Okay, now we get down to it, the one rule of Ronald Knox’s Ten Commandments for Detective Fiction that people actually know. Or think they do.
Here are the links to the other posts in this undertaking of mine:
Here’s rule 5 as seemingly everyone presents it for criticism:
No Chinaman must figure in the story.
And here’s what Rule 5 actually says:
No Chinaman must figure in the story. Why this should be so I do not know, unless we can find a reason for it in our western habit of assuming that the Celestial is over-equipped in the matter of brains, and under-equipped in the matter of morals. I only offer it as a fact of observation that, if you are turning over the pages of a book and come across some mention of ‘the slit-like eyes of Chin Loo’, you had best put it down at once; it is bad. The only exception which occurs to my mind – there are probably others – is Lord Ernest Hamilton’s Four Tragedies of Memworth.
Now, it is fascinating to me not just how very, very different those two things are, but also how easily it is accepted that the first, shortened version is what the rule really says and means. In the introduction to this endeavour, I spoke of a conversation involving the crime fiction authors Val McDermid, Abir Mukherjee, and Lucy Ribchester at the Edinburgh Festival in 2016 where much hilarious scorn was poured on the narrowness of Knox’s rules, with the ‘No Chinamen’ non-rule obviously singled out because of how easily it demonstrates the out of date, backwards, racist attitudes in which all classic era crime and detective fiction is so completely mired — and I draw your attention to it again because the risk of countering criticism in our own personal enthusiasms is that men of straw have a habit of popping out all over and I wish to assure you of the perpetration of this belief in a relatively recent setting among people who really should be ashamed of not knowing better.
Never mind that the irony of this — dismissing Knox’s rules for making an ignorant and lazy assumption, yet being too lazy to look into the rule itself and so dismissing it in ignorance assuming that you are right to do so — is so thick you could walk atop it, never mind that those writers working in this genre are largely standing on the shoulders of the innovators who came before them and deserve at least a little respect, or that in boiling this down to its unrepresentative, sensationalist opening words is simply pandering to the click-bait trappings of our modern inability to cope with any opinion with any facets of subtlety to it. Put all of that aside for now, we might get to it late if I have the time and energy, and let’s instead focus on how readily the wrong interpretation of this rule has been perpetrated over the years.
The novelist and president of the Detection Club Julian Symons was, as we know, no huge proponent of the Golden Age, but surely even he is stretching his ignorance when he claims in Bloody Murder (1972) that this rule is “unintelligible except on the basis that [a Chinaman] would not be a likely member of any English murder group” — the implication here that Symons hasn’t even read Knox’s rules really rather surprises me, though it shouldn’t given how clear he made his feelings on the writing of the era: any chance to stick to boot in was, apparently, to be seized. P.D. James was also, to my understanding, no great fan of the Golden Age, and again manages to display ignorance of the full rule by declaring it in Talking About Detective Fiction (2009) the result of a “general view that Chinamen, if inclined to murder, would be so clever and cunning in their villainy that the famous detective would be unfairly hampered in his investigation”. She then, almost grudgingly, acknowledges that it’s “possible…Knox was obliquely referring to Dr. Fu Manchu [who] no doubt contribut[ed] to racial prejudice and fear of the Yellow Peril”.
There is undeniable cause to accuse more than a few novels of the Golden Age of insensitive and offensive portrayals of minorities in British society, be they ethnic, religious, or otherwise. It would mendacious in the extreme, however, to imply or otherwise claim that such portrayals were the exclusive preserve of this era (many such portrayals can be found far earlier in Elizabethan literature — “Shylock,” you’re all shouting — and possibly beyond, though I’ll admit my reading coverage breaks down there) or of detective fiction in particular. The lazy stereotyping and othering of minorities and ‘exotic’ foreigners had extended well beyond the realms of mere fictional thoughtlessness and into aspects of society with a disturbing tenacity — religious persecution, eugenics, demonisation of homosexuals…it’s all distressingly close to the nightmare fiction of a thousand thriller writers, yet existed in reality long before anyone reflected this on the page.
There is, then, legitimate ground to reprove Golden Age detective fiction for including such hurtful portrayals and language — and I’ve written about my objection to excising it in reprints here — but the deliberate misquoting and misuse of Knox’s rule strikes me as the laziest kind of attitude dismissed these days as “wokeness” (a term unfortunately taking on negative connotations given that all it seeks to do is raise awareness of inequality). If we wish to condemn these books on account of their outdated attitudes, fine, but that displays a staggering ignorance of how the printed word works — come at me in 80 years, when absolutely nothing written in 2020 is in any way problematic in 2100 given, say, our developing appreciation of gender coughJ.K.Rowlingcough — and overlooks the fact that they are, after all, simply reflections of the society in which they were written: Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (1939) was published and for sale in bookshops under its original title into the 1960s…so do we dismiss all of the literature from the 1950s and 1960s, too, because of the apparent social acceptance of such horrible terms? It was in the 1960s that Ian Fleming made his famously false claim about sumo wrestlers, too, so it’s not as if all othering had ceased in fiction by that decade. Or even this one.
[Man, you’re lucky this blog has a classic detective fiction focus; I could write 8,000 words on the toxic attitudes promoted towards minorities in movies like Pitch Perfect (2012) or, indeed, in most of the political, social, and economic language thrown around these days. But let’s not digress. I don’t want to add people complaining about my digressions to the pile of complaints I’ll get after this. Year’s been shit enough as it is.]
It’s boring having to go through this with such care because what Knox means is so very obvious: read more than the first seven words and the scales fall from your eyes and all is right with the world (not you, dear reader — with discernment enough to read this far comes a high probability that you’re intelligent enough to have followed Knox’s meaning). I’ll defer here to current Detection Club president Martin Edwards, whose undeniable enthusiasm for the Golden Age us not so pronounced that he’d ever let himself overstate a case, in his superb The Golden Age of Murder (2015):
[Knox was] poking fun at thriller writers who reliance on sinister Oriental villain had already become a racist cliche.
I don’t know who the first person to abridge Knox’s rules was, but I do hope that such a vital oversight as occurred here was an innocent accident rather than some shit-stirring guttersnipe keen to push some sort of agenda. Because while an abridgement along the lines of “No lazy racial stereotyping should be used to justify any element of the plot” isn’t anywhere near as pithy, consider the intelligent conversations that could have been had around it over the last 90 years. Imagine modern authors being able to step onto the hallowed ground of public discourse and, instead of pointing out how racist and out of touch GAD was because of the ‘no Chinamen’ rule, talking instead about how this rule was broken and stereotypes persisted on account of social attitudes of the time — a time of political upheaval, economic decay, inflammatory rhetoric, a baffling rise of fascism both at home and abroad…that would ring a bell of two, wouldn’t it? Hell, we might start thinking that maybe we had something in common with our ancestors, that maybe we cold understand their flaws and the flawed times in which they lived, rather than seeking to prove to ourselves how much more switched on we are and thus denying any lessons that history might be screaming at us.
That would be nice, wouldn’t it?