School of Hard Knox

I’m at cross purposes with Double Cross Purposes (1939).

Knox - Double Cross Purposes
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

Ronald A. Knox is leisurely but elegant.

He is, though, leisurely.  His books are, as they say, easy to put down.

He meanders, rather, like a stream.  Here you’ll find him waxing lyrical about the landscape; there, wondering why people stop and look at running water, wasting time.

He’s a born writer of whimsical essays, rather than of detective stories.

He wrote a brilliant short story, “Solved by Inspection”, with one of the most ingeniously diabolical murder methods I’ve ever come across.  He wrote Still Dead, which inspired Gladys Mitchell’s Here Comes a Chopper.

He also wrote The Three Taps, whose surprise solution will make you hurl the book across the room.  He wrote The Footsteps at the Lock, which is tedious and tenuous.  He wrote The Viaduct Murder.

And he wrote The Body in the Silo, of which I wrote:

R. Austin Freeman thought the ideal detective writer was “a clergyman of studious and scholarly habit” – like the scholar and the lawyer, a man “of a subtle type of mind” who found “a pleasure in intricate arguments, in dialectical contests, in which the matter to be proved is usually of less consideration than the method of proving it.  The pleasure is yielded by the argument itself but tends to be proportionate to the intricacy of the proof.”

He would have loved Monsignor Ronald Knox.

Knox’s detectives are fascinated by logic and abstract reasoning.  They sit and theorise.  They build elaborate castles in the air.  They conjecture, debate, discuss, and pontificate.

The poor reader who wants a baffling mystery with lots of murders, a fast pace, and a surprise solution, and who couldn’t give a damn about verbal to-ing and fro-ing, or theoretical abstractions has to sit quietly and wait for these insufferable bores to shut up.

Which Knox has trouble doing.  He livens the story with witty asides.  Witty, that is, if you were educated at Oxbridge in the 1900s.  The tone is arch, smug, and unbelievably self-satisfied.

Worse, Knox is reactionary.  He complains that the countryside is going to rack and ruin; he objects to “a gramophone, wallowing in the revolting eroticism of the American negro, and his still more revolting religiosity”; and he carps that “the vocabulary of the servants’ hall, not being designed for emergencies, has no proper equivalent for the word ‘police’.”

A titled lady threw Double Cross Purposes into the sea, along with the make-up which he deprecated.

While I admire her taste, I won’t imitate her action.  (I’m not near the sea, for a start, and the book is on my tablet.  Seawater and glass screens don’t mix.  Nor do marble floors.)

I shall content myself with leaving the book unfinished, and doing something more FUN.

9 thoughts on “School of Hard Knox

  1. Hello Nick! Your astute and humorous analysis of Monsignor Knox’s writing style and pontificating (and pontifically aligned?) prose has helped me greatly. I trust your judgement, and may seek out the short story to which you refer, but will give the digressive RK a pass for now. Knox was on my list of several curious new-to-me, give-’em-a-try GAD authors upon reading Martin Edwards’ Golden Age of Murder. But, like you, I fear I would never have the engagement to finish a book like Double Cross Purposes if it’s filled with desultory detection and pleasantly speculative conversation. I really appreciate your opinion; thanks for the education, and for saving me time!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Jason! Mitchell liked Knox, for some reason; they’re both good stylists – there are some fine descriptive passages in Knox.

      Knox is a much more abstract, theoretical writer, and his digressions are whimsical, rather long-winded musings.
      Mitchell’s books are full of action, and her digressions are amusing or imaginative; they’re zestful comic or character scenes.

      Pontiffically aligned – clever!

      Like

  2. I was rather proud of myself for digging a used copy of The Three Taps out of a hidden stack of mysteries at a used bookstore. But the prose seemed oddly impenetrable, and I ended up giving it to a far more worthy recipient as his Secret Santa. Did I actually do him no favors??

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ah well, you can’t win them all. I have an (odd?) liking for Knox. Still Dead is perhaps the best and Solved By Inspection is a terrific story

    Like

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