#720: Reflections on Detection – The Knox Decalogue 5: No Chinamen

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:

Introduction
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

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of Knox’s rules, with the ‘No Chinamen’ non-rule obviously singled out because of how easily it demonstrates the out of date, backwards, racist attitudes in which all classic era crime and detective fiction is so completely mired — and I draw your attention to it again because the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?

22 thoughts on “#720: Reflections on Detection – The Knox Decalogue 5: No Chinamen

  1. Please do write that 8000-word essay. It would be really nice to hear some nuanced views. I have been to a dark place since 2017. I became bitter and wanted the world to burn, so to speak. It was around that time I came across the Guardian and I took to reading the comments section there. There are some angry and frustrated folks there too as in most social media and I bought into their world views. In many ways they are right, but they are as guilty of binary discourse as found in other deservedly-maligned mainstream newspapers. Anyway I became self-righteous and judgmental. I rue the time wasted and the person I have become. Reading balanced essays like yours would be a step in the right direction.

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    • Well, 8,000 words one day maybe, but not on the poisonous arrogance of Pitch Perfect and modern movies in general.

      Online communities can be somewhat risky territory, which is why I remain so proud of the people we find on these GAD blogs and forums in how considered we are of alternative points of view and how constructive the criticism and disagreement is. I think it helps that we’re here from a position of enthusiasm and so want to see something discussed, and any agenda otherwise tends to get exposed pretty quickly.

      So, y’know, hang out on more GAD blogs — we’re lovely people 🙂

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  2. I take Knox’s rule (despite the condensed and possibly misleading version of the same) to mean, in today’s language: No racist depictions of evil foreign villains should be included in a detective novel. In other words, if you spot a slit-eyed Chinese character, put down the book, as it is trash. I think the advice holds true today and is entirely free of racism, to my way of thinking. In fact, it is discouraging villainizing the old racial stereotypes.

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    • Yeah, some alternative shortened form would make a huge difference, I feel — goes the show what an important job it is to condense something well. Just cutting the end off to make it shorter affects the overall meaning of a piece…imagine And Then There Were None without its final chapter!

      I’d be tempted to try and push some alternative phrasing of the shortened form, but, really, it’s been 90 years now and who am I gonna push?

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  3. It amazes me that anyone could actually misconstrue Knox’s rule – from the very first time I saw it (in its short form, because I’ve never really read the full essay containing these rules) I thought that Knox meant what he actually meant, and it would have felt very backwards for me to interpret it the way some modern people, including those you mentioned above, have done.

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    • It’s pretty sad that examples of people arguably deliberately misunderstanding it are so easy to find. I wasn’t entirely sure if Symons and James had — I’ve read both books before, but couldn’t remember — but they seemed to have the kind of attitude towards GAD which implied they might. And, lo and behold…

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    • I’m with you. I never thought it was racist, just the opposite, even though I’m not sure I had ever read the whole rule until quite recently. It makes me wonder whether those who misconstrue it should be looking at their own attitudes, not those of Knox and GA mysteries!

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  4. 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…

    Well, you’re talking about the same guy who grouped Gladys Mitchell with the Humdrums. So…

    Like Christian, I always took the no Chinamen rule as a rejection of the Fu Manchu-type Yellow Peril fiction and not of characters like Charlie Chan and Lily Wu.

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  5. The fact that he put “No Chinaman” in the first sentence rather than something like “Stop writing Fu Manchu” may say something of Knox’s confidence in his contemporaries’ abilities to write non-Yellow Peril Chinese characters at all, which isn’t encouraging…

    In principle it’s a good guideline, and could (and should) be extended to “no superstitious subservient black people; no Swarthy Foreigners who are clearly Up To Something; no non-Christians written by G K Chesterton” – and, on structural grounds, “don’t signpost your villains as obviously evil unless you’re writing a howdunnit”. But phrasing the very first sentence like he did, he really shot himself in the foot unnecessarily.

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    • Well, it’s not Knox’s fault that whoever came after him decided not to try and capture the spirit of the rule when they abridged it. As I say above, you can’t call a book bad just because someone else has torn out the last chapter…!

      I’d also add “no Christians written by G.K. Chesterton…especially Protestants” 😆

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      • Leo Bruce satirised Chesterton brilliantly in Case for Three Detectives. Quoting very roughly from memory: “I knew a man named Jones who was a poisoner. And another swindled hundreds of people of their life savings. And one,” the little priest said darkly, “was an Archbishop of Canterbury.”

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  6. Julian Symons was, in effect, an ungifted upstart whose reputation is alien to me.

    (Calming down), I would be only too happy if a swarthy Russian with high, greasy cheekbones should become a villain in a good un-PC GAD-like novel,
    Dixi.

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  7. Spicy thoughts, Jim. Yes, the rule is obvious and I don’t understand how anyone would interpret it any other way unless done on purpose. Of course, things should be taken in perspective: there was no internet back then, almost no news from abroad and there was a huge difference between countries and cultures. So a foreigner would always be seen as mysterious. Today, if you wanted to know about Argentina, for instance, you can understand the country and its local customs in about ten minutes.
    Now, I’m a little uneasy when people throw words like “equality/inequality” around implying one is definitely better than the other without a context, but I’ll let it slip by unless you want me to get both philosophical and political 😋
    When talking about the past, it’s interesting to note how varied literature was. You had racist novels, anti-racism novels, some mystery authors were right wingers and some, like Boucher, staunch socialists. It was a much freer period in many, many ways. Man, i think I’ll try and build a time machine. I don’t like the present at all 😂

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  8. Aside from the obvious “leave that racist crap at the door” message (I love the modern feel of “you had best put it down at once”), it’s always struck me that there may be an element of motive in the rule. Basically don’t have the killer’s motive simply be that they are part of an “evil and sneaky” group. It’s especially abhorrent when that group is based on race, but still disappointing when it’s a cult or syndicate. Not all GAD mysteries have the best motive, but it’s especially disappointing when it comes down to something like “they were satanists!”

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    • This is a quite spectacular point, not least because I’m sure the element of motive can often be the hardest one to finalise for a lot of GAD plots. Authors could probably recognise the seed for the mechanics of a puzzle plot, say, and the various trappings that would come with that…but then they have to sit down and work out why it’s gone down as it has, and I can believe that caused more than a few headaches over the years.

      It’s telling that the really great motives stand out — Murder in the Family by James Ronald, say — as do the really bad ones (“He’s maaaaaaaad!!”). Taken as an admonishment against the latter, this is even better. I’m moderately annoyed that I got caught up in the rule’s history rather than its function, because this is a brilliant observation, Ben.

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      • I wish there was a rule that said “no gangs or syndicates” (which seems to have been a thing towards the early side of the Golden Age). Has there ever been a satisfying ending where it came down to some henchmen doing the deed, or some unmasking of a seemingly innocent character as the head of a cabal?

        Ah, and a good motive? That reminds me of someone (Byrnside?) recently reviewing The Sittaford Mystery. What a beauty.

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        • The beauty of Sittaford is in the sort of simplicity that you don’t — or I didn’t, anyway — expect. Which begs the question: simple or complex? Which works better…?

          As for cabals (autocorrect has tried to make that “canals” three times, which is a very different style of book), I think their hoariness is best exemplified by The Seven Dials Mystery. For reasons I shall avoid here.

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          • Which begs the question: simple or complex? Which works better…?

            Both. But it depends on who’s doing the writing/plotting. They either work or they don’t and that’s where the masters are separated from mere mortals.

            It’s telling that the really great motives stand out… as do the really bad ones

            I’ve always had the impression motive was of a secondary importance in GAD and it always annoys me when a motive, good or bad, is not clued or tacked on at the end. That’s why really good and original motives always stand out to me. Another Christie with a good and original motive is The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, which could have been a classic on the strength of the motive alone, but she ruined it with additional murders. Otherwise, it would have been perfect.

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  9. Great points all! The disparity between a non-obvious motive and a more obvious—and possibly stereotypical—red-herring one actually seems like a micro version of the disparity between people in general and their sociological reduction.

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