The author did it

There’s an interesting article about G K Chesterton in the latest New Yorker (the article’s not online yet), which mentions in passing that GKC ‘must have influenced’ Borges – indeed he did. It sent me ferreting off to find some of the essays where Borges wrote about him, and I found one I hadn’t come across before, ‘The Labyrinths of the Detective Story and Chesterton’.

Anyway, what caught my eye was Borges listing what he took to be the rules of classic detective fiction. Here they are (his words in italics, my comments afterwards):

A. A discretional limit of six characters.
B. The declaration of all the terms of the problem. This is basically Dorothy L Sayers’ ‘fair play’ rule – I’m sure I saw an essay of hers with a list of principles once, but I can’t track it down.
C. An avaricious economy of means. I’m not totally certain what he’s on about here (he only gives counterexamples, eg Conan Doyle regularly breaks B), though I think there’s a tone of Occam’s razor about it.
D. The priority of how over who. ie what happened is more interesting to deduce than who actually did it.
E. A reticence concerning death. (He adds that detective fiction’s “glacial muses are hygieve, fallacy and order”. I think he means it should be an elegant puzzle rather than a gore-fest.
F. A solution that is both necessary and marvellous. There’s only one solution, which makes the reader boggle – but has no recourse to the supernatural. Chesterton’s Father Brown is his model.

That was written in 1935 – only a few years after Ronald Knox came up with his ten commandments for detective fiction (1929) and SS Van Dine formulated his twenty rules (1929). (Side note to self: ooh, I must track down The Sins of Father Knox.)

Anyway, er yeah, not sure why I’m posting this – just interested me. I wonder if there are similar principles that make games work?

2 thoughts on “The author did it

  1. C – I believe he’s saying that essentially, the plot should have elegant simplicity when it is revealed. Detective fiction should not pull the reveal and leaving you feeling that it’s no wonder you didn’t get it because what *it* was is so labyrinthine and implausible that you don’t believe it happened now that you know what it is. However, since this rule was broken not only by Conan Doyle but also Agatha Christie, you’ve got to conclude that it’s *not* a cardinal rule of detective fiction.

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