Category Archives: Ronald Knox

When You’re Twins, the Magic Just Never Ends*

One of Ronald Knox’s rules for detective fiction holds that,
 

‘Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.’
 
The idea here was that it’s not fair to the reader to raise that question of identification. And, of course, crime fiction fans do want the author to ‘play fair.’

And yet, there are lots of twins in crime fiction. Some of them are identical, and some are fraternal. All of them, though, seem to have a unique sort of relationship – one that we don’t always see among other siblings. And it’s interesting to see how twins are treated in crime fiction.

For instance, in Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar, we are introduced to the various members of the Ashby family, a once-‘better’ family that’s fallen upon very hard times. But that’s about to change for Simon Ashby. When he turns twenty-one, he’s set to inherit a vast fortune. Out-of-work actor Alec Loding knows this, as he knows the Farrar family very well. He also knows that Simon had a twin brother, Patrick, who was believed to have committed suicide years earlier. One day, Loding meets an ex-pat American, Brat Farrar, who looks a lot like the Ashby twins. That gives him the idea that Farrar should impersonate Patrick. Since Patrick was the older twin, if Farrar can pull off the deception, he’s set to inherit a lot of money. All Loding wants is a part of that fortune. Farrar agrees and plans are laid. But it’s not going to be as easy as it seems. As it turns out, Patrick did not commit suicide. Instead, he was murdered. Now, the same person intends to try again, this time more successfully.

Matthew Gant’s short story The Uses of Intelligence introduces readers to eleven-year-old twins Patty and Danny Perkins. They’re both exceptionally intelligent, with genius-level IQs, and a strong bond. One day, they discover that an acquaintance of theirs, banana seller Aristos Depopoulos, has been killed. At first, it looks as though he was killed by one of the workers at a nearby construction site. But the Perkins twins aren’t so sure of that and decide to find out the truth for themselves. When they discover who killed Depopoulos, they engage in a little blackmail, hoping to profit from what they know. What they haven’t counted on is that they’re not the only ones who are geniuses…

In Peter Corris’ The Dying Trade, Sydney PI Cliff Hardy gets a call from wealthy Bryn Gutteridge, who wants to consult him on a ‘private’ matter. Hardy agrees to at least talk to the man and goes to his home. It seems that Bryn’s twin sister, Susan, is being harassed and threatened. Bryn wants it to stop, so he wants to hire Hardy to find out who’s responsible. On the surface, Susan Gutteridge doesn’t seem to have any enemies. She works with several social causes and hasn’t attracted negative attention. What’s more, she’s not in good health, spending her share of time at a private clinic. There doesn’t seem to be much motive there, either. The twins’ father, Mark Gutteridge, made quite a lot of money, but was, according to his widow, a swindler. So, it’s possible one of his enemies has decided to target Susan. Bit by bit, Hardy learns some of the family history and some family secrets that play their roles in what’s been happening. He also discovers how that all ties in with Mark Gutteridge’s business practices. In the end, he finds out who’s behind the harassment.

Scott Turow’s Identical is the story of twins Cass and Paul Gianis. Paul is leading in the race to become mayor of Kindle County, and his prospects look good. But then, everything changes. Cass is released from prison after serving 25 years for the beating death of his girlfriend, Aphrodite (Dita) Kronon. Her brother Hal believes that Paul was also involved in some way, and wants the case investigated. For his part, Paul doesn’t want this matter raked up, and sues for defamation. But, for his own reasons, Hal is very much opposed to Paul becoming mayor and will do what he needs to do to prevent that. That conflict between the families means that some very dark secrets are going to be raked up.

Of course, not all twins have a lot in common. For example, Teresa Solana’s Barcelona PIs Eduard and Josep ‘Borja’ Martínez are twins, but they’re very different. They don’t look much alike, they have different politics, and they have different temperaments. Borja is more extroverted, more willing to take risks, and better able to ‘sell’ clients on the brothers’ services. Eduard is a little more stable, a planner, and, perhaps, more realistic. They are complementary, but their differences can sometimes lead to friction.

Detective Inspector Kim Stone, whom we first meet in Angela Marsons’ Silent Scream, had a difficult, sometimes quite traumatic childhood. She spent quite a lot of time in the care system, and that’s given her, in a way, a hard edge. She’s not what you’d call dysfunctional, but she does have her issues. One of the things that haunts her is that she had a twin brother, Mikey, who died when they were children. She slowly comes to terms with that tragedy as time goes by, but it’s still hard for her. And, as we learn what happened in their childhoods, we see why.

Priscilla Masters’ Martha Gunn is the coroner for Shrewsbury, which means she gets involved in all cases of unnatural death. As if that doesn’t keep her busy enough, she is the mother of twins Sukey and Sam, who are twelve when the series begins. They have different interests and friends, so Gunn does the best that she can to treat them as unique individuals. In some ways, they are quite different, too. But they also have their own special connection.

There are a lot of other stories in which twins figure (I know, Agatha Christie fans. It’s just hard to mention those examples without spoilers…). It’s a fascinating relationship and can make for character layers and plot points in a crime novel. And that gives an author all sorts of possibilities.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Philip Bailey and Little Richard’s Twins.

11 Comments

Filed under Angela Marsons, Josephine Tey, Matthew Gant, Peter Corris, Priscilla Masters, Ronald Knox, Scott Turow, Teresa Solana

Suddenly I Don’t Remember the Rules Any More*

crime-fiction-rulesThrough the years, there’ve been several sets of rules for detective fiction, among them S.S. Van Dine’s 20 rules, and Ronald Knox’s 10 rules. In some ways, it can be very helpful for the crime writer to have some guidance for creating a well-written story. This might be especially true for the first-time crime writer.

That said, though, we could also ask whether these rules really are relevant, especially for today’s crime fiction. Is it possible to write an excellent crime novel without each of those rules being followed?

Here’s one example. Both Van Dine and Knox wrote that the solution to a mystery should not be supernatural or otherworldly. They claimed that, to be credible, a mystery has to have a prosaic solution. Most readers seem to agree with this. In fact, one of the major ‘pet peeves’ that I’ve read is when a book lacks credibility, especially if there’s some sort of ghostly or paranormal solution. Some authors (Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, to name just two) have played with this rule. They’ve included characters who believe in the supernatural, for instance, or written stories where the culprit makes the murder look as though it has a supernatural explanation. But there’s nothing otherworldly about the real solution.

Closely related to this, both Van Dine and Knox claim that fictional detectives should not solve crimes through accident, intuition, or other means (Van Dine included unmotivated confession) besides logical deduction. And that was Arthur Conan Doyle’s main argument in creating Sherlock Holmes. He wanted a detective who solved crimes through logical, scientific means, not intuition. Crime fiction fans want their stories credible. That includes the means by which the sleuth gets to the truth. Too much coincidence takes away from that credibility. Seemingly magic intuition does, too. In real life, detectives solve crimes by making sense of evidence and putting the pieces together logically. That doesn’t mean they can’t have creative ideas. Great detectives do. But I think most of us would agree what we don’t want crimes to be solved through a series of happy accidents.

Another rule that both Van Dine and Knox mention is that the detective should not also be the killer. This, to these writers, is not ‘playing fair’ with the reader. What’s interesting about this rule is that there’ve been several novels (I won’t mention them because of spoilers) where the protagonist is, indeed, the killer. And some of those novels have gone on to great success and acclaim. Does this mean this rule isn’t relevant? What do you think? Have you read excellent crime novels where a detective is also the killer?

One rule that really is relevant (at least from my perspective – yours may differ) is that in whodunits, all of the clues have to be there for the reader to find. That is to say, both Van Dine and Knox refer to the need to give the reader the same opportunity as the detective has to solve the murder. I’m sure you can think of at least one novel you’ve read where you thought, ‘Well of course I’d have known who the killer was if I’d known that!’ I think most of us would agree that we want the author of a crime novel to ‘play fair’ and show us all the clues. In fact, the ‘Queen Team’ included asides to the reader in some of the Ellery Queen novels, to the effect that all of the clues are now in the reader’s possession. In a well-written whodunit, the clues may not be glaringly obvious, but they are there for the reader to find.

Van Dine has an interesting rule to the effect that there must be no love interest in a crime novel. He saw a romance angle as ‘cluttering up’ the intellectual exercise of solving a crime. On the one hand, I think most crime fiction fans would agree that too much emphasis on a romance can be a distraction. And, of course, every reader is different with respect to how much romance is ‘too much.’ That said, though, I can think of several highly-regarded crime novels that do include romances. One, for instance, is Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night. Fans of Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey series will know that his romance with detective novelist Harriet Vane is a story arc that ends with their wedding just before Busman’s Honeymoon. Romances are woven into some of Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn novels, too. And those are by no means the only examples. What do you folks think? Was Van Dine right that romance should not figure into crime novels?

One of the other rules that Van Dine (but not Knox) proposed was that there should only be one detective – one main character. This one arguably hasn’t held up. If you look at series such as Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse series, or Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series, or Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series (to name only three), you see how successful fictional partnerships can be. And a quick look at Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series, or Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg series, is all you need to see how well ‘ensemble’ series can work.

What about some of Van Dine’s and Knox’s other rules? Knox for instance, claimed that there shouldn’t be twins involved, unless the reader has been prepared for that. Van Dine said that there absolutely must be a corpse:
 

‘Three hundred pages is far too much pother for a crime other than murder.’
 

He also said that all crimes must have a personal motive, among other things.

What do you think of these rules? If they don’t apply, should there be other rules? If you’re a writer, do you follow ‘rules’ as you write your crime fiction?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s This Night.

 

42 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Colin Dexter, Dorothy Sayers, Ed McBain, Elly Griffiths, Fred Vargas, Reginald Hill, Ronald Knox, S.S. Van Dine, Tony Hillerman