The Gryphon Club, 1912, Ronald Knox (in clerical collar)
Ronald Knox wrote detective stories in order to supplement the meagre stipend of his Oxford Chaplaincy. Still, he took them seriously, as he did all his work. He was also an avid reader of detective stories and wrote several essays about the genre.
THE VIADUCT MURDER (1926), THE THREE TAPS (1927), THE FOOTSTEPS AT THE LOCK (1928), THE BODY IN THE SILO (1933), STILL DEAD (1934) and DOUBLE CROSS PURPOSES (1937). Most of these stories feature private detective Miles Bredon, employed by the Indescribable Insurance Company to investigate suspicious claims, and his wife, Angela. While Bredon never enchanted millions as did Holmes, Lord Peter, Fr.Brown or Poirot, he and his wife make a delightful couple who excel at playful repartee. Knox's stories also boast charming descriptions of locale; there are many riverbank scenes of much interest to the fisherman. Characteristically his plots are mathematical, rather like Times crossword puzzles, and there is his well-known wit to keep the reader amused. Murder, after all, should be charming!
"Knox's satire is directed against persons, institutions, or habits of thought whose principles the modern world accepts most uncritically ... he is taking aim at pretensions, substitutions of show for substance ... consider this description of the Indescribable Buildings: It appears to be an axiom with those who conduct business in the modern or American manner, that efficiency is impossible unless all your transactions are conducted in an edifice not much smaller and not much less elaborate than the Taj Mahal ... The wildest voluptuousness of an Eastern tyrant is less magnificent in its architectural schemes than the hard-headed efficiency of the American business man. (The Three Taps)" - William Reynolds, The Detective Novels of Ronald A.Knox, 1981 The Armchair Detective
While his novels are not moralistic in tone Knox does not neglect to address serious topics. When confronted with the opinion that a person like Derek (drink & drug addict) has no right to exist, Angela Bredon gives the orthodox Roman Catholic reply couched in secular - almost public-school terms: It's all nonsense worrying about the consequences of actions. The only thing is to stick to the rules of the game; and murder isn't sticking to the rules; it's an unfair solution ... Everybody's worth keeping alive - or rather, very few people are worth it, but everybody's got to be kept alive if it can be managed ... Once try to make exceptions, and we shall all get into no end of a mess. (Footsteps at the Lock)
THE ADVENTURE OF THE FIRST-CLASS CARRIAGE and SOLVED BY INSPECTION are short stories written for magazines and anthologies. The former is a Sherlock Holmes story written in the style of Conan Doyle. It is so masterful a recreation of the great detective that it will fool even experienced but unsuspecting sherlockians.
THE BEST ENGLISH DETECTIVE STORIES OF 1928 In his introduction Knox provides a clever bonus for the reader: he indicates the line in each story at which the reader may put down the book and figure out the mystery on his own; the point at which he has enough clues at his disposal but before the author has begun to unravel them. He also provides his insights, with characteristic wit, into the art of writing detective fiction. "Ordinary romance was invented, one would think, by a wearied historian, who, finding himself (like most historians) unable to give a true account of the past, and willing (unlike most historians) to confess his inability, sat down to write a kind of literature in which all his characters behaved exactly as he wanted them to, because they had no existence outside his own brain. Whereas one would suppose the first writer of detective fiction to have been a scientist, who, giving up the riddles of his own craft, which either defied explanation or opened out fresh vistas of problems demanding fresh explanations, determined to set himself a problem which he could solve, because he and no other was responsible for the inventing of it. Ordinary fiction appeals to the synthetic in our natures, detective fiction to the analytic; ordinary fiction works forwards from the conditions of the plot to its consummation, detective fiction backwards from the consummation to the conditions." - Ronald Knox, The Best English Detective Stories of 1928, 1929, Horace Liveright
THE DETECTION CLUB
Around 1928 a set of prominent English detective novelists began meeting to exchange tricks of the trade, critique the works in progress of their peers, and enjoy jolly good lunches. By 1930 The Detection Club was formed, G.K.Chesterton presiding. Membership was by invitation only. An oath, written by Dorothy L. Sayers, was administered to all new members.
Ronald Knox was one of the original members and in 1929 wrote the Ten Commandments for Detective Novelists as a set of by-laws for the club. Eventually the club members collaborated on a series of detective stories in which each member wrote a chapter. Ronald Knox contributed to three of these: BEHIND THE SCREEN (1930), THE FLOATING ADMIRAL (1931) and SIX AGAINST THE YARD (1948).
CLUB RULES: The 10 Commandments for Detective Novelists
- The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.
- All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
- Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
- No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
- No Chinaman must figure in the story.
- No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
- The detective must not himself commit the crime.
- The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
- The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
- Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.
Essays in Satire, 1928, Sheed & Ward
In 1973 Josef Skvorecky wrote a collection of detective stories, SINS FOR FATHER KNOX , in which each one of these rules is broken, so that the reader must not only figure out whodunnit, but which rule was broken by the author.
Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes Ronald Knox wrote this well-known essay as a satirical attack on the methodology of Higher Criticism. It was first presented to the Gryphon Club in 1911 and subsequently printed in The Blue Book (1912) and Essays in Satire (1928). This literary distraction unwittingly gave birth to what is known as the Grand Game: a conceit by which followers of Sherlock Holmes treat his adventures as though they were real. This scholarly and humorous pursuit has "brought the great detective back from the non-living". - Michael Crowe, Ronald Knox and Sherlock Holmes, 2011, Wessex Press (read an introduction in PDF)
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in his response, noted "Of course, as you seem to have observed, Holmes changed entirely as the stories went on" but "Watson never for one instant as chorus and chronicler transcends his own limitations. Never once does a flash of wit or wisdom come from him. All is remorsely eliminated so that he may be Watson."