I’m a fairly casual fan of the mystery genre. I was introduced into it with Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” (thankfully, the least terrible of its names), then got into “Umineko: When the Seagulls Cry.” It was there where I first learned of Knox’s Decalogue, a series of codified rules that helped guide readers to solving the novels.
I have an issue with Knox’s 5th rule. For the most part, the language around is dated and, well, racist. Unlike the rest that are seemingly timeless, I find it troubling that the 5th is effectively obsolete in the modern age. Through this article I will explore my thoughts surrounding it and, ultimately, propose a new interpretation of it.
I’ll list them out here as expressed in Umineko rather than the original. I don’t find it egregious to have recreated and addressed the old rules, as I feel classics are only as helpful as they are to fuel contemporary viewpoints. Modern, updated viewpoints are just as valid despite their youth.
It is forbidden for the culprit to be anyone not mentioned in the early part of the story.
It is forbidden for supernatural agencies to be employed as a detective technique.
It is forbidden for hidden passages to exist.
It is forbidden for unknown drugs or hard to understand scientific devices to be used.
(not included) (we’ll get back to this)
It is forbidden for accident or intuition to be employed as a detective technique.
It is forbidden for the detective to be the culprit.
It is forbidden for the case to be resolved with clues that are not presented.
It is permitted for observers to let their own conclusions and interpretations be heard.
It is forbidden for a character to disguise themselves without any clues.
If you’re unhappy with Umineko’s paraphrasing, you can find the original words at this link here: [Father Knox’s Decalogue]
As you might note, Knox’s 5th is missing in the Umineko Decalogue. I imagine that it did so because (1) it was unrelated to the crime, and (2) it was dicey and racist in its wording.
The original text of it goes such:
Knox’s Fifth is “No Chinaman must figure in the story”.
NOW. I understand that’s dicey. Originally, from what I’m aware of, Knox’s 5th was a criticism of racial cliches in the 1920s.
“I see no reason in the nature of things why a Chinaman should spoil a detective story. But as a matter of fact, if you are turning over the pages of an unknown romance in a bookstore, and come across some mention of the narrow, slit-like eyes of Chin Loo, avoid that story; it is bad.”
So I’m giving that the pass due to the fact there was a large amount of fear of east-Asian folk at that time (google: “Yellow Peril”) and stereotypes surrounding them were used to throw wrenches into the stories. They were almost always used as a red herring and always bad. In the worst of cases, ‘ancient medicine’ and ‘spiritual magic’ was actually used as the murder weapon / solution, making everything even worse. My interpretation is that the 5th was Knox saying he didn’t want to see those stereotypes in the fiction.
I do not know if he was racist. But I want to believe that, regardless of that, he didn’t want to see readers having to logic around stereotypes in order to solve a mystery. It defeats the purpose of explicit clues and asks people to draw on elements outside the book to solve it.
Racial stereotypes have no place in detective fiction (and all fiction really, but I’m trying to make a specific point). Relying on racial stereotypes means your story is automatically dated in a certain time period. Stereotypes evolve and change over time and are reflective of the time periods. For example, when it comes to Asian folk, look at early 1900’s Yellow Peril stereotypes and compare it to the Model Minority stereotypes of the 1980s. Barely 100-years apart and the view surrounding Asian people completely changed (in some parts of the world at least).
Attempting to solve a mystery using racial stereotypes means you need to draw on clues not present in the story. That immediately breaks Knox’s 8th: “It is forbidden for the case to be resolved with clues that are not presented.” Detailing what ethnicity someone is, is not a goddamn clue. Not only are you failing to tell any real details, but you would need to be drawing on racial clues from the era in which the book was created. Anyone in 2020 reading a mystery novel seeped in century-old stereotypes would have no idea where half those stereotypes come from. You would need to do research on that age BEFORE coming into the novel.
That’s just bad writing.
Furthermore, using it for characterization is just lazy. If the limits of your characterization of a character was that “they were Asian” and explained nothing else, what is that supposed to entail? Are you trying to say they had strict parents? That they were joyful? Anxious? Lackadaisical? Cheeky? I can interpret next to nothing about a character from their ethnicity alone. This isn’t Tolkien — you can’t just assume all orcs are evil for every fantasy novel that includes them, just like you can’t assume all elves are tree-loving hippies. Trying to discern any degree of characterization from a one’s ethnicity is just lazy reasoning.
So. I propose a new Knox’s 5th in the same vein that Umineko wrote the rest of their interpretation of the Decalogue. A manner in which you can still use the 5th to help solve a mystery, but in a manner that doesn’t make you uncomfortable citing. Furthermore, it’s still grounded in the mystery genre, as attempting to use racial stereotypes is poor reasoning and unfair to the reader. If the solution is solvable only by paying attention to the ethnicity of the possible suspects, such as “Roger was the murderer because he’s black,” then that detective work is [POOR] and [LAZY] and [WEAK].
It completely destroys any faith one would have for that writer and their future stories, and insults the intelligence of the readers for honestly trying to solve it.
But enough. Here’s my modernization of it.
It is forbidden for racial stereotypes to figure into the story.
This means it cannot be used as a clue, it cannot be used as characterization, it cannot be used as part of the murder, it cannot be used as MOTIVATION for the murder, it cannot be used as part of a detective technique, it cannot be used as part of the solution.
Any attempt by a writer to use such in a mystery novel will therefore be declared [HERESY].