T. S. Eliot’s Rules for Detective Fiction

Many detective writers and fans have defined their own sets of “rules” that detective fiction ought to follow. (e.g. the detective may not possess supernatural powers, the detective may not commit the crime himself, etc.) The most famous of these regulations were penned by a group of British crime writers including Agatha Christie, Sayers, and Chesterton, who came together in 1930 to form “The Detection Club.” Many years later, most crime fiction still conforms to their “Rules of Fair Play.” Detectives must still reveal all their clues to the reader, the criminal must still be mentioned early on in the story, and secret sets of twins are still discouraged.

 

Interestingly, the first person to write down a set of rules for detective fiction was, as far as we know, T. S. Eliot. It may very well be that he started a trend when he published his personal standards for detective fiction in a 1927 publication of his literary magazine The Criterion.[1] Eliot’s “obvious [rules] of detective conduct” are as follows:

 

  1. “The story must not rely upon elaborate and incredible disguises.”
  2. The criminal’s motives should be fairly predictable. “No theft, for instance, should be due to kleptomania (even if there is such a thing).”
  3. The solution should not involve the supernatural or “mysterious and preposterous discoveries made by lonely scientists.”
  4. “Elaborate and bizarre machinery is an irrelevance. Detective writers of austere and classical tendencies will abhor it.”
  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.”[2]

 

While The Detective Club would automatically discount any detective fiction that violated one of their rules, Eliot was not terribly strict with his guidelines. He wrote that nearly every detective novel, including his favorites, broke at least one of these rules. In fact, he often criticized Sherlock Holmes for his elaborate disguises, bizarre machinery, and superhuman intelligence. And despite his criticisms, Eliot was quite possibly the biggest fan of all things Sherlockian ever to live.

 

Works Cited

Chinitz, David. T.S. Eliot and the Cultural Divide. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2003. Print.

Eliot, T. S. The Criterion vol. V. Jan. 1927: 139-143, 359-362, 552-556. Print.


[1] David Chinitz, T.S. Eliot and the Cultural Divide, (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2003) 147.

[2] T.S. Eliot, The Criterion vol. V, (Jan 1927) 141-42.