require some narrative handbrake turns to enable the appropriate revelation or understanding to be wedged in, and it makes it all the more frustrating when you know it’s being done in a novel, as if there’s weren’t 250 previous pages where a few subtle hints could have been dropped.
Which brings us to:
2: The Reader’s Ignorance of the Principles Involved
In some cases, the reader is ignorant of the clues because the clues themselves are the precise kind of thing one would expect to be ignorant of (such as ending a sentence with a preposition). I don’t think Knox is decrying scientific esoterica but is fine with utilisation of the subtleties in brush fibres of Aboriginal art from the Iberian peninsula in the third century A.D., but rather he’s saying that you’re not really playing the game in the manner intended if it’s unreasonable — a subjective standard, to which we shall return — to expect your layperson reader to have knowledge of an idea only a career anthropologist, say, would possess.
I understand that if I drop a rock from a great height it will accelerate towards the ground on account of gravity and, if going fast enough, will kill someone if it strikes them on the head. This, it’s not unreasonable to say, is commonly understood. But the fathom the precise method of murder in Agatha Christie’s debut The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) requires a knowledge of chemical reactions which we’re assured in the book is widely known and easily available to check (the two, note, are by no means the same thing)…the assurance feeling like a hasty attempt to shore up the disappointment of our never really being able to solve this one. To take a modern update of this, Oscar de Muriel’s The Darker Arts (2019) relies on a scientific principle that won’t be recognisable from the context in which it is presented, and then in the afterword he more or less says “No, this is a thing! Look it up on YouTube!”…at which point his editor should have maybe put the manuscript aside and enquired how things were going for him at home.
Now, of course, what is a layperson’s awareness of science, art, anthropology, etc? I’d suggest that the average person on the street today knows more about general, loosely hand-wavey Science than did the average person of the 1930s, and so the degree of explanation we deem necessary today might be significantly reduced and so seem at times redundant to we Men of the Future (Knox is, I think, being more playful than admonitory in his dig at Freeman). Before we get too snooty at the ignorance of our forebears, though, elements of this awareness also apply the other way round: today we’d likely cry “Foul!” at the story where a young man is determined to be guilty of a murder because he’s wearing the wrong type of shoes to take his victim to a public dance hall, but it’s actually a rather lovely and subtle clue. My point? That perhaps the universality of understanding is found more in experience than it is in learning, common experiences may be considered safer ground — that one requires glasses if short sighted and wishing to read the date on a desk calendar, say — than anything axiomatic.
The baffling-to-me popularity of the U.S. medical drama House (2004-12) — where, essentially, millions of people who knew nothing about medicine watched actors spout lines about obscure medical conditions that the audience has never heard of, couldn’t recognise, and would not remember once the credits rolled — shows that standards of acceptance are wildly variable between media, too, but there’s no accounting for taste and you’re arguably wasting only an hour of your life on House to be told something you didn’t know, versus maybe eight hours on a book for the same result (though at this rate you could have read 16 books rather than watching every series of House…and probably learned something interesting along the way). The net result is the same, but the delivery might be key to how willing we are to overlook these problems.
This in turn leads us to:
3: The Author’s Ignorance of Reality
In a recent episode of my In GAD We Trust podcast — I forget which one, because I am horrible at self-promotion — I suggested that the apparent lack of interest displayed in the dying moments of the victims in so many GAD novels could be down to the writers simply not knowing how such a death would manifest itself and so not wishing to accidentally misrepresent it and give false clues (describing death by strychnine, say, as the quiet passing of a man injected with opium). And this brings us full circle back to our starting point, because if I’m ignorant that something is a clue, and I’m ignorant of the principle you’re telling me would manifest in that way, then it damn sure better manifest in that way and actually be the clue you say it is.
Exceptions can be made — if you’ve got a universe where certain poisons follow different rules, go for it…but make it clear that we’re getting some removed-from-standard-reality shenanigans — but the problem faced by GAD in particular and crime fiction in general is that an awareness of what is and isn’t permissible within the tropes we encounter will be achieved by even the most non-specialist reader (!?) if they encounter them in enough books. As such, the writer’s ignorance or misrepresentation of what they’re doing can cause huge problems for the validity of their presentation if it’s not in keeping with what is known to be the case elsewhere. Consistency is key, and a writer ignorant of what they are explaining is far, far less acceptable than a reader being ignorant of what they are required to know.
Over the weekend, I tried to read The House of the Arrow (1924) by A.E.W. Mason and didn’t fare too well, but the following really stuck with me:
Here is a report, Monsieur, from the doctors. Because it says that no trace of the poison can be discovered, you can’t infer that a poison was administered which leaves no trace. You never can prove it. You have nothing to go upon. It’s all guess-work, and guess-work which will keep us living in a nightmare.A.E.W. Mason, The House of the Arrow (1924)
In the same way, a writer who claims, say, that strychnine induces a nice peaceful death and never explains this discrepancy is leaving the reader living in a nightmare where the various ‘clues’ we may be required to use leave us equally guessing at their possible inclusion, relevance, and accuracy. Any detective novel where the rules and workings of the universe are not clear — even down to the feelings and relationships between characters — equally leaves the reader with “nothing to go upon” in the same way that overly esoteric reasoning leaves the game beyond their reach. The author should, surely, do their best to know what the audience knows…and the surest way towards that end is to try to include the information that is needed. And if that can’t be done in a subtle way, sometimes what you get is a bad mystery.
As with virtually everything I dedicate time to in my life, there is the question of really how much any of this actually matters. If the aboriginal population of the Iberian peninsula did their painting with horse-hair brushes in 3 A.D. and you say they used fox-hair because you included fox-hair brushes in your novel…so what? To a hardy few this might be evidence that the author knows not whereof they speak, but then it’s clear from reading even a handful of GAD novels that most authors threw out proper procedure and accurate representations of crime-solving in the service of plot from the get-go. If we wanted realism we’d read a newspaper. The one thing you can arguably guarantee about any audience is that most of them are non-specialists in most disciplines and have picked up your book for a bit of fun. Maybe making it fun is enough — there are plenty of books you couldn’t get me to read past page 20 for any amount of promised fidelity to the arcane working as its core.