Playing Fair: Do the Rules of Mystery Still Apply?

CWAB0D Agatha Christie, 1944. Courtesy: CSU Archives/Everett Collection

Chances are, if you’ve been around mystery writers or fans long enough, you’ve heard about the famous Detection Club.

Formed in London in 1930, the club had twenty-six founding members, the best-known British detective-story writers of the time, including Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Freeman Wills Crofts, Baroness Emma Orczy, Ronald Knox, E. C. Bentley, R. Austin Freeman, and G. K. Chesterton. “Other nationalities were excluded,” wrote Julian Symons in The New York Times (September 30, 1979) “not on chauvinistic grounds, but because…they were unlikely to attend meetings.” Chesterton was the first president. Meetings consisted of formal dinner parties, during which the illustrious members would swap writing tips and comment on each other’s works-in-progress.

Dorothy Sayers described the club this way: “The Detection Club is a private association of writers of detective fiction in Great Britain, existing chiefly for the purpose of eating dinners together at suitable intervals and of talking illimitable shop…. Its membership is confined to those who have written genuine detective stories (not adventure tales or ‘thrillers’) and election is secured by a vote of the club on recommendation by two or more members, and involves the undertaking of an oath.” That oath, probably written by Sayers herself (or perhaps Chesterton) went this way: Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?”

In addition to the oath, the members of the club promised to follow the Ten Commandments of Mystery in order to “play fair” with their readers:

1. The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thought 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 [remember, this was the 1920s when dime novels tended to feature foreigners on whom the crime could be conveniently blamed].

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.

The Detection Club still exists. Members today include Val McDermid, Peter Robinson, Ann Cleeves, John Le Carre, Peter Lovesey, Antonia Fraser, Martin Edwards, and Ian Rankin. Martin Edwards is the current president, having succeeded Simon Brett in 2015.

The initiation ceremony involves the president’s robe originally worn by Chesterton, four black candles, and “Eric the Skull.” Once received into membership, said Julian Symons, the initiate will be “welcomed and warned by the president in a passage of distinctly blank verse: If you fail to remember your promises, and break even one of our unwritten laws, may other writers anticipate your plots; may total strangers sue you for libel; may your pages swarm with misprints and your sales continually diminish. But should you, as no doubt you will, recall these promises and observe the rules, may reviewers rave over you and literary editors lunch you; may book clubs bargain for you…may films be made from you (and keep your plots)….”

So…break the rules if you must, but you have been duly warned!

Do you abide by the “rules” of the Detection Club? Which writers today break them and get away with it? Are there any new “rules” today?


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