Thursday, 6 June 2013

The Corpse in the Cloister

Philip Harvey reports on Graham Dudley's Carmelite Library Lecture 

Ronald Knox

Churches, monasteries, and other religious institutions are generally seen as places for contemplation and prayer. But, in fiction at least, crime and violence intrudes, upsetting the peace and the quietness. Similarly, religious men and women find themselves caught up in sudden death and its consequences. This week Graham Dudley gave the second Carmelite Library Lecture for 2013. ‘The Corpse in the Cloister’ was, as the title suggests, a study of crime fiction set in and around places of Christian worship and habitation. We were given a survey of this amazingly huge and various literature, Graham’s inspired approach being to present the works chronologically by the period of their setting. So he began with the formidable Sister Fidelma (Peter Tremayne) in 7th-century Ireland and concluded with the very recent writings of the son of a former Archbishop of Canterbury (James Runcie) and his excellent detective from fifties England, Canon Sidney Chambers.

Those in attendance hope that Graham’s paper will ultimately be published. So rather than try to summarise the “unsummarisable”, I wish to draw attention to Graham’s opening gambit, and include his off-the-cuff observations, words that would not otherwise find their way into print, as well as some of my own.

Msgr Ronald Knox (1888-1957) was one of the pioneers, along with Dorothy L Sayers, of serious criticism and study of detective fiction. According to Knox, a detective story “must have as its main interest the unravelling 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." In 1929, Knox published his Ten Commandments or Decalogue for detective stories.  As Graham hastened to say, they are worth keeping in mind.

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.

A forbidding opening rule, it must be said. Perhaps he learnt this rule from reading the Bible. Presumably it is only after the events that the thoughts of the criminal are revealed. This is sound psychology and helps give all credit to the detective who figures out who did it.

2.     All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.

As Graham observed, this particular rule is significant, coming as it does from a member of the priesthood. The monsignor possesses, as matter of course, a belief in hard evidence and rational deduction.

3.     Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.

Singularity is certainly a value in this writing. We expect only one weapon, one moment when the crime is committed (the question can still be, when?), one serious suspect who turns out to be innocent as the snow. Still, rules are made to be broken, as we know from reading crime fiction after 1929.

4.     No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.

Later in the paper Graham talked about that central example of the genre, ‘The Name of the Rose’ by Umberto Eco, and the way in which the monks were killed in that story. As he wryly noted, it took a semiotician to write a book in which the book itself is an accomplice in the crime. Both the poison and the appliance (the book) figure early, at least by implication, thus meeting the monsignor’s requirement. Eco’s book was about the only work mentioned in the lecture that was not first written in English.  

5.     No Chinaman must figure in the story.

This unlikely law of crime fiction can only be understood in context. Graham believed this is a reference to the Fu Manchu novels of Sax Rohmer, which were all the rage, maybe too much the rage, in 1929. We all have our types that become tiresome through over-exposure. My favourite in recent TV crime shows is the character, not always the detective either, who is an expert in psychosis and proceeds to explain all human activity in terms of an Episode. The possibility that crimes are committed out of understandable motives, or just because the person is plain stupid, has been removed from the plotline. No psychopathologists 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.

The first clause of this law of crime fiction seems hard for us today to accept. We are used to some chance happening giving the detective the clue to his or her thinking, it is the missing link. We admire not the clue itself, but that the detective is aware enough to see it as the answer to the conundrum. The second clause remains a firm time-honoured law; every intuition in the chain of thinking must be explicable.

7.     The detective himself must not commit the crime.

As Graham pointed out, Agatha Christie made her name three years previously by breaking this rule in her novel ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’. She did so again in another Hercule Poirot novel. Maybe the monsignor is judging Dame Agatha’s coup as a no-no. It reveals his view that the detective is a figure of trust for the reader, the detective is unambiguously above suspicion.

8.     The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.

In the film ‘Murder by Death’, a wonderful comic tribute to the genre, one of the characters criticises the kind of whodunnit in which a major clue is introduced at the very end of the story. This insult to the reader’s intelligence is only compounded by the fact that the detective seems to have known about this clue for some time. Monsignor Knox would appear to concur with this grievance.

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.

I occasionally wonder who the average reader is, and how their intelligence is slightly above that of Dr Watson. The skill in this sort of writing is to keep the reader guessing, no matter how intelligent they may be the rest of the time. Like Maggie Smith in a BBC series, we must sit dumbstruck at the denouement as we utter the immemorial words, “Miss Marple, how do you do it?”

10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

This would instantly eliminate some of the plays of William Shakespeare, those that rely for their surprise on the sudden identification of twins. Literature has the unfortunate habit of introducing the twin without warning,  just when things are getting ticklish. Even in Shakespeare this is still seen by some of the audience as a cop-out

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