The early 20th Century was the golden age of the detective fiction.
With the likes of Agatha Christie (Poirot and Miss Marple), Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes), P. G. Wodehouse (Jeeves and Wooster), Dorothy L. Sayers (Lord Peter Wimsey), G. K. Chesterton (Father Brown), it’s hardly surprising there were so many ghastly murders.
Indeed, as Dorothy Sayers wrote in Strong Poison,
Nothing goes so well with a hot fire and buttered crumpets as a wet day without and a good dose of comfortable horrors within. The heavier the lashing of the rain and the ghastlier the details, the better the flavour seems to be.
One such golden-era writer was Msgr. Ronald Knox, a Catholic priest who converted from Anglicanism. (His father was the Archbishop of Canterbury — and you thought your family background was tricky!) He became Catholic under the influence of G. K. Chesterton (oh, but don’t we all?) but before Chesterton himself was received into the Church.
Knox is more famous for his Catholic apologetics like In Soft Garments and The Creed in Slow Motion. He also single-handily translated the Latin Vulgate and you can still get his gorgeous translation in the Knox Bible. The Knox Bible was widely praised by many including Pope Pius XII, Ven. Fulton Sheen and Evelyn Waugh. It was the first English translation permitted in Catholic liturgy.
For the purposes of grisly murders and such, the important thing is that R. A. Knox was one of the founding members of the Detection Club. This was a satirical club used presidents would go on to include Chesterton, Sayers and Christie. Their rite of initiation including the vow to “honour the King’s English” as well as the promises modeled on the baptismal confession:
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 the Act of God?
Knox also wrote, tongue firmly in cheek, the 10 Commandments for Detective Novelists.
- The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.
- 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 must not himself commit the crime.
- The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
- 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.
- Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.
All in all, it makes a lot of sense although, um, what is with the fifth commandment!?
But still, I expect something is missing. If we were to ask Msgr. Knox which is the greatest commandment, I expect he would reply…
“Thou shalt take the reader on the detective’s journey with all their heart, and with all their soul, and with all their mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. The second is like it, Thou shalt not push thy reader’s credulity beyond what thou wouldst believeth thyself. On these two commands depend the law and the good reviews in the literary press.”