Saturday, September 5, 2020

The Ten Commandments of Golden Age Crime

Zoë Sharp

Lately, my reading has been mostly non-fiction and technology heavy. When I’m reading for pleasure, therefore, I’ve been tempted me back towards the classic Golden Age crime novels I so enjoyed years ago.


The Golden Age is usually reckoned to be those novels written during the 1920s and ’30s, although some date from the beginning of the Great War in 1914 and others into the early 1940s. It was the style of the thing that was the important part.


There were definite conventions to the Golden Age mystery, as laid out by Ronald Arbuthnott Knox, (1888–1957) an English priest, theologian, broadcaster, and writer of detective fiction.


In 1929, he produced his Decalogue or Ten Commandments for writing such a novel, as it ‘must have as its main interest the unraveling of a mystery; a mystery whose elements are clearly presented to the reader at an early stage in the proceedings, and whose nature is such as to arouse curiosity, a curiosity which is gratified at the end.’


  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.
  2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as 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 himself must not commit the crime.
  8. The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.
  9. 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.
  10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them. 

Looking at this list, I see I’ve broken one or two of Knox’s commandments, but I’m not entirely sure what I write could be classified wholly as mysteries, so perhaps I can get away with it?


Knox, a noted classicist, was born into an Anglican family and went to Eton and Balliol College, Oxford. He served in military intelligence during World War I, and later became a teacher at Shrewsbury School and later St Edmund’s College in Hertfordshire. He resigned as an Anglican chaplain and converted to Catholicism in 1917, at which point his father—the Anglican Bishop of Manchester—disowned him. From 1926–1939, Knox was Roman Catholic chaplain at the University of Oxford.


Knox wrote on Christianity as well as translations, essays in satire and perpetrated a hoax broadcast in 1926 entitled Broadcasting from the Barricades, which simulated a live report of London being overrun by revolutionaries. This apparently inspired Orson Welles’ similar treatment of The War of the Worlds in 1938.


Knox was one of the founding members of The Detection Club and one of the authors who contributed to their collaborative works, BEHIND THE SCREEN, THE FLOATING ADMIRAL, and SIX AGAINST THE YARD. He also wrote a number of detective novels and short stories, featuring Miles Bredon, a private investigator for the Indescribable Insurance Company.

Looking at Knox’s Ten Rules today, most of them have been disregarded or are routinely ignored. Cross-genre works spill crime into supernatural all the time, although I think I tend to agree that intuitive leaps without any apparent cognitive process to back them up are best ignored.


And I don’t think I’ve ever relied on identical twins, although I recall seeing one of the C.S.I. shows where it turned out to be identical triplets wot dunnit.

What about you? What rules do you think ought to replace those of Knox in today’s crime fiction world?


This week’s Word of the Week is a Welsh word, hiraeth, meaning homesickness or nostalgia, a sense of regret or an earnest longing. It is often associated with homesickness for a home that either never was, or to which you cannot return.


  1. Hmm, Knox's Ten Commandments seem to be about as scrupulously followed these days as the original version. As for your word of the week, Zoë, I'd have to say 'hireath' aptly describes the feeling I'm picking up on from many Americans.

    1. I'm sure it's as scary for you as it is for me, how often your thinking matches mine. Your comment on hireath is very nearly identical to what I was going to post. Drat! Foiled again.

    2. Trust me EvKa, it's way scarier for me. :)

    3. Hi Jeff. Yes, I think I've broken quite a few of Knox's Commandments over the years... As for the other kind, no comment!

    4. Don't worry, EvKa, I think there's plenty of hiraeth to go around...

  2. No "Chinaman"? Whaaa? So then my novel GOLD OF OUR FATHERS is an epic fail. Apart from that incomprehensible item #5, I think the rules are basically saying we must play fair with the reader, who must know at least as much or more than the protagonist.

    1. I think it's very hard to describe your brilliant Darko Dawson mystery as ANY kind of an 'epic fail', Kwei!

    2. And does the reader ALWAYS have to know as much as the protagonist? What about in the case of an unreliable narrator...?

  3. Wow, Zoe, what a revelation. Until today, I have known Knox only as a theologian. In my convent school, he was held in great esteem,for his intellectual probity. And also because he left the CofE and "returned to the fold." Funny no one ever mentioned his mysteries!

    My rule for myself is to be honest with the reader. The people trying to solve the crime solve it by investigation, not by inexplicable measures.

    As for the word of the week, it speaks of my exact situation. While I feel incredibly lucky to live in such a comfortable place, I must say that I am sick of staying home. Not the common definition of homesickness but...

    1. I think part of the joy of staying at home is doing so because you WANT to, not because you feel under some kind of house arrest.

      And I had no idea about Knox's alter ego, either!

  4. Omigosh, so many of those Commandments are violated in today's crime fiction. What is with the bigotry against Chinese people? But readers should know what protagonists know as the plot develops -- unless it's psychological suspense. Then there can be surprises. The reader expects it. Think of "The Silent Patient." But the reader should read clues. Sharlock Holmes shared clues with the reader, but he put them all together and found the culprit, much smarter than many readers.