Greater Minds: Ronald Knox and the prankster’s rules of the detective story

  • In 1929, Ronald Knox published ‘decalogue’: ten rules of writing a detective story.
  • Knox was a priest, a crime writer and a satirist.
  • He’d already invented retcon and caused a national panic with a parody radio broadcast.
  • Knox probably didn’t mean his rules to be taken as seriously as some people still do.

Ronald Knox in 1928 (Ronald Knox Society of North America)

In 1929, the Catholic chaplain of Oxford university laid out ten rules of writing a detective story:

  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 supernatural 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.

If you’re smiling at the rules, their author would probably have been pleased. Ronald Knox was not the dependable, rather dull clergyman who features so often in the detective stories he was talking about. He was himself an enthusiastic writer of detective stories and wrote his ‘decalogue’ in the preface to Best Detective Stories of 1928-29, which he edited.

McDermid on Knox

Strange as rules such as a prohibition on ‘Chinamen’ may appear at first glance, the rules do in fact list a number of devices that were and remain in common use, and which


Val McDermid in 2013 (Fenris Oswin [CC / Flickr])

detective writers were apt to use to hastily fill plotholes. Besides, even a passing acquaintance with the exotically devilish Chinese men who frequented the detective stories of the 1920s would lead a modern reader to agree with Knox that the stories of the era were better off without them.

It’s hard to know how seriously Knox’s Decalogue was taken at the time, though Val McDermid, one of today’s leading crime writers who has previously featured as one of my greater minds, thinks they were taken quite seriously. In a panel discussion for BBC Radio 4’s Open Book, she said:

We read them now and we laugh at them but when they came out, writers took them very seriously …now I have read crime novels that break all of those with gay abandon so I think these days as the genre transforms itself and continually reinvents itself, I think nothing is off limits, there are no rules.

Host Mariella Frostrup then asked Abir Mukherjee whether he’d read the decalogue, and I suspect that the playful tone of his response was closer to what Knox had in mind:

I did, which was a shame because my first novel was going to be about a dreaming Chinaman.

The invention of retcon

When assessing how seriously Knox intended to be taken, we should consider that he was an irrepressible humourist. He published theological arguments in the style of Dryden or Swift as the mood took him and in 1911, he wrote an essay suggesting that Sherlock Holmes died with Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls, and his resurrection and subsequent


The game’s afoot, said Knox (dynamosquito [CC / Flickr])

adventures were no more than Watson’s drunken imaginings.

It was an early gambit in what would become known as the ‘Sherlockian Game’, in which Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are analysed as historical documents. The Sherlockian Game is probably the first example of what is now known as the ‘retcon’, in which a particular canon can be altered by retroactively applying facts to early instalments, either by the creator of the canon or more playfully by the fans.

Conan Doyle himself was not amused and wrote a four-page rebuttal to Knox. Perhaps the detailed analysis of inconsistencies between the stories irked him, or perhaps it was the criticism of some of the more fantastic plots.

Knox suffered from the curse of many satirists in that his parodies were often taken more seriously than he intended.

Bring on the Bolshevists

In January 1926, the BBC radio service broadcast Knox’s most notorious parody, Broadcasting the Barricades. As described by journalist Paul Slade, Knox read his own script, pretending to be reporting on a revolution consuming London led by one Mr Popplebury, Secretary of the National Movement for Abolishing Theatre Queues.


(Delete [CC / Flickr])

The program was prefaced with a statement that it was fictional, and contained such gems as Mr Wotherspoon, minister of the non-existent department of traffic, being caught while trying to escape in disguise and hanged from a lamppost. After much prevarication and apology over possible inaccuracy, Knox admitted that the BBC had got its facts wrong and Mr Wotherspoon had in fact been hanged from a tramway post.

The action rose to a climax as the rioters descended on Broadcasting House, broke down the doors and then settled down to read copies of the Radio Times in the waiting room.

In spite of the disclaimer, the absurd names and the unlikely calming effect of the Radio Times, the BBC was bombarded with telephone calls begging for updates on what was evidently a bolshevist rising.

In an age when we’ve watched the Houses of Parliament demolished on film almost as often as the Statue of Liberty and the Golden Gate Bridge, it’s difficult to imagine people being taken in by an obvious parody. However, radio was a new invention at the time and the BBC usually confined itself to reading out unedited reports from Reuters. There was no tradition of radio as a medium for drama. This was less than a decade after the Russian Revolution and there was a bitter and ongoing dispute between the Trade Union Council


(PhotoAtelier [CC / Flickr])

and the owners of Britain’s coal mines, which would bring the country to a halt with a general strike a few months later.

Further, listening to the radio was not the straightforward process of pressing a button and sitting back with a cup of coffee that it is today. The signal was unreliable, and words were often lost in interference or as a listener pursued it across the wavelengths by adjusting the dial.

The Daily Mail responds

The broadcast took place on a Saturday and made the front pages of the Sunday papers, most of which weren’t delivered until the Monday due to a heavy snowfall. Anyone who had taken the broadcast seriously endured another anxious day before receiving the newspapers reporting it as a joke.

Many papers went much further than simple reporting. The Daily Mail apparently shared the mortification of the many people who had telephoned its office asking for information:

The callers were in a state of excitement and demanded to know what was happening in London…Was it true that Big Ben had been blown up? Had the National Gallery been sacked? Were the


(Kat Northern Lights Man [CC / Flickr])

Government calling on loyal citizens? Many refused to be reassured. ‘We have heard it on the wireless,’ they declared. ‘Why, we have even heard the explosions!’

Ninety years ago, the Daily Mail enjoyed the chance to bash the BBC as much as it does today.

The Express quoted a former MP who revelled in a name worthy of Knox’s broadcast, Leo Chiozza Money:

The item was utterly humourless. The BBC should be ashamed of having included it in their programme.

A joke for a Scotsman, a terror to an Englishman

The Weekly Scotsman expressed more glee in the broadsheets’ reaction than in the broadcast itself:

Scottish people apparently saw the joke without need of surgical operation.

While the Irish Times took a more cautionary position:

The BBC will be wise if, in future, it takes no risk with its public’s average standard of intelligence.

A look at this week’s television schedule suggests the BBC may have taken the Irish Times’s advice a little too much to heart.


spite of the newspapers’ reactions, it would probably be misleading to assume that Knox threw the entire country into a state of panic. The BBC received around ten times as many letters of appreciation as of complaint, and much of the criticism came from privately owned newspapers with a vested interest in criticising the recently-established public service broadcaster that was carving out a dangerously large niche in the news market.

Neither Knox nor the BBC were deterred from further spoof broadcasts, although Knox devoted most of his efforts to his writing and his ecclesiastical duties, which included sermons that he said should be like a woman’s skirt: ‘short enough to rouse the interest, but long enough to cover the essentials’.

Interpreting a prankster’s rules

Which brings us back to his rules of detective fiction and whether he meant them, or whether other writers took them, as seriously as McDermid seems to think. While the tone is clearly satirical, Knox probably had a serious purpose behind them. When an editor


Rules (melissa jonas [CC / Flickr])

produces a list of rules that list things not to do, he’s usually listing things he’s seen too often. If Knox mentioned twin brothers, we may infer that they’d had been pushed to the front of his mind by what he’d been reading, which further implies that they had become something of a cliché.

As McDermid says, the genre continually develops and reinvents itself so that something that was a cliché in 1929 may be forgotten and ready to reappear looking fresh and original in 2016 – as long as it’s not a device used to cover up poor plotting. McDermid might laugh at the rules, but none of her novels that I’ve read have used undiscovered poisons or devices that require lengthy scientific explanations.

So perhaps the way to treat Knox’s rules is to laugh at them, but also to consider where they came from and not to break them without due consideration.

Or do you have a different idea? If so, please share it in the comments.

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Posted in Greater minds, Wednesday Pontification

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