- “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?”
- “Do you solemnly swear never to conceal a vital clue from the reader?”
- “Do you promise to observe a seemly moderation in the use of Gangs, Conspiracies, Death-Rays, Ghosts, Hypnotism, Trap-Doors, Chinamen, Super-Criminals and Lunatics; and utterly and forever to forswear Mysterious Poisons unknown to Science?” (note: the mention of “Chinamen” was included as a criticism to the use racial cliches prevalent in 1920s English writing)
- “Will you honour the King’s English?”
This is the oath of The Detection Club, circa 1929.
I don’t know about you, but I like the occasional “Mumbo Jumbo” and “Jiggery-Pokery”. And who doesn’t love a good “Death-Ray”?
The Detection Club was formed by a group of British mystery writers, which included such greats as Agatha Christie, G.K. Chesterton, and Dorothy L. Sayers. The group was formed to help their members with the technical aspects of their writing, and to follow a set of guidelines that give the reader a “fair chance” at figuring out the guilty party. Some have called the group more of a “dinner club”. I guess even writers will use any excuse to get together to eat…and have unusual initiation ceremonies that involve stroking a skull and swearing oaths. It may sound a bit ominous, but it’s all playful antics as the food and drink flow.
The Detection Club had a list of guidelines to be followed in the writing of mysteries and detective novels. While some writers may not have taken all the guidelines as seriously as others, they did adhere to proper technical writing.
The Ten Commandants of “whodunits” were written and codified by Ronald Knox in 1929. In the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, mysteries were considered a game…and games must have rules, henceforth, Knox’s “Ten Commandments”. According to Knox, any good detective story:
“must have as its main interest the unravelling 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.”
Thank you, Ronald Knox! If you are a lover of cozies, or mysteries in general, this statement still holds true for the reader.
The influence of The Golden Age of Detective Fiction is reflected today mostly in the form of “cozy mysteries”. These are distinct from other mystery forms such as suspense, thrillers, or those written in a hard-nose noir style. Today we may very well find cozy mysteries written with a supernatural slant, a conspiracy along the way, and you may come across a ghost or two.
The cozy mystery is still a game, enticing the reader to follow the clues and motives, pick suspects, and come to the conclusion of who the killer is based on the intricate details woven within a story full of fun and great characters.
While the cozy mysteries of today may not observe all of the rules set forth by The Detection Club – the forerunner to groups such as Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, American Crime Writers League, and others – they do continue to give us all the intrigue and gratifying endings readers want and expect.
I’m still looking for the perfect way to work a death-ray into one of my stories!
Here are Knox’s “Ten Commandments”, how do you think they line-up with the cozy mysteries of today?
- 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. (again, the mention of “Chinamen” was included as a criticism to racism)
- 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.