As I mentioned in my last post, I’m looking more carefully than usual at the Golden Age of Detective Fiction at the moment, mostly so that I don’t look like an ill-informed twerp at The Bodies From The Library meeting in June. But while I read some more books from the authors that have are generally regarded as writers of the era, I thought I’d take some time to consider what exactly makes a book a “Golden Age” novel.
By the way, readers who want more than my random musings, I have every confidence that you can get a much more informed opinion from Martin Edwards’ latest tome, The Golden Age Of Murder. But I haven’t picked up a copy yet, so figured I’d take my own, less informed, stab at it, and who better to ask than Ronald Knox himself.
No, I hadn’t heard of him either but he was a founder of the Detection Club, alongside Dame Agatha et al. He wrote seven mysteries that are available on ebook via The Murder Room. But more importantly, he wrote in 1929 a list of ten rules for a murder mystery which seem to have passed into lore as the rules for a Golden Age murder mystery. Note that these aren’t the rules that I apply when I remember that I’m supposed to be In Search Of The Classic Mystery Novel – I’m looking for a decent puzzle in a modern novel. But these are the rules that he laid down – along with my comments of course.
And before I go into them – yes, I know there are classic mysteries that break some of these rules, but if I say which ones they are, then I’m going to spoil them. So I will be vague – please be vague in any comments as well. Thanks. Also, there are a number of classic Golden Age tales that aren’t mysteries per se – not sure how they fit so, for now, I’m going to ignore them. So, the ten rules are:
- 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.
Fair enough, although I read a book recently that is certainly considered Golden Age where the murderer barely shows up, apart from to mention an incriminating clue. But that did annoy me, so I’ll agree with this one.
- All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
I presume that we mean that the sleuth rules it out, not the average suspect, which is fair enough, although not necessarily essential in my mind if the sleuth is an accidental one, rather than a seasoned investigator. And of course, there is THAT book with the ending that people either love or hate… And does this exclude Carr’s time-travelling capers? In fact, while we think about it, does every mystery novel written by a Golden Age writer automatically count as a Golden Age mystery? After all, the earliest of Carr’s time travelling was written in 1951 and features an appearance by the Devil… (not a spoiler – the Devil didn’t do it!)
- Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
Depends what it’s used for, but even one shouldn’t turn up in the solution without being discovered much earlier in the book.
- No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
Fair enough, although I can recall a fairly complex device being used in one book co-written by two Detection Club members, one of whom (I think) has a reputation for such devices.
- No Chinaman must figure in the story.
Erm… what? Was this put in the list basically to disqualify Sax Rohmer?
- No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
This is an odd one. Detectives often find clues by accident – no problem there – and I think both “unaccountable” and “intuition” both need to be carefully defined here. You could call, for example, any of Miss Marple’s “Well, he reminds me of the butcher’s son who once put chicken in the pork sausages” statements as intuition. And unaccountable, sort of. But any unaccountable intuition needs to be backed up with evidence, but it can be discovered after the intuition has occurred.
- The detective himself must not commit the crime.
Unless it’s one of those books where he/she does. Although I’m struggling to think of an example where the lead detective in a Golden Age tale commits the crime. I know something about an unread classic from 1929 where something like this might occur…
- The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.
Absolutely. No quibble there.
- 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.
Well, that presumes that there is a sidekick. And they’re not the murderer. And, in fact, that they’re narrating the tale. Which reminds me, has it ever bothered you that Hastings doesn’t write things like “When I met Lord Bumbleton, I never expected him to be a murderer”. He’s always writing in the past tense after all… And I don’t agree with the lower intelligence. Sure, he’s not supposed to spot the killer too early, but then neither is the reader.
- Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.
And another one that I agree with. Or indeed any other such information. Although one might want to define “duly prepared” – did Knox require to be told of such information, or would clues pointing towards it work?
I chose this list to take a look at as it’s one of the first things on Wikipedia on the Golden Age detective story page and certainly is being treated almost as a definition of the genre there. But I can already think of a few rules of my own that fit better than some of these – I’ll save these for a later post, but if anyone wants to suggest any, do leave a comment below and I’ll collate them with my own thoughts in a week or so.