#817: Reflections on Detection – The Knox Decalogue: Legacy

The Knox Decalogue: over 90 years since being laid down, what is its legacy?

If you’re new here and have no idea what I’m talking about, here are the links to everything related to the Knox Decalogue that I’ve been discussing over the past 18 months:

So, what is the fate of this set of precepts? I was hoping there might be ten things, because that would be all nice and symmetrical and stuff, but in my mind it seems that the Knox Decaloue can reasonably have anticipated the following six outcomes in the years that followed its publication.

1. To be Condensed

Knox’s rules alone in the introduction to Best Detective Stories (1929) — that is, not including the introductory remarks or the reflections that follow — run to slightly over 1,000 words, most of which are examinations of exceptions or examples to illustrate both Knox’s point and the understanding of the genre he possesses in order to be making such claims. A shorter version divested of such concerns has been developed that essentially takes the opening statement of each rule and chops it off at the point where Knox’s discussion begins: condensing 1,045 words down to 172.

This is understandable, given that lists are meant to be pithy and we like rules to be succinct so that we might wrap our head around them more quickly. I could cite countless examples from the last 15 months of people wanting a simple edict in the face of a complex situation, and discussion of any such complexity inevitably boils down to a few key points. There is only so much information the brain wishes to take on, and Knox’s scholarly approach is perhaps a bit too verbose for easy mental digestion, but it’s a shame that the intelligence behind each point, showing the depth of understanding Knox had, was always bound to be removed.

2. To be Misunderstood

An unavoidable result of reduction is a loss of information. To take another list of ten edicts, if you were told that one of the foundations of the Christian faith — themselves a contraction — was “Thou shalt honour thy father”…well, the ingrained misogyny in religion would make a lot more sense, but also a lot of questions would be raised. Because the 119 words of Knox’s fifth rule are reduced to simply the first seven in that easy-to-digest list, or because the clarification in the second part of rule 7 is removed, easy scorn is directed at a point that wasn’t actually made in the first place.

To a certain extent one can blame this misunderstanding on simple laziness on the part of those who don’t bother to do even simple research — that example of the three modern crime writers that I cite in the introduction to this endevaour still bothers me, because those people should know better — but at the same time the shortened list is so widely replicated online and in books that one might believe that was the actual original list. Simple generational bias then explains the willingness to accept that such a list would be written in the 1920s and, well, the problem simply feeds on its own ignorance from there.

3. To be Ignored

As much as those modern crime writers scorn the idea of Knox’s Decalgoue, and seek a sort of swaggering prestige in rejecting the idea of being confined by anything do hidebound as, er, genre expectations, let’s not imagine for a moment that Knox was trying to legislate for the genre, nor that he was under the impression he was going to change things. Plenty of Knox’s Golden Age peers would ignore these rules over the years: John Rhode would delight in complex and technical scientific murder schemes, Norman Berrow was a bastard for a hidden passage, Dorothy L. Sayers omitted a vitally important word right in fron of you and told you she was doing it…look into the work of most Golden Age authors and you’ll doubtless find a broken edict.

It’s frankly rather hliarious that this quaint impression exists of everyone writing a novel of detection from 1929 onwards sitting down with their Decalogue, probably embroidered on a hankie (it’s only 172 words, remember), and scouring their manuscripts to ensure they hadn’t upset Monsignor Knox. Knox was in no way trying to appoint himself as the arbiter of what qualified as detective fiction, setting up a sort of schism that would tear the literary world asunder…he was merely expressing his own preferences, expecting no more than a chance to put his view across. That anyone would choose to read this piece and see it as an exhortation against any fiction that doesn’t conform continues to baffle me…

“Good god! He’s right!”

4. To be Talked About

What I think Knox did want to do was promote some discussion in light of this emerging genre. What is it reasonable to expect from a detectve story? The end of the 1920s saw some incredibly strong works emerging, but the Golden Age didn’t really fly until the 1930s…and the clarity with which Knox sees the genre in his piece must be considered in that. The Decalogue was published, remember, as part of the introduction of a collection of short stories, and in being made available to the public was intended as a piece of popular writing; no lofty dalliance with academia, this, either serious or tongue-in-cheek as in the manner of Knox’s Sherlockiana, but instead pointing out to a non-specialist audience some observations Knox has made.

In that regard, all Knox is trying to do is quantify what others would have been able to see for themselves, arguably as a jumping off point for further conversations (he even admits himself that more rules might be necessary, and that the imposition of rules does not always produce conditions under which writers thrive). In much the same way that it’s possible to hold a conversation without adhering strictly to H.P. Grice’s four maxims, it has always been possible to write a detective story without sticking to the letter of these mis-perceived laws. But the discussion and disagrement that stem from having them written down for others to access and refer to…well, that’s where the fun’s to be had.

5. To be Played With

There’s also the argument that Knox was inviting further speculation and invention within the genre. This could work in the manner of an Oulipian constraint, but equally consider this: if I tell you not to think of a pink cow, the first thing you think of is a pink cow. If I tell you you shouldn’t write a detective story in which the criminal is unknown to the reader and appears out of nowhere with 20 pages remaining…what are some people boiund to do? I like to think Knox had largesse enough to acknowledge a great piece of detective fiction that managed to invent some new way around one of his observations, but I don’t know if he ever worte or spoke of them again after laying them down.

It had been my intention to review Josef Skvorecky’s collection Sins for Father Knox (1973) — in which ten crime stories each break one of Knox’s rules — this weekend, but the week has already filled up and looks to be a busy one and so I should’ve started them about a fortnight ago. However, I think Knox would be tickled pink if he knew that someone had gone to that much effort in light of his bit of fun. It would be like someone taking my 7 Types of Detective talk from this year’s Bodies from the Library Conference and writing a story featuring each type…who wouldn’t love something they created to result in something like that?!

6. To be Right

And, ultimately, the enduring legacy of the Knox Decalogue is that Knox described the exact type of book that I’m pretty darn sure most readers of classic detective fiction would want to read. If Gideon Fell legitimately turned to the ouija board to determine the murderer at the end of Till Death Do Us Part (1944) most people would be aghast at the way John Dickson Carr messed up a perfect mystery with a daffy ending; if the killer in The Honjin Murders (1946) escaped from the snow-surrounded hut by means of a secret panel, the novel would be nothing close to the classic it is. At the end of the day, we want our clues declared, our Watsons slightly dim, our chains of reasoning complete and compellingly free of convenient guesses, and our criminal there for us to overlook until told otherwise.

From my experience of reading books in which authors break these rules, and how such istance frustrate the living h*ck outta me — not just modern writers, whose books also have other problems, but many from the Golden Age as acknowledged above — I know which of the types I prefer. I find myself increasingly getting to the end of something and thinking “But they didn’t tell us that…” or “Good heavens, that post-9/11 portrayal of the middle-eastern antagonist was a bit on the nose…”, and knowing full well that the book would be better if amended to adhere to Knox’s guidance. 90+ years on, some of us are hung up on this list because of how mauch damn good sense it makes, and how many books would be better if their their authors would swallow their misplaced pride and listen to someone who knew whereof he spoke.


Knox-like, I willingly concede that this list is unlikely to be exhaustive, and the reader is invited to add their own thoughts if I have been remiss in any way. This draws to an end my reflections on the Knox Decalogue; I promsie to leave S.S. van Dine’s ‘Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Fiction’ (1928) well the hell alone. For a couple of years, at least…

One thought on “#817: Reflections on Detection – The Knox Decalogue: Legacy

  1. I know this is off-topic, but I notice that the Bedford Bookshelf blog appears to have been abandoned – you might want to remove it from your blogroll.


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