(creator: Ronald Knox)
|Miles Bredon (a surname suggested by a mention of Bredon Hill in the poem Shropshire Lad) may be a bit of a dry stick, but is not without a sense of humour. He is employed as a private detective by the Indescribable Insurance Company, but is discreetly described by them as "our representative". He's "a big, good-humoured, slightly lethargic creature still in his early thirties." At school he'd been "not lazy, exactly, but he was the victim of hobbies which perpetually diverted his attention... He was a good cross-country runner; but in the middle of a run he would usually catch sight of some distraction which made him wander three miles out of his course and come in last."
During the war, he'd become an intelligence officer, and that led on to the job at the Indescribable. "He was accepted on his own terms, namely that he should not have to sit in an office kicking his heels; he would always be at home, and the Company might call him in when he was wanted." His attitude to his work was nothing if not relaxed: "Four out of five enquiries meant nothing to him; he made nothing of them." But then "the fifth case would appeal to his capricious imagination; he would be prodigal of time and of pains, and bring off some coup which was hymned for weeks, behind closed doors, in the Indescribable Buildings." So "he was well thought of, in fact, by everyone except himself", although he had an "intense dislike for social functions of all kinds".
Despite the fact that his author knew that "it is quite wrong to have your detective married until the last chapter", Miles had married Angela before we meet him. She had no illusions about him but accepted that "she would have to spend the rest of her life with a large, untidy, absent-minded man who would frequently forget that she was in the room." He, for his part, "did not realize that his wife was a tiny bit cleverer than he was, and was always conspiring for his happiness behind his back." They have at least one young child, Francis, but happily leave him in the care of his nurse when they set off detecting.
The church authorities did not approve of his detective novels, and after his close friend and admirer Lady Acton threw the last of them, Double Cross Purposes, overboard into the Mediterranean, he stopped writing them. He gave up the Oxford chaplaincy and in 1938 became Lady Acton's chaplain at her family seat at Aldenham in Shropshire, where he had plenty of time to begin work on his magnum opus, his translation of the Bible from the Latin Vulgate. It is for this and his numerous theological works that he is best remembered today. All this seemed to him much more worthwhile than writing detective stories.
He was a friend of G K Chesterton and also of his old pupil, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, who put him up at 10, Downing Street, when he had to go to London to see the specialist who was to confirm that he had inoperable cancer of the liver. Knox's niece, the novelist Penelope Fitzgerald, who wrote an interesting biography of The Knox Brothers, describes how, when Harold Macmillan saw him off at the station and wished him a comfortable journey, he replied, "It will be a very long one".
Knox was much influenced by Sherlock Holmes. He had written a mock critique of him, treating him as a real person (much to Conan Doyle's surprise) and his last published story was a Holmes pastiche, The Adventure of the First Class Carriage (1947). So it's no surprise that Bredon, like Holmes, is a committed pipe-smoker, and indeed in more than one story pipe-smoking provides useful clues.
Knox was interested too in the ideas behind detective story writing and in 1928 had formulated the 10 Commandments of Detection for aspiring writers to follow:
The Viaduct Murder (1925)
There are some good lines like, "Always tell the truth, and people will never believe you", and even a whole chapter complete with a footnote: "To the Reader - This chapter may be omitted if the book be though too long". I'm afraid it is. It's odd that this is the one book by Knox that was selected by The Merion Press in the USA for reprinting in 2001.
The Three Taps (1927)
Bredon does a lot of questioning and observing: "He was fond, when he visited the scene of some crime or problem, of poking his way round the furniture, trying to pick up hints, from the books and the knick-knacks, about the character of the people he was dealing with". Then, during a long game of patience, inspiration suddenly struck and he was able to see "the whole thing in a new mental perspective". As he told his wife Angela, "I'm in the sort of stage where the great detective says, 'Good God, what a blind bat I have been!' As a matter of fact, I don't think I've been a blind bat at all; on the contrary, I think it'd dashed clever of me to have got hold of the thing now". And so it is.
Miles may affect a "happy vein of rather foolish good-fellowship", and wear a tweed suit that makes him "look like a good-natured sort of ass" (his wife's words) but it all seems to get results. He likes to think he's a strong, silent man, although, as Angela says, "A detective ought to be talking all the time. The ones in the books always are. Only what they say is entirely incomprehensible, both to the other people in the book and to the reader".
It is all rather dated ("By Gad, it's Leyland," he cried) but the chapters are encouragingly short and, even if the treatment of the police is less than convincing, the story still offers the intellectual challenges its author intended.
The Footsteps at the Lock (1928)
His "really admirable wife" Angela comes more alive than he does, with her "inexhaustible capacity for acquaintance with strangers" and ability to worm confidences out of them. She even insists on going home for a couple of nights for, as Bredon explains, "she has some absurd idea that her children like her to be about." This is the first we have heard of her having more than one child. In the previous story there is only mention of the one young son, Francis. Did Knox forget about this? In a later book, Still Dead, there is again only the one son, Francis. Then in the last book, Double Cross Purposes, there's a reference to "one of the children". All very odd.
There's often a nice turn of phrase as when the author explains how a will can leave "much to expectant nephews and nieces, much to life-boat funds and cats' homes, much to the Exchequer, wilting for lack of death-duties." Or "photography was the highest form of all the arts, because the camera never tells the truth." Oxford University is described as "that home of impossible unbeliefs" where in one college at least "men cared little what their neighbours did, short of the bagpipes." And he has some good descriptions of natural scenes as when he describes how clouds go "chasing one another and playing leap-frog across the clear expanse of sky. The sky itself had passed from fiery gold to a silver gilt that faded into silver; and now the massed cloudscape that had hung, in islands and capes and continents, with bays and lagoons of fire between them, across the western horizon, broke up into grotesque shapes which breasted the sky southwards - a lizard, a plane-tree upside-down, a watering-can, an old man waving a tankard." But the basic plot remains over-tortuous and reads more like an intellectual exercise than a real story.
The Body in the Silo (First US title: Settled Out of Court,1933)
Myrtle Halliford soon pressurises her guests into joining in an "eloping game" in which they have to pursue the "elopers" by chasing in their cars all over the countryside at night. It all sounds very much in period. As is the way she has her particular pet, Alexis, who was "a large black monkey ... with that sinister air monkeys have of knowing exactly which member of the party they mean to bite, only not wanting to give away the fun beforehand." He turns out to play a significant part in the plot.
Then, early one morning, the body of one of the guests, a man of influence and affluence, is discovered in the silo. Was it an accident caused by fumes of poisonous gas? Or suicide? Miles Bredon feels "There's been dirty work about somewhere." As he tells his wife: "Look here, I hate paying compliments, but you have always seemed to me a woman of average intelligence. Do you .... think it was just a coincidence that the death .... happened just at the moment when the household in which he was staying was scattered all over the countryside, playing this ridiculous eloping game? Why, all the time I felt the eloping game was too good to be true. There was something fantastic about it; something which was all too obviously meant to be a blind."
This provides a stronger and more interesting plot than in the other books, and the first part, and the descriptions of the eccentric guests (none of whom seem over-fond of their hostess) is written with a nice sense of humour and is really entertaining.
Then Inspector Leyland from Scotland Yard turns up, disguised as a camper living in a tent by the river. "I'm here incognitissimo," he tells Miles and Angela. "People on top have begun to get worried about all these suicides of important people, bankers and what not, and somebody seems to have got the idea that they may not be all they seem .... I shall be here till the inquest's over, and probably longer. You've only got to whistle for me any time you want me." Not exactly credible, but he helps Miles solve the mystery (not the other way round!) but only, unfortunately, after many long conjectures and explanations, complete even with footnote references to earlier pages. As Angela tells Milkes: "We all know you've got a loathsome habit of telling a story in your own way, which is usually back to front", and he certainly takes his time about it.
This has the rightful reputation of being the best book in the series. The plot is ingenious, and enlivened by what sound very much like the author's own convictions, as when he gets Miles to comment, "That's the worst of machinery, you see: it's most useful as long as it goes right, but once it goes wrong it goes so very wrong. Very few men have cut off their heads with their own swords, but plenty of people have blown their heads off with firearms they were presenting at somebody else. Machinery, that's the trouble, can't correct itself when it starts going wrong."
Or later he says: "To go about scheming for human happiness, as most people pretend to do, is almost certainly to defeat your own end; to do what looks to you the right thing and damn the consequences has the excellent effect of leaving Providence free to take a hand in the game."
Then, right at the end, when he decides some things may be better kept quiet, he declares: "Oh yes, I believe in eternal truth and all that. But mere truth of past fact, such as this is - why should anybody have a right to be told it? Besides, it's all too improbable; and I doubt whether the improbable ought to be told. It confuse's people's ideas and makes them unnecessarily suspicious. In a case like this I'm ready to lie - like a policeman."
Still Dead (1934)
Indeed the author still uses numbered footnotes to take the reader back to previous references. So when an ice box (important to the story) is mentioned in the summing-up on page 304, a footnote refers you back to page 14 where it's existence is first mentioned. This seems quite unnecessary, but shows how seriously Knox took his self-imposed responsibility to provide the reader with all the information needed. It's hard to believe that many readers ever bothered with all this.
There is more action than in the earlier books, and some cracks about a religious group which old and ill Donald Reiver, head of the family, has recently joined: "Lots of time to talk to his religious friends whenever he likes," explains an old lady who knows him well. "Though why anybody should want to - really I think if I ever took to religion I should have to be a R.C., because they're the only people who ever let you alone. What's the point of talking to other religious people? They've all eternity to do it, by their way of it." Then there's Major Henry, the heir, who, she says "is always saying unkind things about the ministers, but he's very superstitious, and that's the next best thing (to being religious), isn't it? I mean, it shows you know you've missed something." Altogether it is one of the better novels in the series.
Double Cross Purposes (1937)
There are some good descriptions of the Highland scenery, and some nice turns of phrase. Of the aristocratic Lathaby it is said, "In politics, he was just an ordinary Communist, of the type fashionable in Chelsea." Characters are well described, including two who were involved with Bredon in previous cases. One of them, the elderly Mr Pulteney, agrees to keep an eye on a suspicious boat moored on the island. As he says, "My dear Mr. Bredon, I should be delighted. You do not understand, I imagine, the absorbing interest we fishermen derive from watching the fish rise late in the evening, although we can't take a rod to them. If anyone tampers with the moorings of the boat, I expect you would like me to come and report to that effect? Or should I swim across with a knife between my teeth? I am no adept , but it seems to be done in books".
The Incredible Insurance Company is as worthy of satire as ever: "It had introduced into the insurance business the methods of up-to-date mass production, and was proud of boasting that it was prepared to cover everything from a pair of spectacles to the life of a South American dictator. Film-stars insured their front teeth individually; fathers safe-guarded themselves (at an absurdly low figure) against the possibility of quintuplets, husbands (at a somewhat stiffer rate) against the loss of their wives' affections."
There are again a few footnotes referring the reader back to relevant previous descriptions, and I actually used one of them when there was a reference to Angus McAlister as I couldn't remember who he was. Generally, though, the ingenious plot, the humour, and the more developed characterisations make this book a considerable improvement on the first ones in the series, even if it is too long drawn-out to be one of the very best. All the more pity, then, that Knox's friend and patron Lady Acton threw her copy overboard, a final discouragement that, together with the disapproval of his bishop, and his own feelings, brought to an end Knox's career as a crime novelist.
|The later books, like Still Dead, survive better than the earlier ones. But the best of them, this and The Body in the Silo (US title: Settled Out of Court), are hard to find.|
|This paperback (and the inferior The Viaduct Murder) can still be found new. Unfortunately, it's not one of the more interesting stories.|