What Exactly Is A Golden Age Mystery? Part One – Ronald Knox

RonaldknoxAs I mentioned in my last post, I’m looking more carefully than usual at the Golden Age of Detective Fiction at the moment, mostly so that I don’t look like an ill-informed twerp at The Bodies From The Library meeting in June. But while I read some more books from the authors that have are generally regarded as writers of the era, I thought I’d take some time to consider what exactly makes a book a “Golden Age” novel.

By the way, readers who want more than my random musings, I have every confidence that you can get a much more informed opinion from Martin Edwards’ latest tome, The Golden Age Of Murder. But I haven’t picked up a copy yet, so figured I’d take my own, less informed, stab at it, and who better to ask than Ronald Knox himself.

No, I hadn’t heard of him either but he was a founder of the Detection Club, alongside Dame Agatha et al. He wrote seven mysteries that are available on ebook via The Murder Room. But more importantly, he wrote in 1929 a list of ten rules for a murder mystery which seem to have passed into lore as the rules for a Golden Age murder mystery. Note that these aren’t the rules that I apply when I remember that I’m supposed to be In Search Of The Classic Mystery Novel – I’m looking for a decent puzzle in a modern novel. But these are the rules that he laid down – along with my comments of course.

And before I go into them – yes, I know there are classic mysteries that break some of these rules, but if I say which ones they are, then I’m going to spoil them. So I will be vague – please be vague in any comments as well. Thanks. Also, there are a number of classic Golden Age tales that aren’t mysteries per se – not sure how they fit so, for now, I’m going to ignore them. So, the ten rules are:

  1. The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.

Fair enough, although I read a book recently that is certainly considered Golden Age where the murderer barely shows up, apart from to mention an incriminating clue. But that did annoy me, so I’ll agree with this one.

  1. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.

I presume that we mean that the sleuth rules it out, not the average suspect, which is fair enough, although not necessarily essential in my mind if the sleuth is an accidental one, rather than a seasoned investigator. And of course, there is THAT book with the ending that people either love or hate… And does this exclude Carr’s time-travelling capers? In fact, while we think about it, does every mystery novel written by a Golden Age writer automatically count as a Golden Age mystery? After all, the earliest of Carr’s time travelling was written in 1951 and features an appearance by the Devil… (not a spoiler – the Devil didn’t do it!)

  1. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.

Depends what it’s used for, but even one shouldn’t turn up in the solution without being discovered much earlier in the book.

  1. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.

Fair enough, although I can recall a fairly complex device being used in one book co-written by two Detection Club members, one of whom (I think) has a reputation for such devices.

  1. No Chinaman must figure in the story.

Erm… what? Was this put in the list basically to disqualify Sax Rohmer?

  1. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.

This is an odd one. Detectives often find clues by accident – no problem there – and I think both “unaccountable” and “intuition” both need to be carefully defined here. You could call, for example, any of Miss Marple’s “Well, he reminds me of the butcher’s son who once put chicken in the pork sausages” statements as intuition. And unaccountable, sort of. But any unaccountable intuition needs to be backed up with evidence, but it can be discovered after the intuition has occurred.

  1. The detective himself must not commit the crime.

Unless it’s one of those books where he/she does. Although I’m struggling to think of an example where the lead detective in a Golden Age tale commits the crime. I know something about an unread classic from 1929 where something like this might occur…

  1. The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.

Absolutely. No quibble there.

  1. The “sidekick” of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.

Well, that presumes that there is a sidekick. And they’re not the murderer. And, in fact, that they’re narrating the tale. Which reminds me, has it ever bothered you that Hastings doesn’t write things like “When I met Lord Bumbleton, I never expected him to be a murderer”. He’s always writing in the past tense after all… And I don’t agree with the lower intelligence. Sure, he’s not supposed to spot the killer too early, but then neither is the reader.

  1. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

And another one that I agree with. Or indeed any other such information. Although one might want to define “duly prepared” – did Knox require to be told of such information, or would clues pointing towards it work?

I chose this list to take a look at as it’s one of the first things on Wikipedia on the Golden Age detective story page and certainly is being treated almost as a definition of the genre there. But I can already think of a few rules of my own that fit better than some of these – I’ll save these for a later post, but if anyone wants to suggest any, do leave a comment below and I’ll collate them with my own thoughts in a week or so.




  1. The know ‘rules’ are fascinating in the sense that they give of how rigid some thought the game should be played – I can certainly think of one classic from 1931 that breaks rule number 8 splendidly and Ellery Queen very hard to only adhere to the letter of rule number 1. The one relating to chinamen, I always hoped, was purely for the avoidance fo cliche – i,.e. the butler must never actually turns out to be the culprit. If you are interested, you can read SS Van Dine’s 20 rules, which predate Monsignor Knox’s by one year, right here: http://gaslight.mtroyal.ca/vandine.htm

    There is a highly amusing book that joyfully sets about breaking all of Knox’s commandments, “Sins for Father Knox” by Josef Škvorecký, which i remember thinking was quite good fun, though it’s been decades since I read that one.


  2. I enjoyed Mr. Knox and all his detectives years ago. Re: #7 detective or narrator? – that worked for one of the biggies.


    • But that’s not the detective – there’s another from the same author that has a secondary sleuthing as the killer but the primary sleuth? I’ll take a look at a possible candidate soon…


      • I have read several books where the secondary sleuth is the killer including a famous locked room mystery by a French author.
        I know of only one book where the primary sleuth is the killer.


  3. Rules, schmules. This and Van Dine’s list seem little more than personal pet peeves, especially Knox’s fifth one. I’ve never read Knox but I have read a couple of Van Dines’. Yikes! If that’s what following the rules produces, break the rules!

    One famous Golden Age mystery violates both 3 and 10, and perhaps some more as well. Another violates 7. Personally, I love a good secret room or passage. The same goes for doubles. The problem with these devices is that a lot of bad writers have misused them, but that doesn’t mean that a good writer cannot use one well. After all, identical twins do exist! Condemning these is like condemning all private detective stories because of Mike Hammer.

    By the way, I love your remark about Miss Marple’s intuitions!


  4. Sayers cheated about Rule #8 in Five Red Herrings. She states that Wimsey discovered something missing from the murder scene and had the police look for it but she categorically declined to say what it was. If she had said, some of us readers may have been able to guess the murderer on.


    • I’m curious if there is any indication that anyone regarded these rules seriously or as just a bit of a moan from Knox. After all, I think Christie broke all of these (apart from the Chinaman one, I think)


      • Allingham had several of her books republished in omnibus format, with an added piece from her, in which she described her philosophy and history of writing, etc. I seem to remember she touched on some of the Rules but for the life of me I can’t remember the details. I got rid of the books a few years ago, so I can’t look the articles up.


      • I’ve read the first couple. Oddly, the first one is as much a romance as it is a mystery. I think they qualify as mysteries though perhaps not fair play ones. The main thing I remember about them is that the Chan of the books is completely different from the one in the movies. He’s a strange character in the books, with only a small role in the first one. Apparently, he caught on and Biggers gave him a bigger–ha!–role in the sequels. I can’t imagine why.


  5. I think that rule five is meant to be a joke. Sinister Chinamen were a common group in thriller novels of the 20s, either running opium dens, indulging in the ‘white slave trade’, or attempting to take over the world. There was an attempt at the time to distance the detective story from the thriller novel, and this was Knox’s jokey attempt to do so. Even by the end of the twenties there was still a feel that reading a detective story was as a bit of a game, with the reader attempting to work out the identity of the murderer, and a clearly understood set of rules that must be adhered to by the writer. Whilst there was a sense that ‘fair-play’ ought to be adhered to by the author, I don’t think that anyone took any rules by either Knox or Van Dine very seriously. Christie wasn’t chucked out of the Detection Club for breaking them with THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD, and her sales rose and continued to rise.


    • I agree, these rules simply don’t work at all. What I’m trying to figure out is what the Golden Age style is – you read of a modern author writing in the Gokden Age style sometimes, but what does that mean? (Btw, I know there’s no simple answer to this…)


  6. The truth is that even books written during the Golden Age didn’t all adhere to the Golden Age style, and the idea that all of them involved murders at country house parties is the sort of thing believed only by the sort of people who never read them. The closest that I can come to a definition is to note that in the true GA novel the plot either predominates or else is equal to the characterisation. Some modern crime novels can feel as though they are mainstream novels with a bit of detection stuck in, whereas in GA stuff the ingenuity and the puzzle is paramount.


    • I like Raymond Chandler’s explanation of the difference between, as he put it, the British and American detective stories: In the British story, a good scene is one that advances the plot. In the American, a good plot is one that has good scenes. Or something like that; I can’t remember where I read this.


      • Here it is, from the introduction to “Trouble is My Business”:

        “The emotional basis of the standard detective story was and had always been that murder will out and justice will be done. Its technical basis was the relative insignificance of everything except the final denouement. What led up to that was more or less passage work. The denouement would justify everything. The technical basis of the Black Mask type of story on the other hand was that the scene outranked the plot, in the sense that a good plot was one which made good scenes. The ideal mystery was one you would read if the end was missing.”


      • Just read an article that includes Hammett and Chandler in their list of Golden Age writers – although admittedly, they just used the dates and not much else to classify things.


  7. I thought you liked and were up on the Golden Age, Doctor. Isn’t that what you mean by ‘classic mystery novel’? I’m sure you’ll do more than fine at the Bodies from the Library meeting.


    • Basically it boils down to this – there’s a talk on bringing the Golden Age into the 21st century. But given the huge variation in styles published by under the umbrella of Golden Age Detective Fiction, I’m trying to figure out exactly what this means or what it could mean. I don’t think Rev Knox helped matters at all. In the meantime, I’ll be reading some of the many authors – Punshon & Rhodes v soon – that I’ve not encountered before, reading at least one “rubbish” Poirot from the period and looking at some modern books and asking my readers if they consider them to be carrying on the Golden Age tradition.


  8. Knox’s list is a good one, IMHO. The ‘chinamen’ thing is obviously a joke as that had become quite a stock character by the late ’20s, as you pointed out re Fu Manchu. There’s even one in Christie’s The Big Four – a Poirot, of all places!
    Of the current writers who pen modern-set golden-age style mysteries, I’d say M.C. Beaton, Peter Lovesey, Lesley Cookman, Martha Ockley and a whole slew of those American paperback originals which insist upon being dubbed ‘cosies’, make the cut.


  9. You have gotten a lot of interesting comments. I will be interested to see your summary of your findings. I read a decent amount of Golden Age mysteries, and I consider myself the analytical type, but when it comes to reading I guess all that goes by the wayside and I just enjoy without thinking about it.


  10. I have to agree with David. It’s odd that you’re asking for us to define this yet again when you seem to know for yourself already. And I’m hesitant to join in on a discussion of something I’ve known about since I was a teenager. Just seems old hat to me 45 years later. It’s really incredible to me that so many of you who love the genre, especially the vintage books and writers, are unfamiliar with the history of the genre and those who essentially created the detective novel as we know it. Thank Heaven for Martin’s book is all I can say. I learned most everything I know now from fan magazines I read back in the 1970s and about 90% of my love of the genre I can trace back to reading MURDER INK which was published in 1976 or 1977 when I was still in high school. That’s where I first learned about Knox and the 10 Rules. It is similar to Martin’s book in that it is written for people who are truly in love with the genre though MURDER INK is more about celebrating the *entire* genre and not just a small group of writers, their work and their lives.

    They all broke the rules within a few years of Knox’ list being made public. Berkeley, who founded the Detection Club, *never* followed any rules except the most important one: lay down the clues for the reader, don’t withhold anything, allow the reader to follow the investigation along with the protagonist.

    Biggers is very much fair play. Read THE CHINESE PARROT, it’s the best example of a Charlie Chan fair play detective novel.


    • The thing is, I’ve never really engaged with the theoretical side of yhe genre before. I’ve simply read the books, and even then, only a small handful of authors. I’ve never read Knox’s list before because I’ve not looked for it. Hence my crash course in what is what. And the reason for trying to assess what my readers think the phrase Golden Age means is that I’m not convinced that the people running the conference are going to be as well informed as people like yourself, Curtis or Martin. But one bone of contention, before any rules are mentioned, is whether any crime book of the era counts. Martin’s book (which I haven’t read yet) seems to consider only the Detection Club, for example.

      But I think you’ve done a pretty good job of summing things up in that penultimate paragraph. Thanks.


  11. The Golden Age style is invariably deemed to feature a group of suspects, numbered between six and nine, almost all of whom are upper-class. There is little or no traveling involved – unlike the globe-trotting spy novel – and usually involves an amateur detective. Popular settings include Mayfair and a quintessential English village. Typical examples may include ‘A Man Lay Dead’ by Ngaio Marsh (her debut) and ‘The Moving Finger’ by Agatha Christie.


Leave a Reply to The Bodies From The Library 2017 – Preview – In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.