No Chinamen: Rules for Writing a Mystery Novel.


In his Ten Commandments for Detective Novels, Reverend Ronald Knox declared that no mystery should include a “Chinaman.”  He composed his list in 1929, mind you, but many mystery writers have taken his rules seriously:


1.        The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.

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

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

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

5.        No Chinaman 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.

7.        The detective must not himself commit the crime.

8.        The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.

9.        The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.

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


This list seems outdated now. But the concepts he espouses are not without merit.  Yes, nearly all suspense novels allow the reader to hear the thoughts of the antagonist mentioned in Knox’s first rule, but a suspense novel is structured very differently from a mystery novel, isn’t it? Secret passages and twins seem like cheats, don’t they? And accidents and coincidences will often cause intelligent readers to throw a book across the room in disgust. Knox’s rules urge writers to play fair with readers who want a fair chance to solve the crime along with the detective.


Modern mystery readers, I’ve discovered, have a lot of rules that writers break at the peril of their sales figures.  Sign up to join DorothyL, a prominent listserve for mystery readers, and you’ll get an eye-opener. Members of that listserve are adamant about their likes and dislikes and will flame anyone who disagrees with their personal opinions.


Personal opinions aside, though, the mystery novel is a wonderfully flexible literary form that can be shaped to nearly any reader taste. Supply a dead body, a detective—professional or amateur who is motivated to solve the crime—along with a list of interesting suspects all with motive and opportunity, add some detecting and you have a mystery.


Is this a formula? Not at all. It’s a loose structure for clever writers to use each in their own ways to make unique stories.


Over the years, we have come to accept a few conventions of the genre:


The reader learns all the clues to the mystery along with the detective. (Perhaps this is the biggest difference between a mystery novel and a thriller or suspense novel.  In those genres, the reader often knows more than the protagonist so the writer can build suspense—fear for the protagonist’s safety and success. But in a fair play mystery, the reader should be able to pick up the clues and solve the crime on his own.  For writers, the trick is to plan some clues so deeply that they are almost undetectable, except by the most eagle-eyed reader.)


It’s customary to add a slightly stupid sidekick so the detective has someone to explain his deductions to. Without that listening ear, the detective’s musings can devolve into a dull interior monologue devoid of personality and wit.


We generally throw in a few red herrings—false clues that misdirect the reader’s attention away from the solution to the puzzle.


The detective usually flushes out the murderer by some clever trick.


These conventions aside, the writer is at her own discretion to create an entertaining world, unique characters and an engaging theme to flesh out the basic framework to make her mystery novel unlike any other. Each writer uses her own storytelling voice, her way with words and her knowledge of her particular setting to make the story come alive. Breaking a few rules along the way is sometimes a good thing.


One of the rules I learned early in my mystery writing career, is that many mystery lovers hate sex.  On the pages of their mysteries, that is.  Hate it.


So like a good girl, I wrote my first mystery, HOW TO MURDER A MILLIONAIRE, making sure that my amateur detective and Philadelphia society columnist Nora Blackbird, kept her panties on. 


But years before I put my skills to work on mysteries, I paid the mortgage by writing romance novels (with more than 40 under my Gucci belt) and I couldn’t see why a red-blooded woman needed to be celibate in order to solve crimes.  Or why she needed to have such an unbalanced life.  So a “love interest” soon strolled onto pages of my Blackbird mysteries. When Mick Abruzzo, felonious son of a powerful mafia kingpin, meets genteel Nora Blackbird, for him it’s love at first sight.  He determines to leave the life of crime and make a life with her instead---although his criminal tendencies tempt him like an addiction. Nora and Mick long and lust for each other, despite their differences in class, sensibility and moral code---classic romance novel stuff, right? But it worked in a mystery novel. At least, I thought so.


Turns out, my Blackbird readers were women like me who actually wanted their detectives to have love lives.  So in the 3rd book in my Blackbird Sisters series, Nora and Mick Abruzzo had sex.  In a car.  In the parking lot of a Home Depot.  I couldn’t help myself!  Neither could they!  And lots of readers seemed to love it.


Sure, I heard tsk-tsking from the mystery poohbahs.  My books were too romantic, they hinted, to be taken seriously in the genre. But I brought to the mystery genre what I could do best as a writer—create romantic tension between two characters.  Ten years after HOW TO MURDER A MILLIONAIRE was first published, it’s still in print. So I must have done something right.


What special writerly talents do you bring to the mystery genre? How can you personalize the literary form? Are there rules you want to break? Can you do it and write a story that appeals to readers? Then go for it. Rules, they say, are made to be broken.


But what did Reverend Knox mean when he declared no detective novel should include a Chinaman?  We haven’t a clue.  But I’m tempted to break that rule, too.