Monday, 23 February 2009

The Wine of Certitude

The Wine of Certitude would rank high in my list of unenticing book titles, yet – contrary to a fault - I’ve invested in a copy. Why? Because it is a brand new ‘literary biography’, written by David Rooney, of a rather interesting character, Father Ronald Knox.

Knox was a member of a family of high achievers (his brother Edmund, who edited 'Punch', also wrote a very funny skit on detective stories which is not mentioned here.) Ronald converted to Catholicism and became a major figure in the English Catholic literary revival of the first half of last century. He was a prolific writer, but the main attraction of the book to me is the insight it offers into Knox’s role in the Golden Age of English detective fiction.

It seems that the Knox family members were very keen on puzzles and word games (one brother was a master cryptographer ‘in the service of the British government’), and Ronald often compiled acrostics, publishing a book of them in 1924. The detective puzzle offered him a more elaborate kind of intellectual game to play – and the chance of supplementing a meagre priestly salary. In 1926, he produced his debut mystery, The Viaduct Murder, ‘complete with a map of the fictional environs around the murder scene, and a cast of characters who could hardly raise enough three-dimensionality among them to obscure the physical evidence placed before the reader.’

Knox introduced his regular sleuth, the insurance investigator Miles Bredon, in The Three Taps, a more sophisticated whodunit. Rooney regards The Body in the Silo as his best mystery. Knox abandoned writing crime stories after 1937, and it’s interesting to note that some of the most interesting Golden Age writers (Knox, Sayers, Berkeley/Iles and Rupert Penny) had given up the genre by the time the Second World War ended.

Rooney concludes that ‘for stylistic beauty and for ability to evoke the English and Scottish countrysides and manors of the interwar years, Knox had few equals, and his detective fiction would remain enjoyable for that reason alone…The golden age of the English detective story is the richer for his contribution.’

I’ve read Knox’s celebrated short story ‘Solved by Inspection’, but none of the novels – an omission I mean to repair. I'd be interested to hear from anyone who's read the novels, and who has any recommendations. There’s also quite a bit more to be said about Knox’s contribution to the Golden Age – this will be the subject of a future post.

10 comments:

Elizabeth Foxwell said...

Martin,
I quite liked Knox's _The Footsteps at the Lock_ (1928), which is a "timetable"-type story akin to Sayers's _Five Red Herrings_.

Vicki said...

Martin,
I have only just begun to read 'The Wine of Certitude' - mea culpa - and have not yet got to the chapter on Knox's detective fiction. So please forgive me if I comment about things which you already know.
'The Body in the Silo' is probably my favorite novel, also, as it excels in delightful repartee between Miles & Angela - reminiscent of Tommy & Tuppence, or Nick & Nora. And, yes, the descriptions of the locale are masterful. But 'Double Cross Purposes' is hands-down my favorite title!
A few things which might interest you:
1. Knox wrote the introduction to 'The Best English Detective Stories of 1928' in which he lists - for the added entertainment of the reader - the exact point in each story at which the reader should be able to figure out 'whodunnit'. This intro
also contains his famous 'Ten Rules' and other commentary on the nature of detective stories.
2. Knox wrote several papers on his theories about detective fiction, and one on Father Brown in particular, which are published here & there, notably in 'Literary Distractions'.
3. Like Fr Brown, Knox had no illusions as to the nature of crime & evil, but he cannot bring himself to write descriptively about the seedier aspects of crime/criminals. His primary purpose was intellectual entertainment, pure & simple. I think this is what makes his characters seem so wooden; he is not attempting to paint people as they really are. They are pieces in his chess game. Oddly enough, I think he did this, not out of misplaced "Victorian hypocracy" but out of courtesy & respect for real people.
I'm in the middle of reading the 'Letters of Raymond Chandler' - who excelled in the seedy - so perhaps that is what brings this contrast to mind!
Anyway, good luck & much enjoyment to you in reading Knox's novels. They are not as wordy as Sayer's, nor as pithy as Christie's, but they make enjoyable reading for those who appreciate the genre.
Best wishes,
Vicki McCaffrey
Pres., Ronald Knox Society

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Elizabeth. Timetables were certainly very popular in those days!
Vicki - very interesting. Many thanks. There's more to come about the Decalogue etc in a future post. I must try and track down 'Literary Distractions'.

Vicki said...

The piece on Father Brown can be read on our website: www.ronaldknoxsociety.com

Steve Lewis said...

Martin

My review of Knox's The Three Taps is here: http://mysteryfile.com/blog/?p=1021

You may have already seen it, but perhaps not all of the long array of comments that followed it.

Here's the last line of my review, which is a good summing up, I think:

"Overall then: this tale is definitely dated – much of the current crowd of mystery readers isn’t going get very far into this one – but it’s their loss. This is a beautifully and wonderfully constructed detective story."

And I was impressed enough to obtain some of Knox's other detective work, much of which seems to be available in cheaper reprint editions.

--- Steve

Martin Edwards said...

Many thanks, Vicki. An interesting essay, and I like your site. Intriguing that Knox is so well remembered to this day.

Martin Edwards said...

Steve - unaccountably, I'd missed this one on your site, so many thanks for the link. Both the post and the comments make for good reading. I must try and track down some of the Knox books.

Vicki said...

Thanks from me, too, Steve, for the link.
Are y'all acquainted with 'Sins for Father Knox' by Josef Skvorecky? It's a collection of short mysteries each written to break one of the 10 rules. The reader has to guess which one. While the stories themselves didn't do much for me, I found the concept entertaining. Perhaps someone else could give it a shot?

Martin Edwards said...

Vicki, thanks for reminding me of the Skvorecky book. I haven't read it, but I must. I'm fascinated by the links between different types of crime stories, and those written in different periods.
Do you have any further observations on the book that you'd like to share?
And can you tell me if there is a Ronald Knox archive which might contain more info about his involvement with the Detection Club?

John Saffian said...

Hi Martin,
I know this is an older thread, but I wanted to share with you an interview I did with David Rooney a while ago. There's one icon that deals with the detective stories.

http://www.holyfamilykofc.com/links.html

Happy listening.
John