#723: Reflections on Detection – The Knox Decalogue 6: No Accidents

Okay, let’s pick up the next rule from Monsignor Knox.

The sixth entry of Ronald Knox’s still-debated attempt to provide some axioms for the detective fiction subgenre runs like this:

No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right. That is perhaps too strongly stated; it is legitimate for the detective to have inspirations which he afterwards verifies, before he acts on them, by genuine investigation. And again, he will naturally have moments of clear vision, in which the bearings of the observations hitherto made will become suddenly evident to him. But he must not be allowed, for example, to look for the lost will in the works of the grandfather clock because an unaccountable instinct tells him that that is the right place to search. He must look there because he realizes that that is where he would have hidden it himself if he had been in the criminal’s place. And in general it should be observed that every detail of his thought-process, not merely the main outline of it, should be conscientiously audited when the explanation comes along at the end.

You’ll notice that at no point in this rule, nor indeed anywhere in the decalogue as a whole, does Knox explicitly banish dreams as a method of detection, and yet I used “Dreams” in the header image to stand in for rule 6 — arguably, this may have been to provide the necessary D for spelling out Knox’s name…but, in that case, “Accidents” would have done equally well on both fronts. So, like, what gives?

Well, first let’s get into the rule itself.

The existence of detective fiction implies a story that requires, as a bare minimum, a detective and something to be detected. Traditionally such detecting has been limited to the corporeal realm and related to the commission of unlawful acts, although, as discussed back in rule 2, there’s no reason why your detective can’t commune with something on the Other Side so along as the audience knows the rules for such encounters. Various farceurs would choose to play around with the outcome of such detection — the wrong person is found guilty (as one Anthony tried), or no-one is found guilty (as per another Anthony), or a crime goes undetected and so unpunished (c.f. another Anthony) — but in the quotidian, impeccably hidebound versions of these events a conclusion is reached on account of the detective’s efforts and the matter under review is closed for all and sundry within the universe.

What such an outcome demands is that the conclusion is reached through the brilliance, doggedness, and abnegation of the detective: that, in the face of insurmountable evil and cunning, when faced with a criminal who has brought every fibre of their significant advantage to bear upon the matter at hand — the criminal, after all, usually knows they’re going to commit a crime, and so is typically expected to plan for the intervention of one investigator or another — it is the rational, observant, intelligent nature of the detective that wins through. In this regard, the detective’s conduct is not unlike that of a scientist: the outcomes are measurable, the reasons for each occurrence made clear, and the same situation (in this case, the set of circumstances pressing in the same way upon the same people) could be repeated and result in the exact same outcome. It is, when viewed like this, perhaps no surprise that the first Great Detective was invented by a medical man — you brought him the symptoms of your crime, and he prescribed the cure.

In the face of the unreasonable criminal who has resorted to unconscionable ends to achieve their unattainable desires, it is the detective who triumphs by reasserting the dominance of rational, reasonable, achievable aims. That a crime could go undetected, and so a criminal effectively ‘win’, is to the genre more painful than the speck of dust that would fell Hercule Poirot. If the criminal is the darkness, the detective is the light which John’s gospel assures us cannot be overcome (hey, G.K. Chesterton nerds, did he ever use this allusion in the Father Brown stories? It’s a bit subtle for Chesterton, I know — he liked his Catholics pure and everyone else rotten to the core — but it would go some way to explaining that little priest’s genesis). And, of course, in a world filled with a seemingly suffocating abundance of criminals, the detective who is successful once must be believed to be successful twice, then thrice, then whatever follows ‘thrice’, and so on…and that only happens as a result of those measurable, repeatable steps mentioned above.

There is nothing impressive about someone accidentally tripping over the one lucky thing they need. There is no banishment of the gathering fears through mere luck alone. Anyone can be lucky. And luck, like patience, runs out.

“Speaking of which…”

In this regard, as well as others, the detective novel sought to distance itself from the thriller — Buchanish, Ludlumesque, le Carrean, take your pick — in which the protagonist might accidentally themself through a series of increasingly bizarre encounters only for All To Be Revealed at the end and a momentary act of bravery or insight to luck them to victory. I actually think that “every detail of his thought-process, not merely the main outline of it, should be conscientiously audited when the explanation comes along at the end” is a better and more definitive condensing of this rule, but given what we know happened with rule 5 I suppose we should count ourselves lucky that the opening line or two of this one is at least representative if not authoritative.

A certain amount of guesswork is allowable, so long as not every guess hits its mark — I know I talk about Freeman Wills Crofts a lot, but the Inspector French books really do exemplify this perfectly in how many dead ends he follows and how much time is invested (in the universe if not on the page) in hunting down leads and witnesses — and authors can fly close to the wind at times…even if it is entirely understandable in some instances. It’s difficult to have your sleuth summarise the exact actions and thoughts of the criminal in the final summation without either a) appearing to take liberties of omniscience or b) admitting that a lot of it is pure guess work and thus potentially reducing the impact of their conclusions. This, I’d wager, is why the criminal is so often left free to snivel and monologue their way through the previous 300 pages of events, because it’s at least narratively honest (we presume…see next week’s column for more on this) and infinitesimally more believable.

A great example of the frustration of not actually detecting in a repeatable way is to be found in the Charlie Chan movie Black Magic (1944), wherein the lovely problem of a vanishing bullet is resolved by Sidney Toler’s Chan sitting the suspects down in a room and playing a word association game. Effectively a “this is the answer because I say it is” solution, this sort of free-association of ideas is precisely what Knox is guarding against here (and, yes, no, that’s not the movie’s biggest problem): here the detective is lucky because he says a word and the killer replies with a word that Chan can then say implies their guilt. If the killer simply sat there thinking “No matter what he says, I’m gonna say ‘flowers’ and to hell with it” everyone goes home and we’re none the wiser.

I said I wanted to talk about dreams, though.

“Finally…”

Dreams are the purest form of this type of free-association non-detection, and so don’t start worrying that I’m about to defend them as part of my priest/doctor analogy: I’m not, and any sleuth who relies on a dream to provide the concrete answers to their puzzle is a shyster and a charlatan. Quite apart from the fact that most narrative ingredients in dreams are a curious mix of the real events we experienced and whatever flotsam lingers over once you’ve defragged — a farrier on a trampoline, say, especially if you only know the profession because of the instinct that exists in such circumstances rather than because it’s someone actually, y’know, shoeing a horse — any clarity that strikes is likely to be the result of a refreshed perspective, perhaps the removal of cluttering esoterica, rather than the dream’s contents (always supposing, that is, you can remember the dream in the first place…but that’s a discussion for a different blog).

No, the reason I wanted to mention dreams at this point in my dissection of Knox was on account of the link one could draw between the disparate events of a puzzle plot — that at times can take on a nightmarish quality in their sheer inexplicable nature — and the random occurrences that sometimes occupy and populate the sleeping brain. As I write this, I am halfway through Dashiell Hammett’s second Continental Op novel, The Dain Curse (1929), and it’s a dizzying piling on of events that would thrill the most ardent puzzle plotter among you; equally the nightmarishly inexplicable events of your average (and better!) impossible crime novel, or the miasma of suspicion surrounding the guests at the murderous country house party, can achieve a perspective of something from which no rational exit seems to exist. It’s a genre and a style of storytelling that abhors loose ends or unaddressed actions — who did kill the chauffeur? — and these haunt us through our waking hours in much the same way a nightmare chases us even into the safety of consciousness.

It’s to be hoped that, in the clarity provided by the awakening at the end of such books, the answers which string all the preceding events together are satisfying and provide the closure our pattern-forming brains find satisfying: the deductions (or abductions, or inductions — Scott and I will get into this in due course) convincingly constructed, the nightmare of events given a shape less threatening than it had seemed before the light dawned, the prescription was written, and the cure undertaken.

Yes, it’s a tortured metaphor, but hopefully you can understand how I got there.

~

If the foregoing hasn’t put you off, and you’re yet to read anything else in this series of mine, here are the links to each of the rules I’ve written about

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

Additionally, Isaac has compiled a suggested new decalogue over at his blog Solving the Mystery of Murder, and you can find that here.

8 thoughts on “#723: Reflections on Detection – The Knox Decalogue 6: No Accidents

  1. The idea of free-associative reasoning was one of the recurring jokes on the 60’s Batman tv show. I haven’t read enough books to come across anything quite as silly in an actual detective novel, but I’ve no doubt you have some actual examples. When it does happen, I’m sure it must be due to the tension of presenting a clue hidden to the audience but understood by the detective.

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    • There’s one example scratching at the back of my memory, but it won’t scramble into the light of recollection. And I get the impression that it’s generally used as a “once we establish who is guilty, then we can explain what they did” shortcut…because, let’s face it, pinning guilt without catching someone either in the act or in possession of specific knowledge (“How did you know this was the key to the caravan?”) is hard…!

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  2. “…pinning guilt without catching someone either in the act or in possession of specific knowledge is hard…”
    That exact thing actually happens in Death of a Ghost, which is somewhat of a humorous scene, but does frustrate the rest of the mystery experience.

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    • It’s a definite hangover from the Victorian style of sensation writing, where the evil-doer was blatantly obvious from the off and still had to be caught smuggling a body out of a grave before they could be accused. An effect of the British class system, perhaps, since for someone of “lower” status to accuse one of their “betters” would have doubtless been a seismic event.

      Which, I suppose, is why the detective — accuser, gatherer or evidence, provider of whatever proof can be managed — is such an outsider in the Golden Age, since we Brits do so love reminding people of where they come from and how unworthy they are.

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  3. I can’t think of any examples in books, but at least in visual media dreams are a pretty nifty device to introduce clues in an oblique way. The easiest example that comes to mind is Spellbound which has a nice collusion of scientific and irrational detection. Though overall I found the movie dull, the unmasking of the killer via the dream clues was pretty interesting I think.

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  4. What if the word association game was BS, what if the prophetic dream was just a dream? What if the happy accident was planted? If there’s no ratiocination involved, even if the culprit confesses you’ll always end up wondering whether he lied to protect someone else.
    Borges once wrote a short story about some ficticious novels, the skeletons or prototypes of unwritten works. One of such examples was a mystery in which the detective solves the case and the novel ends. Then, just before the index, there’s an extra paragraph which might be something like “the scarf belonged to Linda ” or “Marcos Ibarra played black during the first chess match”, handing the reader the opportunity to be the voice of reason, the one solving the case.
    You can even write “Years later the detective found out that… ” in order to avoid an omniscient clue giver. Pretty neat, eh?

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    • I understand — from Ryan O’Neill, I believe — that Borges wrote a few detection-adjacent works which play with conventions in similar ways. One day, at some distant point, I shall, I shall, I shall get round to reading them…!

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      • Borges loved the genre. He used to select novels for “El Séptimo Círculo” collection back in the day (some titles are still reprinted from time to time ). He chose many Carr titles , even some Berrow and the like. His detective story Death and the Compass is a sort of deconstruction of the genre. He generally wrote about universal concepts and ideas in his short stories, so he teamed up with his best friend, Bioy Casares (another GREAT writer), and they released the Isidro Parodi series, full-blown mysteries. I should re-read them. Generally, I always go back to their individual works.

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