Arbuthnott Knox (17 February 1888 – 24 August 1957) was an English priest,
theologian and author of detective stories. He was also a writer and a regular
broadcaster for BBC Radio. Knox went to Eton College, England, and went on to
win several scholarships at Balliol College, Oxford. He was ordained an
Anglican priest in 1912 and was appointed chaplain of Trinity College, Oxford,
but he left in 1917 upon his conversion to Catholicism. In 1918 he was ordained
a Catholic priest.
In addition to
being a Catholic priest, theologian, broadcaster, essayist and translator, he also
wrote six popular novels in the detective fiction genre. Knox was a student of
this particular form of literature and, typical of his astute and powerfully
analytical brain, he came up with his own Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction.
Here they are:
1. The criminal must be someone mentioned in
the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader
has been allowed to follow.
Okay, this one is rather longwinded but it is logical. If
you want your readers to be satisfied at the end, the criminal must be a
character they have already met in the course of the book. Using a surprise
hobo who has just drifted into town and decided to murder one of the local
gentry is cheating. Knox was, of course, aware that this cheat was used in many
of the fashionable crime magazines of the day, but found them just as abhorrent
as we would do today.
Knox was much more subtle. Yes, the culprit must be a
character in the story. But it must not be a character that the reader has had
the chance to sympathize with. If the author pulls that trick, the reader feels
cheated and is likely never to indulge the writer with any further book
purchases. There are exceptions to this rule, nevertheless, as in the case of
Agatha Christie’s brilliant “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd,” which was published
in 1926. It didn’t hurt her sales one little bit. Evidently, Agatha had a
different set of rules…
2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies
are ruled out as a matter of course.
This is not fantasy we’re dealing with here. It’s real life
– well, sort of. Readers are creatures of habit – aren’t we all? – and demand
that the author play the game. Here there are no fairies, elves, ghosts,
saints, angels, demons or trolls to clutter up the literary landscape. Just
give us the facts, right? Except this is fiction and not fact. The novelist
Stephen King seems to have done a creditable job of mixing straight fiction
with fantasy (as did C.S. Lewis’s pal, Charles Williams). So why is the
whodunit exempt? Possibly because, like the hobo in rule 1, it is a device that
is too easy and, again, leaves the reader feeling cheated.
3. Not more than one secret room or passage is
Here, Knox sounds peeved about the irritating
way in which writers magically produce secret passages in old houses and trick
switches in libraries that unlock secret doorways which swing out to allow the
protagonist to pass on and discover the secret room. Too many of the thriller
writers of the period produced this rabbit out of the hat. The word “secret” is
key. Knox wants a straightforward mystery where the reader sees every hand that
is played and there are no wild cards. The enjoyment is in guessing the culprit
before the detective has revealed who it is, not in wildly surmising
architectural anomalies and physical impossibilities.
4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be
used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the
This, again, would be too easy. Foisting a South-East-Asian
weed, or a sinister contraption on the reader smacks of cheating. It is a
device that is favored by the writers of adventure stories. John Buchan wasn’t
above the odd mechanism or appliance. He used that to give Richard Hannay pause
in “The Thirty-Nine Steps” and it didn’t really come off. It was a lazy
technique that could have turned out much more convincing if there had been
some human interaction, rather than a scene in which the red-faced hero
struggles with wooden beams, gears and cogs for half an hour, while the nefarious
criminal makes his escape.
5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.
Chinaman? What Chinaman? This harks back to the dying days
of the British Empire when all sorts of foreign nationals were flooding into
London to do commerce with the biggest power players on the planet. The
Chinaman was regularly used as the evil mastermind character in the magazines
of the day. In the 1920s the Chinese were seen as exotic, sinister and somehow
not quite above board. Here they were infiltrating British society, selling
their unfamiliar wares and slightly distasteful take on life to the masses in
the great metropolis. They were trying to take over our lives, by Jove!
When you pick up any appliance, from a toothbrush to a
garden hose, and find the words: “Made in China,” you have to ask yourself if things have changed significantly in a hundred years – including our attitudes.
6. No accident must ever help the detective,
nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
The premise of all classic whodunits is that the reader must
be presented with all the same facts that the detective has. The purpose of
this is to give the reader an equal chance to solve the puzzle. Coincidences,
chance happenings and bizarre hunches rob the reader of that sense of being
just as smart as the hero of the piece, because they are the hand of external
agency in a world we thought was a level playing field. Readers are sensitive
to that in the same way that cryptic-crossword solvers are sensitive to being
given a fair chance to complete the puzzle by being given fair clues.
7. The detective must not himself commit the
In reality there is little room for this particular
brand of shenanigan. Many detective novels are designed to be part of a series
in which the detective solves crime after crime. If the culprit turns out to be
the same person who is investigating, then the author has effectively shot him-
or herself in the foot in terms of a putative sequel. It is true that the most
convincing detective characters should also have their own faults and wrestle
with their own demons. But the author must stop short of allocating blame for the
main crime to the detective, otherwise what you end up with is a kind of moral
anarchy in which the reader ceases to care about solving the crime.
8. The detective must not light on any clues
which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
This is a tricky one. As mentioned, the reader should
have the same chance to solve the crime that the detective has. But to the same
extent the author must have enough latitude that he or she does not have to
telegraph each clue. Often the best way to introduce clues is as asides, or in
minor conversations, or in apparently insignificant details arising that are
quickly passed over. In that case, the reader really does know each clue, but
not its immediate significance for the solving of the crime.
9. The stupid friend of the detective, the
Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his
intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average
The Watson character’s purpose is to highlight the intelligence
of the detective, ask the same questions that the reader is asking, and
occasionally to summarize the investigation’s progress so far. The reason why
he has to be dumber than the reader is to give the reader that superb sense of
superiority that comes from being one step ahead of him. In a sense, the reader
should be able to answer many of the questions that the Watson figure
10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must
not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.
These literary devices, by our time, have worn
decidedly thin and smack of the lazy author who can’t resist pulling a fast one
in order to solve chunks of the puzzle. Even if the author has prepared the
reader for the appearance of the twin or double, the modern reader will
experience a sense of letdown when the fact is revealed.
of these “rules” have been broken by successful novelists who had the skill to
hold the reader’s attention beyond the first few pages, through the ensuing
story, right to the denouement. In fact, many of Knox’s rules seem superfluous,
or at least partially inapplicable to modern day detective fiction. And yet,
taken as a whole, they present us with the proposition that, in this particular
genre, care must be taken over the telling, the explication and the execution
of a story that is meant to be an entertainment which challenges the reader’s
intellect and is worth the price on the cover of the book.
Labels: broadcaster, Charles Williams, Chinaman, crime, criminal, detective fiction, essayist, evil mastermind, John Buchan, mystery, priest, Ronald Knox, Stephen King, theologian, translator, Watson