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But he must not be allowed, for example, to look for the lost will in the works of the grandfather clock because an unaccountable instinct tells him that that is the right place to search.He must look there because he realizes that that is where he would have hidden it himself if he had been in the criminal’s place. This applies only where the author personally vouches for the statement that the detective is a detective; a criminal may legitimately dress up as a detective, as in the Secret of Chimneys, and delude the other actors in the story with forged references. The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader. 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.
Thou shall not employ cartoonish or one-dimensional characters. James observed the biggest shift in detective fiction to be readers demanding more depth of character.
James boldly criticized Christie for characters lacking psychological depth, preferring instead to emphasize the puzzle.
When I introduced one into a book myself, I was careful to point out beforehand that the house had belonged to Catholics in penal times. Milne’s secret passage in the Red House Mystery is hardly fair; if a modern house were so equipped – and it would be villainously expensive – all the countryside would be quite certain to know about it. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end. Austin Freeman, have the minor medical blemish; you have to go through a long science lecture at the end of the story in order to understand how clever the mystery was. I only offer it as a fact of observation that, if you are turning over the pages of a book and come across some mention of ‘the slit-like eyes of Chin Loo’, you had best put it down at once; it is bad.
There may be undiscovered poisons with quite unexpected reactions on the human system, but they have not been discovered yet, and until they are they must not be utilized in fiction; it is not cricket. The only exception which occurs to my mind – there are probably others – is Lord Ernest Hamilton’s Four Tragedies of Memworth. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
In the classroom, she handles heated arguments with a mixture of passion and humor that is extremely contagious.
Ronald Knox (1888-1957) was an English priest who moonlighted as a well-regarded author of detective novels and short stories. Knox’s essay (originally dated February 28, 1929), was later reprinted as “The Detective Story Decalogue” in 1946.
It would appear that one of the reasons Father Knox’s Ten Commandments are still so well-known today is the fact that modern readers continue to devour the classics—after all, Agatha Christie does maintain her place as the bestselling novelist of all time.
However, consider the following suggested rules for today’s detective fiction author.
Of Christie, James says, “Above all she is a literary conjuror who places her pasteboard characters face downwards and shuffles them with practiced cunning.” While plot and puzzle-solving remain paramount, these flat, hum-drum characters are no longer enough for today’s modern reader.
Thou shalt strive to create a detective who has flaws.