Are You A Rule Maker or a Rule Breaker?

Last week I wrote a post about why I write cozies, and it made me revisit research I did on the Golden Age of Detective Fiction and the Detection Club. The Golden Age was roughly between the two world wars in Europe. Golden Age authors include some of the greats–Agatha Christie, GK Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham, Josephine Tye, Ngaio Marsh, John Dickson Carr and others. These writers laid the groundwork for the traditional mystery, and the subgenre of that, the cozy.

The Detection Club is fascinating. Founded in 1930 (and continuing today) the club members swore an oath to uphold the rules of fairplay with the reader. They promised to create a puzzle that was solvable, not to withhold any clues, not to rely on tricks or mumbo jumbo, and that the default couldn’t be unknown poisons or twins. At least not all the time. Other writers came up with much longer rules. Ronald Knox had ten. S.S. Van Dine wrote twenty rules, known as his commandments.

There is a story that Agatha Christie was almost kicked out of the Detection Club because of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. (No spoilers here or in the comments!) Dorothy Sayers kept her in. Not sure if it is true, but I love that idea. Oh, and for a great article on the Detection Club, read the text of Peter Lovesey’s speech to the Dorothy L. Sayers Society delivered March 23, 2011.

The rules were relaxed over time, but were the reader’s expectations? Is fair play something you expect in a cozy? Should you be able to guess the ending, or go back and reconstruct it? Or does character development outweigh the needs of the plot? As a writer, I love the challenge of the puzzle. As a reader, it is very seldom I don’t “guess”. And even more rare to be surprised. But for the most part, I am OK with that.

I wonder if we should start a wicked cozy list of rules? #1, New England setting . . .

7 Thoughts

  1. I don’t think we want readers to guess the ending, do we? Or maybe guess it, but then be wrong! Certainly be able to go back and reconstruct, though.

    Why is it so fun to hear details about these writers’ lives? I can just imagine them sitting around the parlor or at the pub talking about whether to expel Agatha or not.

  2. When I read mysteries as a youngster, it was important to me to try to guess the ending. As an adult, I don’t care whether or not I guess the ending-it’s character development that fascinates me now.

    I LOVED The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, by the way!

  3. I remember a number of mysteries that technically played fair but they involved so much work (tracking where everyone is and who they were with and how fast they could have gotten to the murder scene) I have my doubts anyone ever bothered.
    Parts of Van Dyne’s list with its emphasis on class structure, are just painful to read now.

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