I’m back, readers! Summer is turning into autumn in Walla Walla, and I couldn’t be more excited to enjoy being outdoors again. There’s going to be cider. There will be pumpkins. There is a high probability that blankets will be snuggled under, and the danger of looking at leaves has increased noticeably.
In addition to other life changes, that I’ll be getting to in future posts, I’m feeling excited about writing like I haven’t been in a long time. I am a writer–that’s a huge part of me–but my dedication ebbs and flows, to the point where some days I’m struggling to hit word count. But with The Clockwork Raven nearing its climax and short story ideas coming thick and fast–not to mention OryCon and NaNoWriMo right around the corner–it’s getting just friggin’ fun again.
With that in mind, I wanted to another fun writing post for you all. My inspiration came in the form of Father Ronald Knox’s dubiously famous Ten Commandments for mystery writers. Knox was a member of a writing club that counted Agatha Christie, G.K. Chesterton, and Dorothy L. Sayers among its members, and was also a Catholic priest, which as that link points out might explain his penchant for putting universal laws in groups of ten.
The link points out that most of the commandments haven’t aged well. Now, while I don’t write mystery stories, most of my stories have some element of mystery in them: Rafter’s Rats, for example, involves Rafter following a trail of clues to discover why he was framed. I believe all protagonists are detectives, in some sense. Therefore, these laws have broad relevance, so I thought I’d tackle each one and determine how well it still takes effect in the modern age.
Let’s dive in. Read on!
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 follow.
Right out of the gate, we’ve got a very mixed bag. On the one hand, it makes sense–if the whole point of your mystery is to figure out who the criminal is.
But that’s not entirely the point of a mystery anymore. In an excellent lecture, Pillars of the Earth author Ken Follett explains how the “mystery” and “thriller” were once separate genres, with the thriller having a fairly specific definition: a protagonist learns a crucial piece of information and must take it to the proper authorities, while villains attempt to stop them. Books like The 39 Steps and The Riddle of the Sands follow this formula.
As Follett says, while British authors created both of these genres, it was an American innovation to combine them–creating the mystery-thriller, where the detective is in danger while they work to solve a crime. The driving force of these stories is suspense: will the detective solve the puzzle before his enemies take him out?
Suspense, as Hitchcock described it, and as I later described it on Reddit in an argument about the movie Sicario being garbage, relies on knowing a character is facing a threat and is running out of time to avert it. If that’s where your tension is coming from, it can actually be a boon to know who the killer is from the beginning. This is the basis of the “reverse whodunit,” also known as the “howcatchem,” an inversion that appears everywhere from Columbo to Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. When we know who the villain is, we’ll squirm and clench our fists and read faster every time he’s in the room with the hero.
Not that trying to figure out clues to catch an unknown killer isn’t tremendous fun too. But #1 should not at all be an unbreakable rule. It forks the mystery into two very different kinds of stories: without the thriller aspect, a whodunit is likely to wind up classified as a “cozy mystery.”
Side note: this is why Disney needs to quit doing the secret villain thing it did in Frozen and Zootopia. It’s more fun to have an antagonist front and center from the start. Big Hero 6 and Moana did this better, I think, because there’s still an obvious villain, we just don’t know who’s behind their masks. But I’m way off-topic now.
2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
Have you been to a bookstore in any year that begins with 201? Congratulations, you know now that frigging everything is paranormal now. Every genre has its own paranormal version, as though the designation can be mixed in like a second flavor in a milkshake. Paranormal romance. Supernatural horror. And of course, paranormal mystery.
Harry Dresden. Sookie Stackhouse. Anita Blake. These are just a few major sales juggernauts that totally fail to follow Father Knox’s second rule. However, this rule still has a place, for similar reasons to #1: you can keep it or break it, but it determines what type of story you’re telling.
In my last post, about opening lines, I discussed a sentiment that has become known as the contract with the reader. This is the idea that the opening of a story should speak truly about what kind of story is going to be told. If you’re writing a romantic comedy, don’t open on a gruesome triple homicide. Likewise, if you’re writing a dark fantasy, don’t open on a beautiful princess wishing a knight could sweep her away for a life of adventure–unless you make it clear that her wish will have grave consequences.
All this is a roundabout way of saying that the solution to your mystery can absolutely be preternatural. But you’ve gotta start with the preternatural stuff. Don’t have your detective analyzing blood spatter and running DNA tests and at last realizing the culprits were werewolves. Have her get to the crime scene, realize the murder occurred at the full moon, and summon a fairy first thing to ask it what went down.
Even if your schtick is a regular guy or girl solving magical crimes without magic, they’ve got to be aware of the magical possibility. And if the story is about the detective slowly discovering magic is real, let us discover it along with them, and make us open to believing right from the start.
3. Not more than one secret passage or room is allowable.
This one remains pretty solid. If your plot relies on the discovery of two completely separate secret passages, that means it relies on the exact same twist happening twice. And let me tell you, the whole does not equal the sum of the parts on that one.
The one case in which I think this might be acceptable is if the detective is certain there will only be one secret passage and the mystery hinges on there being exactly two. That’s a double subversion of expectations, but still hard to pull off, and will really only work once.
4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
To me, this one ties in very closely with #2: don’t hinge your solution on clues your reader won’t inherently understand. Like rule #2, you can break it so long as you’re upfront about it. Sci-fi murder mysteries like The Naked Sun are excellent, but if the murder was committed by means of a gravitonic hyper-compressor, I need to know how those work early and in a context unrelated to crime.
Once again, this is relevant outside of mysteries. The solution to a murder is just as much a surprise as a scene where your hero figures out a safe way to reach the bottom of the cliff and escape the villains. But if he does it with anything involving the word “quantum,” you’d better foreshadow that.
5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.
This one seems hilariously racist, and it is, but not in the way it seems to be at first. The first decades of the 20th century were something of a golden age of Orientalism, and the “Yellow Peril” was a stock villain–think of the screaming, rag-clad “terrorist” or “insurgent” for a modern analog. Sax Rohmer led the way with his Fu Manchu stories, and others besides: if Rohmer’s on the cover, and any character from east of Norfolk shows up, you can bet money they’ve got designs on the Prime Minister’s life.
Father Knox recognized the problem of casting an entire race of humans as swarthy evildoers while getting basically nothing right about their history or culture. But his solution to the problem just made it worse: nobody from China, ever. Don’t create a Chinese character with actual feelings and motivations. Too hard.
Needless to say, rule #5 has aged the least well. If you read it as a directive to never include a foreign character whose only trait is being foreign, it holds up. If you read it literally any other way it should be tossed in the garbage along with all of Jules Verne’s opinions about Africa.
6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
In other words, one of my absolute favorite writing rules, which I tell to everybody: you may use coincidences to get your characters into trouble, never to get them out. If your hero is a criminal on the run, running into a detective in the bathroom of a restaurant will ratchet up the stakes. If the hero is the detective, running into the victim’s husband trying to flush bloody rags down the toilet when they hitherto hadn’t suspected him will feel cheap and lazy.
Note that negative coincidences still need to be foreshadowed–otherwise you wind up with Diabolus ex Machina. A billionaire in a helicopter showing up to save your heroine from the cliff is ridiculous. A hitherto-unmet billionaire with a grudge against her showing up to shoot at her after the real villain has fallen to their death is just as annoying. Coincidences are volatile substances and should be handled appropriately.
7. The detective himself must not commit the crime.
Another rule in the family of 2 and 4 which can go right out the window if you pay a little attention to your contract. Get me questioning reality and mistrusting your narrator early on, just plant the slightest seed of uncertainty, and I’ll go right along with this.
Rule #7 was old even in Knox’s day. The first unreliable narrator detective novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, was published in 1926 by his contemporary Agatha Christie. But, as we’ll see, it’s not the first of Knox’s commandments to be broken by a respected author–in fact, one of them was broken by a legend before the good preacher even created the list.
8. The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
In 1887, Arthur Conan Doyle published A Study in Scarlet. The novel introduced Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, a pair who shattered mystery conventions right from the beginning–their “Adventures” are actually proto-mystery-thrillers where the pair are regularly threatened by the actual criminal (check out “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” to see the duo nearly get eaten by a snake).
A Study in Scarlet is notable in the Holmes canon for two things: being the first, and cutting away from the main characters halfway through to talk about evil Mormons for the rest of the book. The Mormons, victims of a certain Occidental Orientalism themselves, are cast as a sinister cult responsible for driving the culprit in the novel’s main crime to murder. More to the point, we have no idea there are any Mormons in this book until after Holmes has dragged the guilty man before Watson and the police.
The thing is, though Conan Doyle invented the detective genre by breaking rule #8, I actually think it holds up better than most of them save 3, 6, and 10. If you’ve shaken up the story with a new development, why the hell wouldn’t you tell your 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.
As outdated as the Aristotelian Classical Unities. Listen, Father, choosing POVs is one of my favorite parts about writing. Don’t tell me that just because my story is about figuring out who a criminal is, I have to tell it through the mind of a slightly dumber version of myself. Just have the damn detective do the narrating.
10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.
Holds up. Twins are basically the same as secret passages in the hackneyed-twists department. And it’s not like “twins” is a genre that benefits from breaking this rule. Sure, they figure in a lot of Shakespeare comedies, but he always tells us there are twins right away.
And that’s it! Reader, if you take one thing away from Father Knox, take this: there are hundreds of “rules for storytelling” out there, and almost none of them consistently apply. They may say a story needs three dramatic episodes, a climax, and a denoument–but it doesn’t always. They’ll tell you a story must be told in words, or in dactylic hexameter, or in a series of woodcuts–don’t believe them. They may say the protagonist should be a white male so the story will sell–don’t listen.
Know the rules, then break them. Strive for the reaction Beethoven must have gotten, when the choir filed in for the final movement of his Ninth Symphony: “Is that a choir? Can he do that? Is he really going for it? My God, he’s going for it!”