Thursday, December 22, 2011

Ronald Knox, his Detective Fiction Decalogue and "The Four Tragedies of Memworth" (1928), by Lord Ernest Hamilton

Father Ronald Knox: Best known in mystery genre history
for the ten rules (the "decalogue") that he laid down
for the writing of detective fiction
In Father Ronald Knox's celebrated Golden Age detective fiction "decalogue" the Catholic priest and author of mystery tales propounded ten rules for writing in the genre.  One of the more famous (or infamous) of his rules is number five:

"No Chinaman must figure in the story.  Why this should be so I do not know, unless we can find a reason for it in our western habit of assuming  that the Celestial is over-equipped in the matter of brains, and under-equipped in the matter of morals.  I only offer it as a fact of observation that, if you are turning over the pages of a book and come across some mention of 'the slit-like eyes of Chin Loo', you had best put it down at once; it is bad.  The only exception which occurs to my mind--there are probably others--is Lord Ernest Hamilton's 'Four Tragedies of Memworth.' "

Ronald Knox's droll humor is not always appreciated by his critics
Father Knox has been rapped over the knuckles, figuratively speaking, for formulating this rule, by critics who have failed to understand that Knox in his droll fashion was attempting to make a serious point: that the mystery thriller or shocker tale and the detective novel were two very different things. Knox himself distinguished between the two mystery forms earlier in his decalogue:

"A detective story 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.

And here, for my own part, I would draw a very clear line of demarcation between detective stories and 'shockers.'  Shockers are not in the true sense mystery stories at all; they do not arouse a human instinct of curiosity....

We know at once that the woman is an adventuress, probably a quite innocent adventuress who is being compelled by a threat of blackmail to subserve the purposes of villains; that there is a gang of international crooks at work, determined to put an end to the peace of Europe by giving away English state secrets to an unknown foreign power.  We are certain beforehand that the motives of the villains will be entirely inhuman, the actions of the hero and heroine rash to the verge of idiocy; that the complications to which we are introduced at the beginning will not be explained at the end, because by that time the reader will have forgotten all about them, and probably the author as well.  All this is not a detective story."

In advocating banishing the "Chinaman" from the true detective novel, Ronald Knox had in mind the silly and offensive racist caricatures most prominently associated with the novels of Sax Rohmer (creator of the "fiendish Oriental mastermind," Dr. Fu Manchu), but also figuring in numerous other English and American mystery thrillers throughout the 1920s and 1930s, including some by thriller king Edgar Wallace, the bestselling novelist in England in the 1920s and early 1930s.

Fright film star Boris Karloff as Dr. Fu Manchu,
in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932),
one of the most notorious thriller genre films of the 1930s

Though most associated with the Fu Manchu novels
of Sax Rohmer, the sinister "Chinaman" figured in
numerous other Golden Age thrillers as well

Father Knox's Chinaman rule has been much discussed over the decades, but, interestingly, little or perhaps even no mention has been made of Knox's clearly stated exception to the Chinaman rule: Lord Ernest Hamilton's 1928 mystery novel, The Four Tragedies of Memworth.  What is this novel and why is its prominent Asian character an acceptable violation of Knox's rule?  All will be revealed by the Passing Tramp in Parts Two and Three of this review essay! (for more on Ronald Knox, see )

Special note from the Passing Tramp: It's been a month now with this blog and it has had nearly 4000 visits, from around the world.  Thanks very much for those visits.  I hope my posts have been of interest and I will try to keep it that way.


  1. I'm convinced that a lot of the people, who rapped Knox over the knuckles for the Chinaman rule, willingly misinterpreted it – in order to indulge in some good, old-fashioned GAD bashing and show-off how enlightened they are.

    I completely understood this rule, even when my knowledge of the genre was still nil. If you are aware of a character like Fu Manchu and you don't get this rule, you are either doing it on purpose or your just plain stupid.

    Have you ever read Clyde Clason? He fought against racial stereotypes, especially of Asians, and abhorred Yellow Peril stories. Clason sketches a positive image of their rich and ancient culture and Asians appearing in the novels are nothing like the stereotypes from the Shilling Shockers of Sax Rohmer. They are required reading for anyone interested in this subject.

  2. Oh, but Curt, didn't you know? It was impossible for Golden Age writers to include positive Jewish or Asian characters because of their inherent snobbery and racism. I know because Julian Symons says so.

    Seriously, though, I agree with TomCat-- how can so many people get this rule wrong? Knox gets a bum rap over this rule of his when his intentions are quite clearly to combat the racist caricatures like Fu Manchu. I realized this almost as soon as I read Knox's rule. There really can be no excuse.

  3. TomCat, Gardner as well fought against racial stereotypes in his 1920s pulp stories. His Chinese characters were honorable and intelligent. He was quite ahead of his time in his attitudes towards minorities.

  4. @Jeffrey

    I wasn't aware that Gardner was one of the writers who combated racial stereotypes in his stories, but it shouldn't come as surprise.

    This attitude seems typical for a lot of American (mystery) writers: Earl Derr Biggers, Clyde Clason, Stuart Palmer, Todd Downing, Juanita Sheridan (more suspense than detection, though) and apparently Erle Stanley Gardner.

    The only British GAD author I can think of, who was this explicit in his stance against racism, was John W. Vandercook – a world traveler and adventurer. I reviewed his charming and exotic Murder in Fiji over at my blog.

  5. Curt, your posts certainly are of great interest and I look forward to many more of them.

  6. The Perry Mason TV show continued the tradition of positive depictions of Asians. (Not sure about the books, because I'm not that fond of them).

    On the TV show, it's a safe bet that the Asian character did NOT do it.

  7. Bob Houk, just saw an episode of Perry Mason where the Asian character did it. But it proved your point. The wise old respected Asian character could be as human as the rest of us.

    Curt, I continue to enjoy your posts even if I sometimes feel like a Democrat watching Fox News (I am a hardboiled fan).

  8. Ernest Bramah, best known here for his MAx Carados detective stories I expect, wrote Kai Lung stories set in a Chinese neverland- not patronising but far from realistic- and a detective novel The Moon of Much Gladness where the heroine is inspired in her methods by western detective stories.
    Josef Skvorecky wrote a set of stories, Ten Sins for Father Knox in which he deliberately breaks each of the commandments in turn.

  9. Thanks for the comments and suggested authors. I've had Clyde Clason in the proverbial "to read" stack for some time.

    Michael, I like hard-boiled too! Though perhaps I don't have the common take on it.

    I do find it kind of baffling that discerning critics like Julian Symons professed not to comprehend Knox's rule.

    I'll talk a bit more about this in part two, the actual review of "Four Tragedies of Memworth."