T.S. Eliot’s Rules of English Detective Stories (Boiled Down)

EDITOR’S NOTE

Renowned poet and certified literary big shot T.S. Eliot has a bigger connection to crime fiction than you might expect — he was a fan and an early defender of the genre. He was — get this — the mystery reviewer for The Criterion (later The New Criterion),a prestigious British literary journal (1922-39) founded by Eliot, who also served as its editor for its entire run.

In the January 1927 issue of The New Criterion, T. S. Eliot’s began to review (without a byline) mystery criticism in the journal, and began with “Homage to Wilkie Collins: An omnibus review of nine mystery novels,” which included a review of nine English detective novels and short story collections (“a small, but I dare say representative, selection from the season’s product”)  and his defense of Collins’ The Moonstone, which he claimed “contains the whole of English detective fiction in embryo… every detective story, so far as it is a good detective story, observes the detective laws to be drawn from this book.”

The books he reviewed included The D’Arblay Mystery, by R. Austin Freeman; The Footsteps that Stopped, by A. Fielding; The House of Sin, by Allen Upward; The Diamond in the Hoof, by Traill Stevenson; The Dangerfield Talisman, by J. J. Connington; The Mysterious Disappearances, by G. McLeod Winsor; Footsteps in the Night, by C. Fraser-Simson; The Bishops Park Mystery, by Donald Dike and The Massingham Butterfly, by J. S. Fletcher, and in one way or another he found they all paled in comparison to his beloved The Moonstone.

It should be noted that Eliot is speaking here about English detective stories here, not American detective stories and certainly not hard-boiled detective stories. But he did note that “the crime fiction of every country has its own national character.” 

Within a few years, both Father Knox and S.S. Van Dine (whom Eliot admired) would publish their own (much siller) rules of detection, but Eliot was there first. Mind you, in considering the nine books he had under his critical eye, Eliot admitted that even the best of them “violate, as Wilkie Collins never violates, some obvious rule of detective conduct.”

A Further Note: Because Eliot did not intend this to be a formal set of rules, but used them as a way of ranking the particular books on review, I’ve boiled down and dressed it up, removing some of those references, and adding emphasis to key sentences. For those interested in reading the whole magilla, it’s been printed here on tseliot.com.

T.S. Eliot’s Rules of English Detective Stories (Boiled Down)

by T.S. Eliot

A detective story cannot be analysed like other fiction: the reviewer must not reveal the plot, or the reader will be robbed of his pleasure. I have therefore arranged the fiction here ‘reviewed’ – a small, but I dare say representative selection from the season’s product – as nearly as possible in what I think the order of merit. The Massingham Butterfly must be considered hors de concours, as it proved to be merely a collection of unrelated short stories of detective type; they are too slight to deserve reprinting, but suggest that Mr Fletcher’s longer detective stories are probably very good. The two preceding (Footsteps in the Night and The Bishops Park Mystery) are not properly detective stories either, because they have no detectives; therefore they are technically of little interest. All of the rest have some merit: all of them violate, as Wilkie Collins never violates, some obvious rule of detective conduct.
I do not know how many of these rules can be formulated; the following are drawn up from my study of the stories above, and other recent stories, and the list ‘does not pretend to completeness’. Every one of these stories commits one of these faults; they are, between one story and another, more or less heinous or excusable:

  1. The story must not rely upon elaborate and incredible disguises. We accepted them from so engaging a character as Holmes, as we accept them from the more farcical Lupin: but we consider them to be trick work. Disguises must be only occasional and incidental… Elaborate double lives, in disguise, are an exaggeration of this vice.
  2. The character and motives of the criminal should be normal. In the ideal detective story we should feel that we have a sporting chance to solve the mystery ourselves; if the criminal is highly abnormal an irrational element is introduced which offends us. If the crime is not to have a natural motive, or is without motive altogether, we feel again that we have been tricked… No theft, for instance, should be due to kleptomania (even if there is such a thing).
  3. The story must not rely either upon occult phenomena, or, what comes to the same thing, upon mysterious and preposterous discoveries made by lonely scientists. In detective fiction there is no place for this sort of thing.
  4. Elaborate and bizarre machinery is an irrelevance. Detective writers of austere and classical tendencies will abhor it. Some of the Sherlock Holmes stories make far too much of stage properties. Writers who delight in treasures hid in strange places, cyphers and codes, runes and rituals, should not be encouraged.
  5. The detective should be highly intelligent but not superhuman. We should be able to follow his inferences and almost, but not quite, make them with him.

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Respectfully passed along by Kevin Burton Smith.

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