Thursday, September 13, 2012

There Are Rules?

I'm kind of riding on Dionne's coattails here regarding writing rules, but did you know that someone actually came up with a set of written rules for mystery writing once upon a time? Neither did I.
That is until one day when I accidentally (that's when I find the really cool stuff) came across them during one of my internet searches. It seems a man named Ronald Knox came up with them in 1929. 
Now before you are tempted to dismiss these rules out of hand let me mention that he was a member of a group of mystery writers called The Detection Club whose membership included Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, R. Austin Freeman, and G.K. Chesterton.
Okay here are the Knox's "Ten Commandments” for mystery writers, with some interpretation from me, because this is my post after all.

Rule Number 1:  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.
Explanation: No dropping in a villain on the last page that has not been mentioned in the rest of the whole rest of story please.

Rule Number 2: All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
Explanation: The ghost did not do it.

Rule Number 3: Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
Explanation: This is a mystery not a melodrama.

Rules Number 4: No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
Explanation: No making up your own science, that’s cheating!

Rule Number 5: No Chinaman must figure in the story.
Explanation really needed here: This comment was not meant to be racist. British mystery writers before this time were using often using foreigners (i.e. Chinaman in a broad term) as the villain just because there were foreigners. After all, no upright Englishman would commit murder. Mr. Knox was objecting to this plot device, not people from China. 

Rule Number 6:  No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
Explanation: Detectives do not have "luck" or  “hunches”, they have evidence.

Rule Number 7:  The detective himself must not commit the crime.
Explanation:  Would kind of ruin a series wouldn’t it?

Rule Number 8: The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.
Explanation: The detective may keep his deductions to himself, but no secret clues please.

Rule Number 9: 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.
Explanation: Sidekicks can be silly but not stupid. You have other characters for that.

Rule Number 10: Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.
Explanation: No “Secret Evil Twins” coming out woodwork.

Okay those are the rules. The question is, do mystery writers follow them anymore? Believe it or not I do, and I never even knew there were rules. 
Pretty smart fella Mr. Ronald Knox.

Mystery writer C.L. Ragsdale is the author of The Reboot Files a Christian Mystery Series. A California native, she loves to "surf" the web to research plot details for her fun, quirky stories with just a bit of whopper in them. She has a degree in Theatre Arts which greatly influenced her writing style. Working in various fields as a secretary has allowed her to both master her writing skills and acquire valuable technical knowledge which she uses liberally in her plots. She loves to embroider and knit and is a big fan of the old Scooby Doo cartoons.
Current E-Books
THE REBOOT FILES:  The Mystery of Hurtleberry House, The Island of Living Trees, The Harbinger of Retribution, and The Wrong Ghost.


  1. Hadn't thought of using doubles! Maybe that was just good intuition. Don't you think as mystery writers we tend to use templates subconsciously from the greats, like Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie? I think that's where I came up with my set of rules. Beta readers and reviews will also quickly point out rules we've broken. Ouch!

    Thanks for always teaching me something new, Cindy. I can always count on your adding a "spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down."

    ~Nancy Jill Thames
    Author of the Jillian Bradley Mysteries
    "Queen of Afternoon Tea"

    1. Oh Thank Goodness. I thought I was the only who hadn't heard of them. And isn't it something that our readership seems to know about them too? Like I said, these were a bunch of very smart people.

  2. Cindy--I've read similar sets of rules and never realized they were probably built upon this original set. My editor for my first mystery told me the mystery must be shared within the first two chapters--the sooner the better. Then the rest of the book is dedicated to solving it. I'm surprised that Red Herrings aren't mentioned in the list. I would have expected them to be. Red Herrings are great for throwing off the reader from solving the mystery too fast.

    Great post--thanks.

    1. Hi Linda. Well you know what they say about imitation. Besides these are a good set of rules. As for Red Herrings, I would think they didn't make that rule because they would have broke it too often. I mean we do have to distract the reader or they would solve the mystery too soon, and from what I can tell mystery readers hate that almost as much as being deliberately fooled.

  3. Since these have been the rules for the last 80 years, breaking them seems like a great way to surprise a reader. ; )


    1. I see your point Traci, but I'm not so sure about that. Mysteries can so easily go astray. One of the best examples I read is a book called The Clue of The Twisted Candle by Edgar Wallace which was written in 1916 before the rules. It's an entertaining read, but the author breaks just about everyone of these rules. An evil foreigner, the murder doesn't happen until half way through the book, secret rooms galore, and there's just no way to figure out what is going on. The result is a story that end up more resembling a melodrama than a mystery. There was a reason they came up with these rules. Just my opinion.

  4. Rhys Bowen breaks several of these rules in each book and I don't know a better cozy writer in this generation. : ) You've got to be good to be a successful rule breaker...then again, you've got to be good anyway, so you might as well subvert 100 years of reader expectation. ; )

    1. You know Traci I you're right. If you're a good writer you can make up your own rules.

    2. Of course I'm just playing Old Nick's advocate! As a writer with a VERY scattered brain I adore rules and traditions. I think of them as the skeleton to hang my prose on. (And all good mysteries should contain a skeleton!) What I like about this list is that it tells you why you shouldn't use the rule. That being the case, if you have a "Chinaman" who is a sympathetic character, who your readers and other characters like as an individual (instead of hating as a stereotype), and then THAT guy turns out to be the murderer, you have broken a rule, but you have done it without breaking the spirit of the rule. And in breaking it you have probably surprised a reader or two. : )

    3. *What I like about this list is that it tells you why you shouldn't use the rule--this should say, "What I like about this list is that it tells you why you SHOULD FOLLOW the rule."

      : )

  5. Enjoyed the post on rules. Seems they pretty much apply to today.
    Deborah Malone
    "Death in Dahlonega"


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