Wednesday, December 5, 2012

When cases were solved by a corpse’s pointing finger….

Recently I came across the Detective’s Oath, written by Dorothy Sayers and first administered by G.K. Chesterton, as part of the initiation ceremony for the London Detection Club. The club, convened in 1930, included the likes of Sayers, Agatha Christie, and a slew of other Golden Age mystery writers.

The oath was this: “Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?”

While I think we’ve all seen authors—well-known ones at that—break these principles regularly (after all, why can’t a ghost solve a crime? Or for that matter, a cat?), there was something to these expectations that made sense. A reader should be able to work out whodunit, at least after the fact, to be fair.

But when I first read the oath, I had to laugh.  All three of us—Nancy Bilyeau, Sam Thomas, and myself—have situated our mysteries in early modern England, a time when divine revelation, providence, acts of God (or the Devil, for that matter) often served as the explanation for most mishaps and misfortune.  It would have been so easy—and realistic—to have our sleuths solve crimes in that fashion.

After all, there are many incidences of a community “solving” a murder when a corpse’s finger pointed to its murderer. Or when the corpse’s eyes would open and stare in the direction of the murderer’s house.  There are even examples of corpses bleeding from the nose or ears, indicating that their murderers were in the vicinity.

Sometimes, logic and reason and evidence would prevail and sometimes…they did not. There are many examples of superstitions, hearsay, and feelings making their way into court testimony, especially in ecclesiastical courts.

I can’t speak for Nancy and Sam’s protagonists, of course, but I wanted Lucy Campion, my chambermaid in a A Murder at Rosamund's Gate, to be someone who was resourceful and intelligent, despite having little formal education. But it wasn’t just about creating a character who would use her wits and evidence to solve a crime; I wanted her to question how the community identified murderers in the first place.

I also wanted Lucy to be someone who rejects the notion of providence as a means to explain murder. I wanted her to dismiss the idea that divine revelation could be a reliable way to identify a murderer—even if that meant challenging the expectations of her community.  

I’d like to think that Lucy would approve of the Detective’s Oath, even if everyone around her was convinced that the murderer could be discovered by a corpse's pointing finger.

But what do you think? If you're a writer, do you adhere to this oath? Or gleefully stomp all over it? If you're a reader, do you mind if the detective doesn't use logic or wits to solve a crime?


  1. I'm imagining that finger pointing at your book...and now I very much want to read it! Lucy sounds wonderful and I can't wait to get to know her.

    1. Thanks Pam. Maybe I did it! I hadn't realized the finger was pointing on my face :-) See it works!

  2. The oath is simply amazing. Thanks so much for sharing.

  3. The oath made me smile. Thank you for sharing.