Here’s a fun question for you: What did mystery doyenne Agatha Christie and Winnie-the-Pooh author A.A. Milne get up to when they hung out together? If you answered, “Dress up in blood-red-and-black robes, brandish potential murder weapons and flaming torches, and swear oaths on an actual human skull with glowing red eyes,” then you’ve clearly heard of the Detection Club.
Founded in 1930, the club began in the late 1920s as a series of dinner parties hosted by Anthony Berkeley, author of books like 1932’s Before the Fact, which would later be adapted by Alfred Hitchcock as the Cary Grant film, Suspicion (1941). G.K. Chesterton, creator of the priest-detective Father Brown, was listed as the group’s first president (though he wasn’t the first choice: Berkeley had originally asked Arthur Conan Doyle to lead the group, but the Sherlock Holmes creator’s health was declining, and he was unable to accept Berkeley’s invitation). The Constitution and Rules of the Detection Club were formally adopted on March 11, 1932.
The club’s headquarters were originally located between an oyster bar and a brothel, and they occasionally enjoyed the sort of misadventures you might expect from a gang of exceedingly British mystery writers who routinely met to get liquored up and conduct goofy ceremonies. At one point, a group of members enlisted the head of Scotland Yard’s Criminal Investigation Department to help them break into the club’s headquarters when they needed to retrieve materials for a new member induction but had all forgotten their keys. But while the club initially formed as a social group for writers of detective fiction, it did have an official purpose: to uphold a rigid set of standards for crime fiction, and weed out any potential members who wouldn’t agree to meet them.
Death-rays, Ghosts, and Lunatics
Edgar Allan Poe is generally credited with getting the ball rolling for English-language detective fiction with his 1841 short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and its detective, C. Auguste Dupin, but it was Willkie Collins who might have written the first great English mystery novel with 1868’s The Moonstone. (Other historians have singled out Charles Felix’s 1862 novel The Notting Hill Mystery for this distinction.)
Either way, the genre was in full swing by the early 20th century, and it was especially popular in Great Britain in the years that followed World War I. This is commonly known as the “Golden Age” of detective fiction, and the members of the Detection Club were among its stars. Besides Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley, G.K. Chesterton, and A.A. Milne (whose 1922 whodunnit The Red House Mystery predated the first Winnie-the-Pooh book by four years), the first membership roster included Dorothy L. Sayers, creator of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels (she sometimes worried that club members might be mistaken for employees of the brothel next door), and Scarlet Pimpernel creator Baroness Orczy, whose popular “Old Man in the Corner” stories typified the “armchair detective” trope.
By this point in the evolution of crime fiction, British mystery writers and literary critics had become preoccupied with what’s known as “fair play,” a principle whereby writers were expected to give readers a fighting chance at solving the crime alongside the story’s detective. In 1928, Ronald A. Knox—a Catholic priest and mystery writer who was also one of the founding members of the Detection Club—laid down what’s known as the “Detective Fiction Decalogue,” a list of 10 rules that mystery writers should follow.
Some of Knox’s rules are just principles of good writing, including Rule 6: No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right. Others are weirdly specific, like Rule 3: Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable. At least one of them—Rule 5: No Chinaman should appear in the story—is stunningly racist at first glance but, as crime fiction expert Curtis Evans points out, it was really meant to encourage writers to avoid the negative stereotypes of Asian people that were popular in genre fiction at the time, and to set detective fiction apart from the lurid adventure stories that often featured those stereotypes.
On paper, the Detection Club seemed dedicated to upholding its own set of standards for the genre. At their induction ceremony, new members promised the solutions to their mysteries would never rely on “Revelation, Female Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God.” They also swore never to “conceal a vital clue from the reader,” to practice “a seemly moderation” when it came to things like death-rays, ghosts, trap doors, and lunatics, and to “honor the King’s English.”
Once the candidate placed a hand on club mascot Eric the Skull—whose eyes would be glowing red at this point, thanks to some fancy wiring work by founding member and former electrical engineer John Street (a.k.a. John Rhode)—and swore to abide by those guidelines, the club president would offer both a benediction and a curse: rave reviews and film adaptations for members who observed the rules, and a plague of typos, lagging sales, and libel lawsuits for members who broke them.
“The Thralldom of Formula”
While the Detection Club’s officers routinely denied membership to writers who didn’t abide by its fair-play rules, its own members—including its top officers—routinely and enthusiastically broke them.
By the time the club was formally established, founding member Anthony Berkeley had already begun experimenting with the traditional mystery format that the club championed. As Evans pointed out in a 2011 essay, Berkeley wrote a pair of now-classic crime novels in the early 1930s, Malice Aforethought and Before the Fact, that were more concerned with the internal lives of killers and potential victims than the machinations of an investigation. In the dedication of 1934’s Panic Party, Berkeley informed fellow author and club member Milward Kennedy that his latest novel “breaks every rule of the austere Club to which we both belong, and which will probably earn my expulsion from its membership.”
The 1930s also saw Dorothy L. Sayers, who was a prominent literary critic and served as the club’s secretary (and, later, its president), complain that detective fiction had become too standardized, and applaud writers who tried “to escape from the thralldom of formula.” Sayers’s own Peter Wimsey novels of the decade departed from the traditional whodunnit format by delving deeply into Lord Peter’s love life; the 11th and final installment, 1937’s Busman’s Honeymoon, is even subtitled A Love Story with Detective Interruptions. “To no small extent,” Evans wrote of the Detection Club, “the revolution against the primacy of the puzzle in British detective fiction came from within.”
Over the years, the Detection Club evolved. The “Golden Age” of detective fiction ended with the onslaught of World War II, and psychological thrillers and noir stories supplanted the classic, puzzle-based whodunnit. New membership and club activity dropped off sharply during and after World War II, and the group eventually opened its roster to authors whose work didn’t meet their original, stated criteria. Patricia Highsmith was a member, as were John le Carré and Dick Francis.
The club is still active today, under the presidency of British crime writer Martin Edwards. Members meet three times per year and occasionally collaborate on publishing ventures such as 2016’s The Sinking Admiral. (The title is a nod to The Floating Admiral, a round-robin novel written by members of the original club in 1931.) New members must still lay a hand upon the club’s resident skull, but there is one notable change: “Eric” is now called “Erica.” In a twist that might have once gotten a potential member blackballed, it turns out the skull was female all along.