By Kathryn Lilley, TKZ
Right now I’m reading AN EXPERT IN MURDER, a bang-up mystery written by Josephine Tey (a pseudonym for Scottish author Elizabeth MacIntosh, 1896-1952). Tey was a writer who delighted in breaking the formulaic mystery writing rules of her era. Those rules, as proclaimed by a group of London-based mystery writers, had been set forth in a manifesto called “The 10 Commandments of the Detection Club”. (Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers were founding members of the club.)
TEN COMMANDMENTS 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 (archaic ethnic term) must figure in the story. (Editor’s note: At the time, popular mysteries frequently included a character of Chinese descent. The writers used an archaic ethnic term that I don’t care to repeat here).
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.
Josephine Tey gleefully broke most of these rules in her mysteries. Twin imposters? Check. A sleuth playing a hunch? Check. In some of her books, Josephine Tey herself featured as a sleuth. (The Detective Club probably never dreamed of creating a rule against doing that).
Because she was a gifted, excellent writer, Tey got away with jettisoning the standard writing tropes of her era.
Nowadays, genre writers still like to talk about the “rules” of writing. (“Never open with a dream or the weather,” for example). Have you ever intentionally broken a writing rule in your work? Did your “infraction” succeed or fail? Or, have you ever read a story that broke the rules, but was successful nonetheless?