Ronald Knox, author of today’s Forgotten Book, The Footsteps at the Lock, was to my mind a rather frustrating detective novelist. He had great gifts – an understanding of human nature, a sharp wit, and an intricate mind – that suited him ideally to Golden Age fiction. Yet overall, I fear, the verdict must be that he under-achieved.
This novel is an example of what I mean. It begins splendidly, and wittily, setting the scene for a story about complications over an inheritance. Two cousins who loathe each other decide, for dubious reasons, to go on a boat trip together – and one of them goes missing. Has he been killed by his cousin? The plot soon thickens agreeably.
Miles Bredon, an insurance investigator, is called in by his firm, and he is accompanied by his likeable wife Angela. Unfortunately, the story-line becomes bogged down in complications about what precisely did happen on the ill-fated boat trip, and the arrival on the scene of an improbable American called Erasmus Quirk doesn’t improve things, although it does turn out to be highly relevant to the plot.
The real trouble is that one of the cousins turns out to be very different in practice from the way in which he is at first presented, and this uncertain handling of character seems to me to be at the heart of Knox’s struggle with the genre. Intellectually, he was a master of it, but he could not inject into his books the same level of empathy with his people that, say, Henry Wade, Sayers or Christie achieved. For a priest, this seems rather surprising, and one does wonder whether his approach was over-intellectual. So The Footsteps at the Lock ranks as a fair example of the classic detective novel, but not the masterpiece I began to hope for when relishing the early pages.