Monday 1 June 2015

Ronald Knox (1888-1957)

In the early 1970s I was studying at Bristol University and my degree was in theology. I enjoyed reading Christie and Sayers and the other well known authors of the Golden Age, but it seems strange to me that I was aware of Knox as a theologian decades before I realised he wrote detective stories. As part of my preparation for the Bath Spa Crime Fiction Conference, I wrote this article about Knox, first published in Mystery People.

Ronald Arbuthnott Knox was born in Leicestershire into a high church Anglican family. His father Edmund Arbuthnott Knox became Bishop of Manchester. Knox was the youngest of four academically clever sons, and it can be argued that he was the most brilliant of them all. Knox was educated at Eton College and Balliol College, Oxford, where he won the first classics scholarship as well as graduating with First Class Honours. It is interesting to note that Dorothy L. Sayers' fictional detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, was educated at Eton and Balliol, where he graduated with a First in history. The birth date attributed to Wimsey is 1890, which would make him a slightly younger contemporary of Knox.
Knox was a brilliant classicist and won numerous prizes and scholarships. In 1910 he became a fellow of Trinity College, but could not begin tutorials until 1911, and so accepted a position as classics tutor to the young Harold Macmillan. Although Knox was later dismissed by Macmillan's mother, who disliked his high-church convictions, Knox and Macmillan remained good friends for the rest of Knox's life.
In 1912 Knox was ordained as an Anglican priest and was appointed chaplain of Trinity College. In 1917 he had to leave this position when he left the Anglican Church and became a Roman Catholic. This must have been an immensely hard decision, involving both his spiritual journey and the severe disruption and distress it caused to his family; Knox's father and one of his brothers were Anglican priests. In response to his conversion, Knox's father disinherited him, cutting him out of his will. Knox joined the teaching staff of Shrewsbury School, where the staff was severely depleted by teachers serving in the First World War. During the War, Knox also served in Army intelligence, (another point in common with Lord Peter Wimsey.)
In 1918 Knox was ordained a Roman Catholic priest and joined the staff of St Edmund's College in Hertfordshire, where he remained until 1926. From 1926-1939 he served as Catholic chaplain at the University of Oxford. In 1936 he was honoured by the Pope with the title of Monsignor, which gave him the status of being a member of the Papal household.
Throughout his adult life, Knox wrote, lectured  and broadcast on Christianity and many other subjects. He became one of the most respected and influential theologians of the first half of the 20th Century. He was also a very successful satirist. In his 1911 lecture Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes, Knox set out to parody the German School's influential Biblical analysis by applying its methods to the stories of Sherlock Holmes. The German School picked apart the text of the Bible in obsessive detail, fretting over minor inconsistencies. Knox used these same methods to parody a critical study of the stories of Sherlock Holmes, claiming that, after the death of Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls, Watson became prey to drink and delusion and, unable to make a living as a doctor, 'made up' the later Holmes' stories. Knox intended to mock the German School's method and the obsession of the fans of Sherlock Holmes, but many Holmes fans simply took the lecture at face value, using it as the foundation for their own intense study of the stories. Conan Doyle also missed the joke. After the lecture was published, he wrote Knox a four page letter discussing the points he had made and refuting his criticism. In the end it seems that the joke was on Knox, because, for the next thirty years, Knox was assumed to be an authority on Holmes, and was regularly approached by editors hoping he'd agree to review the latest Sherlock Holmes adventure. In his biography The Life of the Right Reverend Ronald Knox (1959) Evelyn Waugh reports Knox's response to one such request: 'I can't BEAR books about Sherlock Holmes. It is so depressing that my one permanent achievement is to have started a bad joke.'
Knox's reaction to pretension was always to satirise it. When he was irritated by the various 'conspiracy theories' that claimed that Shakespeare had not written his plays he included in his Essays on Satire (1928) an essay called The Authorship of In Memoriam,'which pretends to believe that Tennyson's great poem was written by Queen Victoria.
On 16th January 1926, Knox's mischievous humour spread into his broadcasting career, when he enlivened one of his regular BBC Radio programmes with a simulated live report of revolution sweeping across London. The broadcast was called Broadcasting from the Barricades and had fake reports of a Government minister being lynched and the Savoy Hotel, the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben being destroyed. Knox's broadcast coincided with a snowy weekend, preventing many national newspapers being delivered, and it caused panic throughout the country. The broadcast had been prefaced by a statement that this was a work of humour and imagination and contains numerous ridiculous references that should have made it clear that this was a joke. However, not all listeners tuned in at the beginning of the broadcast, indeed many were turning on for the programme after Knox's and only caught alarming and authentic sounding snatches of the report. It is clear that Knox did not intend to deceive: he gives his characters ridiculous names and ludicrous jobs. The rioters' ringleader, Mr Popplebury, is described as 'Secretary of the National Movement for Abolishing Theatre Queues.' The unfortunate Mr Wotherspoon, the minister lynched and left dangling from a lamp-post is described as 'Minister of Traffic', a post which did not exist. Knox and Lord Reith (the head of the BBC) both believed that he had delivered sufficient clues that this was a spoof, but this was a rather naïve assumption, not improved by the excuse offered by Knox's brother talking to the Daily Sketch, 'I am inclined to think my brother over-estimated the people's sense of humour.' The First World War had ended only eight years previously and many people were still suffering from the distress and damage it had caused. This was a period of political and civil unrest, when both Government and people were afraid of the perceived threat of Communism and Socialism. Four months later the country would be disrupted by workers claiming their right to fair pay and decent working conditions by holding the General Strike. Added to this, people were not accustomed to 'special effects' as they have been in more recent generations. Above all, people believed the report because it was a broadcast by the highly respected and trusted BBC and the broadcaster was a highly respected academic and priest. There is some evidence that Knox's Behind the Barricades was the inspiration for an even greater radio deception, Orson Welles' radio broadcast The War of the Worlds (1938.)
In 1925 Knox published his first book of detective fiction, The Viaduct Murder. It tells the story of four golfing friends who discover the body of another member of their golf club under a railway viaduct and decide to investigate because, as one explains, 'I've got the greatest respect for the police as a body, but I don't think they're very good at following up clues.' The Viaduct Murder is a long and somewhat tedious book, with no real engagement with the characters involved.
The Three Taps (1927) is the first of Knox's books to feature Miles Bredon, who became his sleuth for the rest of his detective writing career. Like Knox, Bredon was an Intelligence Officer in the war; he is now an investigator for the Indescribable Insurance Company (Knox used his sharpest satire against such institutions.) In The Three Taps his task is to investigate whether a death is suicide, accident or foul play. He is accompanied in his investigations by his old wartime friend, Police Inspector Leyland, (other members of the police force are conspicuous by their absence) and by Bredon's long-suffering wife, Angela.
In Evelyn Waugh's biography of Knox, he explains that he regarded his detective books, 'as intellectual exercises; a game between reader and writer in which a problem was precisely stated and elaborately disguised. He was not seeking to write novels. He had no concern with the passions of the murderer, the terror of the victim, or the moral enormity of the crime.' This lack of passion does come through the writing and the interest in reading Knox's detective stories lies in who committed the crime and how it was done, not in a deep involvement with the characters. That said, the plots are ingenious and intriguing, and worth reading for the relationship between Miles Bredon and Angela, which is charming and full of banter. Aside from paid detection, Miles Bredon's main interests are golf and playing long and complicated games of Patience. He is very preoccupied with the concern that his employment as a private investigator has damaged his status as a 'gentleman.' In his relationship with Leyland, the police detective is very much the junior and subservient. When Bredon declares that he will not share all the information he has gathered on a case that he is not employed to investigate because he is staying as a guest in a house with several of the suspects, Leyland assures him that he understands and asks humbly if he will pass on what he can. When Wimsey raises similar reservations, Detective Inspector Parker is far less sympathetic about his friend's sensibilities. On the whole, Angela Bredon is more forthright with her husband than his other friends and associates tend to be, but then, as Knox records, the strength of this relationship depends on the fact that Bredon 'did not realize that his wife was a tiny bit cleverer than he was, and was always conspiring for his happiness behind his back.' (The Three Taps, 1927.) Certainly Angela Bredon is an attractive and strong character, and the witty exchanges between Angela and Miles light up the books.
Knox was a man of great humour and wit, which he brought to his work as a broadcaster, writer and teacher. His acerbic wit is a quality that he gave to his fictional creation, Miles Bredon. It is easy to imagine Bredon describing a baby as 'a loud noise at one end, and no sense of responsibility at another.' And, if Bredon had cause to ponder on the length of a good sermon, he would certainly agree with Knox that 'a good sermon should be like a woman's skirt: short enough to arouse interest but long enough to cover the essentials.'
One of Knox's great qualities as a writer was his exquisite descriptive prose. His skill at setting the scene is incomparable, whether it is an exciting night journey or an early morning awakening to the news of a tragic death. In The Body in the Silo (1933), Knox uses his descriptive powers to change the feeling of the book from playful excitement to ominous dread. 'There was no doubt about the thrill of this midnight chase, though it was all 'pretend' and Bredon's car had before now taken the road at this pace on sterner errands. Shadows of haystacks, of cattle in hedges, loomed enormous; startled rabbits made the pace for a few yards, and disappeared at the last moment into the long grass; late-retiring householders looked out in angry décolleté, from their windows; straggling villages seemed interminable in the dark.' … 'It was none of your bright mornings, full of sunshine and cockcrow and fresh smells of earth. The heat had brought up a heavy dew, which wreathed the garden in fantastic shapes of mist; the opposite bank of the river showed faint and unsubstantial, the air was breathless, still charged with heat, but unpropitious to clean thoughts and the melody of birds. They went out as if into an evil fairyland.'
From 1928 onwards, a group of prominent detective novelists agreed to meet and discuss their craft.
Also in 1928 Knox wrote the Ten Commandments of detective fiction. As with so much of Knox's work and life, the Ten Commandments are a mixture of dry humour and serious directions. The tongue-in-cheek title shows that he was approaching them with a fair proportion of satire. Most of the Commandments are irrelevant to 21st Century crime fiction and many of them were broken by Knox's own contemporaries in The Detective Club. It could be argued that Knox himself did not always stick strictly to the spirit of the Commandments but they are interesting to consider as part of the history of detective fiction.
Knox's Ten Commandments:
1. 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.
2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.
6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
7. The detective must not himself commit the crime.
8. The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
9. 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.
10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.
In 1930 the gathering of like-minded writers became formally known as The Detective Club. G.K. Chesterton was the first president and Knox was one of the founder members. Chesterton and Knox were close friends for many years and both had been converts to the Roman Catholic faith. When Chesterton died in 1836, the sermon at his Requiem Mass in Westminster Cathedral was delivered by Knox. It is ironic that Chesterton's iconic detective, Father Brown, was a Roman Catholic priest but was unlike Knox in so many ways. Father Brown was a parish priest, humble and unassuming in manner until issues of justice or spiritual well-being required him to act; he was short, shabby and unimposing. Knox never served a parish; he was a man of imposing appearance, swift wit and academic distinction, a friend of high-born and powerful people. In fact, on his last visit to London, Knox stayed with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan at 10 Downing Street. It is an even greater irony that Father Brown is remembered by crime readers everywhere, while Knox is remembered chiefly as a Roman Catholic theologian.
Between 1925 and 1937, Knox wrote six detective novels, all but the first of these featured Miles Bredon. He also wrote three books of short stories and three collaborative works with other members of the Detection Club.
Knox was concerned that the Church authorities disapproved of his detective fiction, and when his close friend and patron Lady Acton also showed her disapproval he gave up writing crime fiction. The popular story is that Lady Acton demonstrated her disapproval by throwing a copy of his last book, Double Cross Purposes (1937) overboard into the Mediterranean. Knox also gave up his chaplaincy at Oxford University and became Lady Acton's chaplain at her family seat in Shropshire. Here he concentrated on his greatest work of theology, his translation of the Bible from the Latin Vulgate. This was the work he truly cared about and which mattered far more to him than his detective stories.
Knox died of cancer in 1957. After a requiem mass in Westminster Cathedral, he was buried at St Andrew's Church, Mells.

The Body in the Silo
by Ronald Knox
The book opens with a lively exchange of views between Miles Bredon and his wife, Angela, regarding whether they should go and visit some acquaintances on the Welsh border.
'”It's no use,” said Miles Bredon. “The man's a bore and the woman's a pest, and if I did ever say I'd go there I must have been drunk at the time. Let us leave it at that.”... “You were, rather, as far as I can remember,” admitted Angela. “I can't always wait until you come round. The pity is that I didn't give you an extra glass to lay you out, put you straight in the car, and decant you at the Hallifords' there and then. A sensible wife would always cart her husband about the country in a sack.”'
Angela has her way and they go off on their visit. Lost in country lanes they are advised by villagers to look for the silo, a formidable landmark, '”Like as it might be a church tower.”' Following this advice they come upon 'a large building made like a lighthouse, forty feet high, with no windows, except a skylight in its conical top, no door, and indeed no opening at all except on one side, where a series of square hatches, one above another, led right up to the roof.' Their host, Mr Halliford, is playing at being a farmer and the silo is his favourite toy. The vast building is filled with grass and hay, which ferments and provides food for the cattle in winter. It can be a dangerous place, as the fermenting grass gives off carbon gases, and being trapped inside the silo can be fatal.
The entertainment is as dire as Bredon fears. Previously having made herself and her guests loathed throughout the countryside with scavenger hunts, Mrs Halliford is determined to hold an eloping hunt, where an 'eloping' couple are pursued in cars through the countryside and towns. In order to maintain authenticity, she insists that this has to be at night. This programme is put into action and, in an atmosphere of artificially created excitement, the hunt takes place. The pursuers travel either as married couples or singly, and one non-driver elects to stay at home. This means that nobody has an independent alibi when, the next morning, a body is discovered in the silo, having died of carbon gas poisoning.
The Coroner brings in a verdict of Accidental Death but Bredon has grave doubts about its validity. These are strengthened when his friend, Inspector Leyland of Scotland Yard turns up and is keeping covert surveillance on the Halliford household. Despite his objection to investigating a family with whom he is staying as a guest, Bredon cannot resist a mystery and is soon on the trail of clues, many of which were laid deliberately to mislead.
The Body in the Silo is a whodunnit, with few clues in the characters of the suspects but all the physical clues are meticulously offered to the reader so that they can try to solve the puzzle for themselves. The problem in intriguing and the interaction between Miles and Angela Bredon is warm and amusing. It is an interesting read for lovers of classic Golden Age crime fiction.

Kindle: ASIN: B0094IXYJI
The Body in the Silo is back in print but it is expensive for a paperback.
Publisher: The Murder Room (31 Jan. 2013)
ISBN: 978-1471900457

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