Detection Club Rules

I picked up a great non-fiction book at the library last week entitled The Art of the English Murder by Lucy Worsley (who, up till now, I only knew from her great BBC TV series on Regency England). Not only did I enjoy reading about the fascination the British seem to have with murder mysteries (borne out by my own mother’s devotion to them!), but, as a huge fan of Dorothy L. Sayers, I particularly relished the chapter on the informal ‘Detection Club’ she helped set up in the 1920s-1930s. Members of this club included, in addition to Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Baroness Orczy, G. K. Chesterton and A.A. Milne (I had no idea he wrote a detective novel as well as his Winnie the Pooh books!). I also loved learning about the ‘ten commandments’ set out for members of the club (all writers of detective fiction) most of which are as applicable today as they were then (and a lesson to  all mystery writers on what not to do!).

So here you are, for your enjoyment and edification, the ten rules of the ‘Detection Club’:

  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 chinamen must figure in the story (n.b. remember this was the 1920s…so I’m interpreting this as being a rule not to unjustly use or blame a foreign person in the book).
  6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
  7. The detective himself 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.

Now these rules, although sometimes broken, provided the cornerstone for the basis of ‘good’ detective fiction that members of the Detection Club all had to subscribe to (and apparently still do – for the Detection Club is still in existence according to the book and currently has about 60 or so members). I love them as I think they aptly display the rules of ‘playing fair’ with the reader that most of us appreciate when reading a good mystery.

So, my question to you is, if you were to form your own ‘Detection Club’ with your fellow writers, what rules would you have or add? Who would you choose to join your club?

11 thoughts on “Detection Club Rules

  1. I’d eliminate many of the lazier tropes:

    1. No convenient shoulder wounds. Shoulders are not fluffy, kittenish, reusable pincushions for bullets.

    2. No love/lust connections between alcoholic middle-aged cops/detectives/heroes and beautiful young women. Middle-aged male writers should find another way to work out their fantasy lives.

    3. For handcuffed or tied-up heroes, no conveniently located paper clips, shards of broken glass or jagged lengths of pipe.

    4. No more heroes named “Jack.” The Stus and Verns and Javiers and DeShauns and Debbies and Thuys of this world deserve their turn.

    5. No more jazz-and-blues-loving heroes. We need a hero who works out his or her angst through the oeuvre of REO Speedwagon or Zamfir, Master of the Pan Flute.

    6. No more unearned sympathy. I don’t care if your entire family was wiped out by a serial killer before the story began — your hero or heroine has to be likable and engaging through what they go, not through who they are. Integrate the backstory tragedy into the plot or I’ll see the dead-family-member construct as the cheap scenery painting it is.

    7. Sexiness stems from strength of character, not looks. If you want to create enduring sexual tension in your novel, make it about their resolvable conflicts, not about their jaw stubble or heaving cleavage. Dare to allow your main characters to be average-looking.

    8. Enough already with underground bunkers, ankle chains and other serial-killer tropes. And, frankly, serial killers themselves. Psychosexual motives are boring compared to reasoned motives like well-plotted revenge.

    9. In real life, FBI agents are as bland, bureaucratic and ineffectual as anybody in law enforcement. I know it’s easy to get your head turned by an FBI tour or seminar or swept up in its effective self-romanticizing PR machine, but that doesn’t make them the smartest or sexiest or most capable people in a given room.

    10. Police chiefs and sheriffs have no motivation whatsoever to share inside information with the local yarn-shop owner or bed-and-breakfast proprietor.

    • Amen Jim to all of these.

      Esp the part about the hero Jack overdosing on Jack while listening to saxophonist Jack Teagarden.

    • Love the article and this list, Jim. What a fun club that would be…. although we kind of have that here at the TKZ.

      I would add – No “women in the fridge” (TV tropes)… no girlfriend, fiance, wife, mother, sister in the darned fridge. Enough already. Surely there are other motivations than putting the women in the fridge. As a woman, I would like all women given a fair chance to solve, kill, take revenge on, get out of trouble, and punch the bugger in the face. As far as plot devices go – get over it!


  2. I disagree that the no Chinamen rule was a Brit anti-bigotry gambit. Indeed, the inscrutable Oriental was well-known in the British Empire–particularly those who were deemed to have especial skills in murder, assassination, the black arts, the drug-related skills including the trade, the making of special powders, elixirs, lotions and balms, and every other Chinamen’s device.

    Americans also had our own views of the mysterious Oriental gentlemen and -women of mystery and intrigue. Who could forget, for example, The Hatchet Man in which Edward G. Robinson played the skilled man-of-all-trades, especially throwing hatchets for the tong? (“The left corner of that dragon’s eye,” I believe was the line.)

    No. I don’t think for a moment that the apologia for Brit OR American stereotyping and bigotry in the list is a face-saving device for Brit mystery writers. It is, I think, quite the opposite.

    Too, I think the list is a bit dated, but at the heart of it, it is pretty solid advice.

  3. I would have thought that the “no chinamen” rule was because it was too easy to lay the blame for a murder on some devious Asian foreigner (Dr. Fu Manchu and friends). For a wonderful, instructive book on the subject, see Christopher Frayling’s “The Yellow Peril” – highly recommended.

  4. I would leave out the rule about Dr. Watson needing to be less intelligent than the average reader. Dr. Watson was intelligent. Why would Sherlock’s best friend be less intelligent than the average reader? The sidekick doesn’t necessarily have to be less intelligent than the average reader, she just needs to have a different perspective than the lead, something to add or contrast.

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