Saturday, January 14, 2012

Murder in the Family: Ronald Knox and Winifred Peck

Many classical mystery fans have at least heard of the English detective novelist Ronald Knox; few, however, know of Knox's novelist sister, Winifred Peck, who also contributed to the field of crime fiction.  In this two part article I will discuss genre works by this pair of sibling crime writers.  First up: Ronald Knox and his novel Still Dead.--The Passing Tramp

P. D. James contends that it was
Dorothy L. Sayers who made the
Golden Age detective novel
intellectually respectable

Although in her recent short genre survey, Talking About Detective Fiction (2009), mystery doyenne P. D. James asserts that it was Dorothy L. Sayers in the middle 1930s who made detective fiction intellectually respectable (with such “manners” crime novels as The Nine Tailors and Gaudy Night), in fact many intellectuals were attracted, both as readers and writers, to detective tales at the very beginning of the Golden Age (roughly 1920), because of those tales’ ratiocinative appeal as puzzles.

For these individuals, the intellectual appeal of detective novels lay in the quality of their puzzles, not in any attempts on the part of their authors to ape the mainstream “straight” novel with portrayals of social manners or emotional/psychological conflicts. Indeed, during the Golden Age too much emphasis on purely literary elements often was seen by common readers and more lofty genre theorists alike as detrimental in detective novels, because it distracted readers’ minds from what was deemed the proper business in such fiction: the cold analyses of clues.

An undeniably intellectual mystery fan and mystery writer, Ronald Arbuthnott Knox, held this obsolescent view of the proper nature of detective fiction.

Ronald Knox
an intellectual who respected puzzles

Knox, a son of the Bishop of Manchester and an Eton and Oxford educated classical scholar who converted to Catholicism in 1917 (soon becoming a priest and one of England’s most prominent and articulate Anglo-Catholics), published his first detective novel, The Viaduct Murder in 1925.  Two more detective novels appeared in the 1920s (The Three Taps, 1927, and The Footsteps at the Lock, 1928), as well as Knox’s famous Detective Fiction Decalogue, wherein he laid down rules for the writing of detective fiction (all of which emphasized the puzzle aspect, or “fair play”--see ).

On the strength of these accomplishments, Father Knox was invited in 1930 to become a founding member of the Detection Club. Three more detective novels would follow — The Body in the Silo (1933), Still Dead (1934) and Double Cross Purposes (1937) — before Knox gave himself completely over to his religious scholarship.

Less donnishly facetious than the 1920s tales, The Body in the Silo and Still Dead are commonly considered to be Father Know’s best detective novels, though oddly and frustratingly, they are two of the most difficult to find.  Both novels are well worth reading for fans of the pure puzzle sort of detective novel, as they have rigorous fair play problems and even include footnotes listing the pages where clues were earlier given.

Still Dead concerns the death of Colin Reiver, the thoroughly undesirable heir to the Dorn estate in Scotland. Colin’s dead body was glimpsed by one of the estate’s employees, but had disappeared by the time he had left for help and returned to the spot with others.

Two days later, however, the body reappears at the same spot (and still dead, hence the title). Colin is pronounced to have expired from exposure, but is that really true and, either way, why were morbid shenanigans played with the corpse?

If Colin was murdered, there is no shortage of suspects. There is another employee, a gardener, whose child was run down by a drunken Colin (the latter was exonerated in court on the strength of false testimony from an Oxford friend, once again proving the value in Golden Age mystery of old school ties). There also are several family members, including Colin’s own father, Donald, as well as Colin’s sister, brother-in-law and cousin (truly, nobody liked Colin). Then there's a family physician and also a leader of the odd religious sect to which Donald Reiver adheres.

The police write off the case (all to the good, since Father Knox apparently knew nothing and cared less about police procedure), but insurance investigator Miles Bredon--Knox’s series detective in five novels and a single, classic, short story, “Solved by Inspection”--is called in, because the question of when Colin actually died bears directly on a crucial insurance settlement (the dissolute Colin was heavily insured in his father’s favor and the Dorn estate is sadly diminished).

There are strange goings-on indeed
at the Dorn estate in Scotland
Still Dead reveals both Father Knox’s strengths and weaknesses as a detective novelist. Positively, the fair play cluing is exemplary and reading the solution is quite enjoyable. Negatively, human interest is minimal and the narrative moves slowly.

Aside from a gentrified old lady at a hotel, Colin Reiver’s military martinet-ish cousin and a eugenics-professing doctor, none of the characters has more than a bare semblance of interest. Even these three aforementioned characters do not come to life as they might have, given the basic material.

To be sure, Knox provides some lightly humorous verbal byplay, courtesy of Miles Bredon’s wife, Angela (she always seems to accompany him on his investigations, despite having a child — or children, Knox is inconsistent on this point — at home). Yet Miles and Angela are no Lord Peter and Harriet, despite having preceded them into print as a mystery genre male-female duo by three years.

I found Still Dead more slow-moving than novels by Freeman Wills Crofts or John Rhode from this period, because Bredon’s sleuthing is peripatetic. Knox’s fictional works lack the relentless investigative drive we see in mystery tales by those other, “humdrum”, authors, who focus so resolutely on the problem. Nor is Knox’s problem itself, though very well-clued, as interesting as the alibi and murder means conundra presented by Crofts and Rhode, respectively.

In the blurb for Still Dead, Father Knox’s English publisher, Hodder and Stoughton, called Knox “a master of the English language.” To be sure, Knox is a very good writer indeed; yet in my opinion his strength as a writer is that of an essayist, not a novelist. Scattered throughout Still Dead are fine scenic descriptions, pithy observations on religion and interesting digressions on the fate of England’s aristocracy, the nature of English gardens, chess, books, caves, hotels, etc.; yet while they are quite interesting in themselves, by themselves they do not sustain the dramatic situation desirable in a crime novel.

Of course Knox would counter that he was merely trying to provide readers with a good puzzle, and this is a perfectly reasonable point. Still Dead is a good puzzle. Yet the basic material here — a dissolute gentry heir having killed a young child while driving inebriated — is interesting enough to have deserved a more serious treatment.  Knox’s handling of the material is on the dry side, even in the final chapter when the philosophical implications of the problem are discussed by the characters (though this is a good discussion).

Just a few years later Nicholas Blake (the pen name of poet Cecil Day-Lewis) would take a rather similar plot and inject it with real human pain and suffering, in The Beast Must Die (1938), a novel much better-remembered today than Still Dead.  In Knox's case, however, there seems to have been a reluctance to grapple with deeper, darker emotions in his detective novels. (One sees this quirk as well in the half-dozen mild mystery tales by a Knox contemporary, Anglican minister Victor Whitechurch.)

Blake's mystery novel
has greater emotional heft
than Knox's Still Dead

Despite these reservations on my part, Still Dead is well worth reading for admirers of classical British mystery. If you can find the Hodder & Stoughton hardcover edition, you also will find a beautiful endpaper drawing of the Dorn estate and a dramatic frontispiece of stark Dorn House, both by Bip Pares, as well as that footnoted clue page guide.  The Pan paperback edition of from 1952 lacks these graces, so charmingly redolent of the Golden Age detective novel, when many writers in their mystery tales unashamedly emphasized puzzles.

See Part Two for Winifred Peck.  Special Note: The mystery/crime fiction world suffered a great loss with the recent death of Reginald Hill, one of the towering figures in the genre.  I plan to devote  a piece to him in the upcoming week.--The Passing Tramp


  1. I have only read Knox's brilliant short story, "Solved by Inspection," which is the only story I ever read that felt like it could've been written by Chesterton, but a couple of off-putting reviews and comments on The Three Taps and Footsteps at the Lock prevented me from further pursuing him.

    However, this post has put The Body in the Silo and Still Dead back on my wish list and looking forward to your thought on his sister, Winifred Peck, who's a new name to me.

  2. TomCat

    Thanks. To be honest, the earlier books are all a little facetious and whimsical for me. Even in the later ones he's just not taking things as seriously as I would like. There's no question but that's he's a very good writer and he took the clueing aspect, at least. seriously.

    I actually liked the Winifred Peck book better. Really liked it quite a lot. It was very well received at the time, making it kind of odd that it's been totally forgotten.