New Rules For The Modern Detective

imagesAs a tribute to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, born on this day in 1859, I thought I pulled this from the archive. Doyle did not invent the detective story (that would be Poe) but he did give us one of the first who had some serious issues. So just for fun, let’s talk about the flawed detective.

Why are today’s detective fiction protagonists so full of angst? Along with crime solving we are forced to watch as the well-educated Kay Scarpetta has a tragic affair with a married man. It’s fun to watch gritty John Rebus solve homicides in Scotland’s underbelly, but not so much to watch him battle his alcohol addiction. The Alex Deleware books were fun, until his personal life became the major plot points of Kellerman’s books. Yes, we do want fictional characters to have personalities and quirks so we can identify with them, but at some point we’d probably tell our best friends they needed help if they had the problems we see with today’s fictional detectives.

It wasn’t always like this. During the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, authors adhered to the Rules of Fair Play. These rules were put in place as a sort of pact with their readers. Detective fiction in the late 1920’s and 30’s assured readers that if proper attention was given to a book, they too could solve the crime right along with their favorite detective. This is why when Agatha Christy published “And then there were none” in 1939, both critics and readers were outraged as she purposely ignored the pact and guidelines. But even Christy would not dare over-humanize (yes, I just made that up) her characters.

This was the beauty of early detective fiction, there was less attention given to the characters so that the bulk of the story could center on the crime in question. Oh sure Holmes had his addiction, but Doyle did not make this a major plot point. Come to think of it, it would be kinda fun to read “Holmes and the Rehab Center”. Here Holmes could face his dependence while pointing out character flaws in the other patients. Many novelists today would do well to dial back the angst and instead focus on getting rid of plot holes or doing away with the surprise villain. Villains who come out of nowhere because the author was so busy attending to characterization that he or she forgot to figure out “who dun it”.

The rules of the game were codified in 1929 by Ronald Knox and agreed upon by the British authors Detective Club.  According to Knox, a detective story:

“Must have as its main interest the unraveling of a mystery; a mystery whose elements are clearly presented to the reader at an early stage in the proceedings, and whose nature is such as to arouse curiosity, a curiosity which is gratified at the end.”

Knox’s “Ten Commandments” are as follows:

  1. The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.
  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. (No he wasn’t being a racist, perhaps just tired of the many Fu Manchu books being churned out. Okay, it still sounds racist)
  6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
  7. The detective himself must not commit the crime.
  8. The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.
  9. The “sidekick” of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader 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

Historians now think Knox was being sarcastic, yet it is well documented that the British Detective Club took them rather seriously. They called Christy out and Sayers blatantly broke the rules with Gaudy Night.

We can laugh at these rules, but for almost 20 years they helped form the genre we now call “cozy mysteries”. Perhaps what we need is a new set of rules, even if they are taken as sarcasm.

  1. No detective can have more than one love interest at a time.
  2. Villains cannot appear out of then air. They have to be at least mentioned once prior to being named the culprit.
  3. Addictions cannot be made public. If fictional characters are to remain true to life, then any addiction must be hidden from the public, this includes the reading public
  4. Twists cannot be so convoluted as to make the writers of Mission Impossible spit out their coffee and yell, “no body would believe that shit”! (I’m looking at you Dan Brown)
  5. If you insist on writing a historical crime novel do some research. And no, watching the entire Downton Abbey and Brother Cadfael series does not count. I for one do not want to read another medieval mystery in which one character turns to another and says, “See you next weekend”. Medieval life was nasty, brutish and short. And they sure as hell didn’t get the weekends off.

Okay, so I started the list. What do you think? What would you add to it?

Author: sarij

I'm a writer, lifelong bibliophile ,and researcher. I hold a Bachelors in Humanities & History and a Master's in Humanities. When I'm not reading or talking about Shakespeare or history, you can usually find me in the garden discussing science or politics with my cat.

6 thoughts on “New Rules For The Modern Detective”

  1. Agatha Christie did break most of the rules, didn’t she? In a lot of years of reading mysteries, I’ve never read Sayers. I decided to remedy that a few weeks ago and interestingly enough bought Gaudy Night. Fun post.


    1. I hope you like it. It reads more like novel with a mystery thrown in. I want to read more of Sayers’ work. It seems she is the better writer, not sure why her work is not better remembered.


  2. On the other hand . . . Raymond Chandler once opined, “The technical basis [of a good pulp detective story] was that the scene outranked the plot, in the sense that a good plot was one which made good scenes.” (From page viii of Trouble is My Business (Vintage, 1992). He was reacting to gimmicky plots that failed to interest readers in the characters. His own detective, Philip Marlowe, didn’t have any serious relationships, but he was forever down on his luck and viewed the world with cynicism.


    1. You make a very valid point. Sure we all need to identity with well rounded characters and scenes that involve more than just the plot. Marlowe is a good example of why we love pulp fiction, yet even Chandler knew were to draw the lines. My beef is with the modern flawed detective whose personal struggles over shadow the plot. I loved the Ian Rankin series “Rebus” until his personal demons became the plot of the stories and the crime the plot device.


  3. Oh no kidding! This is a very good rule. Formulas work once or twice, but soon they wear thin. It is frustrating to pick up a book and spot the ending before you get to chapter 3.


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