Rules of the game

At it’s heart, the best detective stories from the Golden Age are puzzles, where the plot is the main driver with the characters bending to shape the mystery. Detective stories published between the two world wars often had set conventions, locations and structures. The ingenuity came from knowing the rules, working within them, and breaking them every now and then. In the preface to Best Detective Stories of 1928-29, Ronald Knox (detective novelist and member of the Detection Club) set out 10 rules of 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.

Other than 5., these are pretty much in use for current writers of detective stories. Of course, rules are made to be broken. Further detailed guidelines are provided by S. S. Van Dine‘s 20 rules.

Sherlock Holmes Portrait by Paget

Lessons in observation – WWSHD?

Detectives (fictional or otherwise) rely on many skills to solve cases. One of the most important skills is in observation, and making conjectures or deductions based on careful examinations and logical reasoning. We all have the base functions to do this, and what at seems first like supernatural abilities in unearthing secrets is a logical process of analysis and hypothesis which can be fine-tuned by further questioning and research.

Watson and Holmes by Sidney Paget

The most famous detective, who’s powers seem mystical till explained is Sherlock Holmes. The brilliant ‘consulting detective’ created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is the for-runner of the ‘superman’ type of detective. Holmes, and his trusty biographer John Watson first made their appearance in A Study in Scarlet (1887), and have gone on to have further adventures in three more novels and 56 short stories.1  Holmes’ keen analytical mind, attention to detail, use of forensics (relatively new at the time), tools (magnifying glass, tape measure, fingerprints as identification) as well as his idiosyncrasies and has created a blue-print for future writers to pay homage or re-act to, and is constantly being re-interpreted – to this day. 2 All of the stories show off his technique for deduction, with Watson usually the audience for his brilliance, with us (the reader) tagging along. It’s mostly impossible for us to come up with these deductions ourselves, as the visual clue to connect the dots are not presented. Doyle’s stories are more adventure and thrill capers, and not like the puzzles of the Golden Age, which introduced base rules and guidelines to ‘play fair’ by the reader. Holmes also has in-depth knowledge of subject matters that are related to his consulting work, authoring monographs on subjects such as tobacco ash, disguises, use of dogs in detective work, tattoos and keeping up to date on the latest criminal activities through several newspapers. All of Holmes’ deductions are laid bare for the reader to step through, and based on these we can start making our own observations and interpretations. Below is an excerpt from The Hound of the Baskerville, where Holmes and Watson exert their mental muscles on a walking stick.

….”But, tell me, Watson, what do you make of our visitor’s stick? Since we have been so unfortunate as to miss him and have no notion of his errand, this accidental souvenir becomes of importance. Let me hear you reconstruct the man by an examination of it.”

“I think,” said I, following as far as I could the methods of my companion, “that Dr. Mortimer is a successful, elderly medical man, well-esteemed since those who know him give him this mark of their appreciation.”

“Good!” said Holmes. “Excellent!”

“I think also that the probability is in favour of his being a country practitioner who does a great deal of his visiting on foot.”

“Why so?”

“Because this stick, though originally a very handsome one has been so knocked about that I can hardly imagine a town practitioner carrying it. The thick-iron ferrule is worn down, so it is evident that he has done a great amount of walking with it.”

“Perfectly sound!” said Holmes.

“And then again, there is the ‘friends of the C.C.H.’ I should guess that to be the Something Hunt, the local hunt to whose members he has possibly given some surgical assistance, and which has made him a small presentation in return.”

“Really, Watson, you excel yourself,” said Holmes, pushing back his chair and lighting a cigarette. “I am bound to say that in all the accounts which you have been so good as to give of my own small achievements you have habitually underrated your own abilities. It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but you are a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it. I confess, my dear fellow, that I am very much in your debt.”

He had never said as much before, and I must admit that his words gave me keen pleasure, for I had often been piqued by his indifference to my admiration and to the attempts which I had made to give publicity to his methods. I was proud, too, to think that I had so far mastered his system as to apply it in a way which earned his approval. He now took the stick from my hands and examined it for a few minutes with his naked eyes. Then with an expression of interest he laid down his cigarette, and carrying the cane to the window, he looked over it again with a convex lens.

“Interesting, though elementary,” said he as he returned to his favourite corner of the settee. “There are certainly one or two indications upon the stick. It gives us the basis for several deductions.”

“Has anything escaped me?” I asked with some self-importance. “I trust that there is nothing of consequence which I have overlooked?”

“I am afraid, my dear Watson, that most of your conclusions were erroneous. …

Read the full chapter here. After Holmes allows Watson to attempt a paint a picture of the owner, he then dissects Watson’s observations and proposes his own ideas. Sherlock being Sherlock, it’s obvious the way things will pan out. Writing the story in the first place gives you an advantage of the outcome, but the methods used is one we can try to put into practice. Our first workshop will centre around careful observation and deduction. Can we beat Sherlock at his game?

1. All of the Sherlock Holmes stories have entered the public domain (in the UK), and can be used as a basis for creative exploration. All of this work can be read for free. 2. BBC have run three seasons of a modern-day Sherlock, while on the other side of the pond, Elementary imagines his sidekick as a woman.

Points for guessing which story this is!

Reading List

There are many good stories of this period, both in short story and novel form. The list below are recommended reading for the workshop. You can read some of them online, and we will try to get the books at the library for you to borrow. The order of the books listed correspond with the workshop, but there is no harm in reading them out of order.

Before the workshop!

Detective Club reading list

  1. First meeting: Introduction to the Golden Age – exercise in observation.

    Date: 19th May

  2. Second meeting : Scene of the Crime

    Date: 2nd June

  3. Third meeting: Method and Motive

    Date: 16th June

  4. Fourth meeting: Clues, Cryptography & the Cast-iron Alibi

    Date: 2nd June

  5. Fifth meeting: Crafting the story, tying up loose ends

    Date: 30th June
    Nothing to read for this, except our own!