Ronald Knox: The Short Stories (1931-1947)

Priest, theologian, classicist, translator, tutor, chaplain at Oxford university and detective fiction writer, Ronald Knox like many of the early detective novelists had an eclectic and rich background and output.

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Knox was an avid writer and reader of detective fiction, and wrote many essays on the subject. He was also one of the original members of the Detection Club alongside Agatha Christie, Dorothy L.Sayers, G.K Chesterton and many other prominent and important novelists, started by Anthony Berkeley. Knox compiled a list called the Ten Commandments For Detective Novelists , a set of laws for the club, which the other members went on to joyfully break. The Detection Club also collaborated on a series of three novels, in which each member would write a chapter, Knox contributed to three of these titles.

The priest come novelist also wrote works in numerous areas including essay collections and theological texts. Amongst these were many satirical essays, and his detective novels are frequently satirical in nature. William Reynolds writes in his book The Detective Novels of Ronald A.Knox (1981): “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.” This is a perfect grasp of satire, and in the vein of making the mighty look humble, a very biblical form of satire also. 

Knox wrote 6 detective novels in total, and also published three short stories. Published at important points in his writing career, these three shorts are all marvellous and perfectly represent the different aspects of Knox’s detective fiction works and impact. So by way of introduction to Knox’s work I will discuss these three brilliant shorts.

Solved By Inspection – 1931
Knox’s first short story showcases his series detective Miles Bredon, who appears in 5 of his novels. Bredon is employed by the ‘Indescribable Insurance Company’ to investigate suspicious claims made by it’s clientele. This is simply one of my favourite short detective works and shows that Knox was a deft hand with the locked room mystery format, creating a very original entry into the cannon. Eccentric millionaire, and darling to the press Herbert Jervison, after a trip to India, has become obsessed with astral projection, meditation and psychic experiments, now calling himself The Brotherhood of Light. Locking himself into what he calls his laboratory, an old gym and racket court, he takes two weeks worth of supplies and says he must not be disturbed on any account. However, when he doesn’t emerge after the two weeks is up, the door is broken down and he is found dead in his bed. But stranger still Jervison has died of starvation, the food all around him being completely untouched. 

The solution is extremely clever, simple and terrifically dark. One that lingers in the mind for some time. I have this story in a collection called The Oxford Book of English Detective Stories, edited by Patricia Craig, which is a collection of shorts that I highly recommend.

The Motive – 1937
Knox also wrote stand alone detective works, and The Motive is a top example. A satirical work no doubt, this short is set in the common rooms of Simon Magus college, a mythical college that Knox used as a way of exploring and satirising the culture of university don’s. Here the story is told by the infamous lawyer Sir Leonard Huntercombe, a man who was ‘probably responsible for more scoundrels being at large than any other man in England’. Huntercombe waxes lyrical, (mainly to stop another don from talking), on a strange set of crimes that almost took him to court.

These two crimes concern firstly a brutal murder attempt, where a young, proud man is challenged late at night to swim 10 lengths of the hotel swimming pool blindfolded. As he does this the swimming pool is slowly drained, enough that he cannot reach to get out, and once his he removes his blindfold he realises that he has been left to lose energy trying to keep afloat which will eventually cause him drown through fatigue. The pool could then be refilled and we have a perfect murder.

But this is unsuccessful and what follows is a very nicely conceived impossible disappearance from a locked and watched train carriage, with a killer solution. The ending of the story is hilarious and totally unexpected, perfectly summing up Knox’s satirical aims.

This story also happens to have been published in the heavily debated Golden Age sweet spot of 1937, which allows me to submit this post for the 1937 edition of Crimes of the Century at the brilliant Past Offences.

NPG x1954; Ronald Arbuthnott Knox by Howard Coster
The man himself

The Adventure of the First Class Carriage – 1947
Another aspect of Knox’s oeuvre was his knowledge of the Sherlock works and his input into the world of ‘Sherlockian studies’ or ‘Sherlockiana’.  This he started in a book called Essays in Satire (1928) where he published a satirical essay called “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes”. This and following writings were a series of mock-serious critical and historical writings on Sherlock Holmes, where the writer assumes that Sherlock Holmes is a real figure, and uses historical information to build up biographies and clear up anomalies is the Doyle stories. It’s a fascinating form of writing and worth looking up. 

As a fan then of Sherlock the last short story Knox published doesn’t come as surprise. The Adventure of the First Class Carriage is a Sherlock tale, written in homage to Doyle’s inimitable style in which Watson reflects on the case of the disappearance of Mr Nathaniel Swithinbank. The Swithinbank’s maid, Mrs Hennessy, has made a secret trip to Baker street to discuss strange goings on at the manor house. Arguments, tensions between husbands and wife and a ripped up suicide note with a strange fragment pointing to a specific point in the reeds near the house ‘where the old tower hides both the first and the second floor windows.

What Sherlock is so surprised at is how the clues to this mystery seem so obvious and therefore backwards – why leave a suicide note in the bin where it would be easily found?. The whole reason for the case is another brilliant subversion and ends with Sherlock uttering the latin phrase ‘sic vos non vobis’, which closes the story very nicely, seeing that the work in itself is a homage to the great detective and to Doyle’s work. There is love for Doyle here, and also, a very sly thread of comic parody going on, terms like ‘she dived her hand into a capacious reticule’  being charmingly witty whilst playing with the Watsonian language.

There will be a lecture given this year on Knox’s work at the Bodies From The Library conference at the British Library in June, which I much look forward to. I would be very interested to know if anyone has read any of the Knox novels? And what would you recommend?

Updates:

Golden age expert Martin Edwards very helpfully commented that:

(Knox’s) Ten Commandments were not the laws of the Club. They were included in an essay that prefaced an anthology. Some elements of the Decalogue were, however, introduced into the Club’s initiation ritual, which was primarily drafted by Dorothy L. Sayers.

 

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The Sherlock Holmes of China: Robert van Gulik’s Chinese Gold Murders

The hard hitting detective Judge Dee has been called the Sherlock homes of China. But interestingly, the T’ang Dynasty mystery stories of Judge Dee were penned by a Dutchman.

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On my last second hand book walk through London (see here for the guide) I was very fortunate to come across a copy of The Chinese Gold Murders by Robert van Gulik. A locked room mystery set in 7th century China, following the exploits of Judge Dee and his first cases as the new magistrate of the fictional Chinese city of Peng-Lai. After the second world war broke out the author, Robert van Gulik, lived in China as a representative of the Dutch government. Here he became an expert on Chinese translation, art, literature and culture. While in Japan before the war he came across the book ‘Dee Goong An’ (The Cases of Judge Dee) in a second hand book shop. The book, written in the 18th century by an unknown author, was an early piece of Chinese detective fiction based on De Renjie, a real life country magistrate who lived roughly between 630-700 AD. van Gulik was so taken with the anonymous book that he decided to translate it into English, and after it’s publication he went on to pen his own series of Judge Dee mysteries. The Chinese Gold Murders being his fourth Judge Dee novel written in 1952.

To begin, I have never read a crime novel with so many crimes! Judge Dee comes up against an impossible poisoning, the victim’s ghost now seeming to be haunting the corridors of the tribunal, a woman who vanishes from a muddy pathway, a man beaten to death and thrown into a river, two victims stabbed to death in their beds one of which consequently disappears after being buried, a prowling weretiger mauling victims in the woods, smuggling of arms and a headless monk. And that’s all on his first two days on the job!

However, van Gulik neatly weaves this all into three distinct cases each solved in order through the book. This rule of three, van Gulik writes in his postscript, follows that of the traditional Chinese detective novel where the sleuth would solve three or more cases in succession.

There are so many threads and clues going I was worried that van Gulik wouldn’t manage to keep the plot afloat, but he ties things together throughout. There are some lovely riddle and enigma like clues which reveal themselves convincingly at the books close. A particularly nice scene is where Judge Dee is dragged along to a Chinese melodramatic street performance of a number of traditional mystery plays. The last two stories of the play, showing the cases of another ancient master detective ‘Judge Yu’, show how a murderer is revealed by the clue of a secret message being hidden in an almond shell. However, it’s not the secret message that is the real clue, but the almond itself, as the real murderer liked almond milk. This is obviously preposterous, and is hammed up to great effect in the farcical street play, but the idea of ‘not the thing inside the but the thing itself’ then links to a very real clue happening in one of Judge Dee’s complicated cases. This and other inside-out ways of looking at things are very satisfying elements throughout.

As a historian of Chinese culture, van Gulik is faithful to the historical setting, and the book reads as much like a historical diary as well as a crime novel. Set during the development between opposing Confucian and Buddhist worldviews this tension becomes a backdrop to many of the cases. Also taken as running subplots are the high level of patriarchy evident in the culture of the time, alongside the ethics of sex and gender. The buying and selling of wives and prostitutes is all shown, and sexist remarks abound, which Judge Dee smashes down or subverts. van Gulik also illustrated the novel himself, with 10 line drawings completed to mimic the traditional Chinese print style.

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Two of van Gulik’s illustrations from the Chinese Gold Murders

As well as the difficult sexist characters, I did find the book was too slow paced in places. The book begins at high speed but there is some drudgery and dryness in the middle when getting through the more technical aspects of historical exposition and case details, particularly after the impossible poisoning was resolved about half way through. Though the pace picks up again towards the end and the final reveal scene in a huge temple meeting is worth getting to.

To focus on the impossible situation itself for a moment, as this blog is designed to, the poisoning had a convincing and well plotted set up. The original magistrate of Peng-Lai is poisoned in his library locked from the inside. Poison is found in his teacup but all of his tea making equipment is kept in a locked cupboard which only he has access to, and no one was seen entering or leaving the building at the time. I felt that the mechanics of the solution were a little unconvincing, and I’m not sure if it would actually work. Two semi-alternative solutions were produced through the book, one which included the slamming of a door, which I actually would have preferred as the solution. But this ends up being a recurring motif which becomes more and more important and creepy and it makes sense that it therefore only pointed to the final solution. Interestingly, van Gulik writes in his postscript that the idea for the impossible poisoning, of which he modified, was based on a much older story from the original anonymous ‘Dee Goong An’ stories, the motif for which is very reminiscent of a Sherlock novel, even though the Sherlock story was written 100 years later.

What also warmed me to this book were the unresolved paranormal elements that van Gulik chose to leave us with. He doesn’t give us any doubts that the crimes were explainable, but that Judge Dee may in the end have had some ghostly help along the way. That refreshing element gave it the little edge that it needed to round off. Looking forward to finding more of this series and trying them out.