A Clue of Detectives

One of Christie’s most controversial works!

I don’t know what the collective noun is for a bunch/murder/flock of detectives, but ‘clue’ has a nice and appropriate ring to it, I thought. Last week, a friend of mine, author Elizabeth Roy told us a bit about the Detection Club – a famous where successful authors collaborated together and compared notes. How I would have loved to be there at one of their meetings! Here is another snippet from Elizabeth about the Club.

The Detection Club was first founded in 1930 but it’s still going strong today. Many famous names are among the ranks of both members and club presidents, including: G K Chesterton, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Julian Symons, H R F Keating, Simon Brett, Len Deighton, Ann Cleeves, Val McDermid, Peter Lovesey, Peter James, Martin Edwards, and Michael Ridpath. You might wonder why Arthur Conan Doyle was not included, but in fact he was invited to become the club’s first chairman, but had to decline due to his poor health, and sadly he died later in 1930, leaving G K Chesterton to preside over the creation of the club as its first president.

One of the most important functions of the club was to educate, compare notes and generally discuss crime writing as an academic pursuit, and to attempt to create guidelines, or ‘fair play’ rules for the best quality of crime writing. the famous oath only really scratched the surface of these guidelines:

“Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?”

Member Ronald Knox is now, mainly, I would suggest, known for his Commandments, also referred to as the Knox Decalogue which went as follows:

A A Milne

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.

All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.

Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.

No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.

No Chinaman must figure in the story.

No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.

The detective himself must not commit the crime.

The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.

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.

Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.”

Of course the great thing about rules is that they are made to be broken, and I’m glad to say that many of the members and even–gasp!–the presidents–have broken at least one of these rules in their writing, whilst many others have been removed or altered.

Rule 1, for example, is akin to the common writing instruction that if a gun or some similar attention-catching object is mentioned at the beginning of a story or novel, it should be used by the end of the novel or story.

Rule 5 has more to do with the fact that in the 1930s, inscrutable, mysterious Chinamen were seen as figures involved in Chinese tongs and the drug trade. Because of those associations and stereotypical beliefs about Chinese culture, readers could be counted on to believe that a Chinese person would know mysterious, nearly undetectable ways to murder people through the use of martial arts, drugs, or even the occult. In any case, it was sadly all too common in both books and movies in the early twentieth century to automatically apportion blame to anyone seen as an outsider or to a person of different ethnicity. I’d like to think those days are well and truly behind us now.

Ngaio Marsh

As far as rule 9 goes, Watson was a competent medical doctor, hardly unintelligent. His brain may not work the way Sherlock Holmes brain does, but whose brain does work the way Holmes’s brain does? So, the Watson doesn’t have to be unintelligent. That character just needs to be someone who needs the detective character to explain his or her reasoning. We need them to perhaps just explain to us the detectives reasoning in a straightforward, logical manner.

All in all, lovers of all subgenres of crime fiction owe members of the detection club a huge debt of gratitude. Without them and their huge array of works, our lives would be infinitely poorer.

Further reading:

The Detection Club. Wikipedia.org.

Knox’s commandments

The Detection Club and ‘fair play’

At agathachristie.com

Dorothy L Sayers news article

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