In April 2015, B.K. Stevens debuted the blog series “The First Two Pages,” hosting craft essays by short story writers and novelists analyzing the openings of their own work. The series continued until just after her death in August 2017, and the full archive of those essays can be found at Bonnie’s website. In November 2017, the blog series relocated to my website, and the archive of this second stage of the series can be found here.
At least once each year at George Mason University, I teach a gen ed literature class surveying some aspect of mystery and suspense fiction: “Women of Mystery,” “Sherlock,” “Spy Novels,” or—including this semester—”Five Killer Crime Novels,” which samples several of the subgenres of the larger world of crime fiction. In many of these courses, I often end up quoting Father Ronald Knox’s ten rules for writing detective stories, a list originally published in Best Detective Stories in 1939. This Decalogue (as Father Knox himself called it, capital “D” and all) is a list I’ve leaned heavily on in class discussions—not only as a teaching tool but also as something for students to wrangle with or argue against—so when Donna Andrews reached out to me about the possibility of helping to organize an anthology of stories that systematically break each of the rules… well, that was an immediate yes, especially with Greg Herren also working on the project and Jeffrey Marks at Crippen & Landru planning to publish.
This isn’t the first time that such a project has been attempted, but the original was a single-author collection: Sins for Father Knox by Josef Skvorecky in 1973. But the anthology Donna, Greg, Jeff, and I helped to assemble would include a range of authors—ultimately, a nicely distinguished group, including Donna and Greg themselves, as well as Frankie Y. Bailey, Nikki Dolson, Martin Edwards, Naomi Hirahara, Toni LP Kelner, Richie Narvaez, Gigi Pandian, S.J. Rozan, Daniel Stashower, Marcia Talley, and—with an extraordinarily special contribution (just wait til you read it!)—the legendary Peter Lovesey.
For anyone who doesn’t know them already here are the rules:
- The criminal must be mentioned early on in the story.
- Supernatural solutions are ruled out.
- Only one secret room or passage is allowed per story.
- No undiscovered poisons or device needing a long scientific explanation are permitted.
- No Chinaman must figure in the story
- The detective must never be helped by lucky accidents, intuitions or coincidences.
- The detective must not himself commit the crime.
- The detective must state every clue discovered.
- The thoughts of the “Watson” must not be concealed from the reader, and he must be slightly less intelligent than the reader.
- Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.
Number 5 has always required a bit of context, as you might imagine, and I was pleased that S.J. Rozan took it on. Generally, we’re keeping mum on which author broke which rule, but given the essay below, the secret’s out for this story! And S.J. does a nice job of articulating both Father Knox’s reasons for the rule and also the troubles with those reasons—and hey, she brings the good Reverend Monsignor into the story himself too!
I hope you enjoy her essay below on her story—and stay tuned for an essay by another contributor ahead, Dan Stashower, whose story breaks… Oh, but let’s wait to see whether Dan lets that rabbit out of his hat or tries to preserve some sleight of hand.
Please use the arrows and controls at the bottom of the embedded PDF to navigate through the essay. You can also download the essay to read off-line.Rozan