The Ten Rules of (Golden Age) Detective Fiction

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Leading up to June 30th’s Writers’ Corner on Mystery writing, I asked one of two panelists, Janice MacDonald (author of the Randy Craig Mysteries) for a list of common genre cliches.

Turns out, someone consecrated this list almost a hundred years ago during the Golden Age of detective fiction.

Ronald Knox, known to admirers like MacDonald as “Father Knox,” was a humorist literary critic and, of course, detective fiction author. He formed The Detective Fiction Decalogue in the preface of the anthology Best Detective Stories of 1928-1929.

“Father” Ronald Knox / Wikipedia

“While a lot of Father Knox’s ‘Decalogue of Detective Fiction’ have been challenged by very good writers,” says MacDonald, “there are good reasons behind every one of these.”

Join Janice MacDonald, Wayne Arthurson and me at the Stanley Milner library Sunday, June 30th at 1:30pm for a fun and insightful discussion on what makes good mystery writing. In the meantime, study the words of the Father.

Here are his 10 Commandments of Detective Fiction:

  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.
  2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
  3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
  4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
  5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.
  6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
  7. The detective must not himself commit the crime.
  8. The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
  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 reader.
  10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

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