Father Knox’s Decalogue: The Ten Rules of (Golden Age) Detective Fiction


Monsignor Ronald A. Knox (1888-1957) was a British clergyman, editor, a literary critic, a humourist and a detective story writer himself who nicely laid out, with a gentle wit, the “ten rules” that guided detective fiction in its so-called Golden Age. They appeared in his preface to Best Detective Stories of 1928, an early British anthology which Knox co-edited with H. Harrington.

I think/hope he was mostly joking…

The Ten Rules of (Golden Age) Detective Fiction

  1. 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.
  2. All supernaural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
  3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
  4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
  5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.
  6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
  7. The detective must not himself commit the crime.
  8. The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the 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.
  10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

Coincidentally, in the seventies Czech/Canadian author Josef Svoresky wrote a mystery entitled The Sins of Father Knox, a collection of a dozen stories, each of which sets out to deliberately break at least one of these rules, and then challenges the reader to figure out which one was broken. Not that everyone hadn’t been gleefully breaking them all along…

Respectfully passed along by Kevin Burton Smith. Thanks to Don Longmuir to filling in the gaps.

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