Saturday, July 4, 2015

The Detection Club

Agatha Christie's first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Joseph Bottum argues, "was clearly a breakthrough of small but real genius.":
...[W]hat Agatha Christie found was the formula for it all. Like a miniature blown up on to a larger canvas, she took the Arthur Conan Doyle-approved pattern of a 5,000-word Sherlock Holmes story and opened it up to an 80,000-word Golden Age novel. She developed the pleasant and deliberately unremarkable prose the new turn in the genre needed—“invisible prose,” we might name it: a style that never rises or sinks enough for the reader to be distracted by becoming aware of the act of reading it. And she figured out how to set in the foreground the rule-bound logic of detective fiction, convincing readers that the author is playing fair.

The formula seems obvious now, but once upon a time it was new, and surprisingly few authors in the 1920s actually got it. ....

Even by the late 1920s, the British writers awake to the new formula numbered only in the dozens, and the most successful and professionally admired of them banded together to form a London dinner society called “the Detection Club.” Such luminaries as Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, the Baroness Emma Orczy, Ronald Knox, R. Austin Freeman, and E.C. Bentley were among them, and they elected G.K. Chesterton as their first president. .... [more]
(The Mysterious Affair at Styles was the first appearance of Hercule Poirot and is now out of copyright and available for free download.)

Bottum is reviewing The Golden Age of Murder, a history of the Detection Club and its original members. I just downloaded the book. It should be fun.

.... Founding members included legends like Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and E.C. Bentley, as well as G.K. Chesterton, who served as the first president. Meetings consisted of dress-up dinner parties, during which the old-school literati would swap writing tips and critique each other’s latest work. Like any legit society, they decided on new members by secret ballot, and each one had to swear an oath, written up by Sayers:
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?
Once a member was sworn in, he or she had to abide by the group’s Ten Commandments when penning novels – or they were cast out of the clique. ....
  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 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 Chinaman must figure in the story. [Editor’s note: At the time, trashy, mass-media mysteries [often] featured a character of Chinese descent. This rule meant the writer should avoid cliche plot devices....]
  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.