Double Cross Purposes (Knox)

  • By Ronald A. Knox
  • First published: UK: Hodder & Stoughton, 1937. Not published in America until Dover, 1986.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Four years ago, you might remember, O best beloved, I found myself at cross purposes with Monsignor Knox’s final novel, and gave up. Many seem to have had that reaction; Knox’s patron, Lady Acton, flung it into the Mediterranean, whereupon he stopped writing them. American publishers didn’t even bite; DCP wasn’t published until 50 years later. In the UK, Torquemada (Observer) called it Knox’s “latest and best criminal conundrum”. E.R. Punshon, however, thought Knox wrote well and wittily, but lacked a direct and clear sense of narrative: “The somewhat tortuous manoeuvres of Miles Bredon grow indeed so tangled as at times almost to bring the narrative to a standstill.”

Publicity-hungry Vernon Lethaby and his disreputable colonial friend Henderson are looking for Bonnie Prince Charlie’s treasure in the Highlands of Scotland. Miles Bredon, Knox’s sleuth, is sent by the Indescribable insurance company to keep an eye on the treasure hunters; the company loses £10,000 if Henderson decamps with the treasure. Before long, a corpse is found in a burning garage, presumably Henderson’s. Is foul play at work?

Knox’s detective stories tend to be extremely leisurely, whimsical, outdoors affairs, with boating, pleasant strolls around rivers, and a spot of fishing. They are also extremely talky, and not recommended to anyone with little patience for hair-splitting and abstract reasoning, or who wants characterization and action in their detective stories; they are discursive and digressive to the nth degree. This one works miracles of convolution with only two suspects (one apparently dead) and a relatively simple tale. For 1937, it is extremely old-fashioned.


Those who pick out books by Ronald A. Knox in the certainty of finding witty epigrams and brilliant writing will not be disappointed in his new detective novel. But more than that, they will find that this author is one of those ingenious people who can still give a new twist to the detective story.

“Double Cross Purposes” all happens on an island in a river in the North of Scotland. It begins with a treasure hunt and develops, naturally, into a murder hunt. But who the corpse and how the corpse, and where the treasure and what the treasure, are the problems for the detective. That the Indescribable Insurance Company has a private detective of quality in Miles Bredon, readers of Still Dead and The Body in the Silo will not need to be reminded.

Contemporary reviews

Observer (Torquemada, 6th June 1937): Father Knox’s latest and best criminal conundrum demands a good title, and it has got one.  Double Cross Purposes fits the tale at all points with the precision of Savile-row, since many more things than the chart of the little Highland Treasure Island are cut on the cross, and of all those concerned, only the reader is not victimised by false appearance.  Any précis of the story of that newspaper exhibitionist Vernon Lethaby’s Scottish treasure hunt and of the corpse in the burning garage would be honeycombed with the word “seems”; I advise the reader to concentrate on arriving at the esoteric meaning of a certain chapter heading, for by doing so he will also arrive, as did our old friend Bredon, at the solution of the major problem.  There is, by the by, a triumphant fairness in the way in which Father Knox breaks one of the rules dealing with suppression, for this infringement cannot mislead us on our way to any of the answers, and it can and does give us an exciting jolt in the last chapter.

I do not think this author’s powers of nature description have ever been shown to better advantage; indeed, Highland river, hill and vegetation seem to have inspired him, not only in his painting of these things themselves, but in other parts of his general narrative, to open his shoulders, as it were, and let himself go.  The consequence is that he uses the full rhythm of an older fashion, an unafraid Bellocian music not usual in a generation which has gone verse deaf and prose deaf in order to try to prove that it is not “dumb”.  I am sure that I will be excused for quoting two examples of shrewd Knox.  Of a colonial swearing: “in Henderson’s style, as in that of so many unpractised authors, the adjective was the enemy of the noun.”  Of playing the game: “the pill of morality coated with sporting metaphor, so that the Englishman can take it without difficulty.”

I find Double Cross Purposes vulnerable at two points, neither affecting the excellence of its puzzles.  Bredon and his wife Angela, here as in their other adventures, are all the time, with the best love in the world, “crawling each other’s humps”.  This may be charming as Father Knox reports it, but in real life it becomes most irritating to listen to, and is a danger signal.

Times Literary Supplement (Simon Harcourt Nowell Smith, 12th June 1937): “It begins with a treasure hunt and develops, naturally, into a murder hunt,” say the publishers of this book.  Nothing very original in that, perhaps; but Father Knox can be trusted to make even a treasure hunt plausible (anything is plausible as a “publicity stunt”) and a murder hunt original and exciting.  The murder hunt is conducted by Miles Bredon—some sort of a cousin, no doubt, of Peter Death Bredon Wimsey; certainly, like him, admirable as man, husband and private detective.  Another thing Father Knox can be trusted to do is to write epigrammatically and well, and—in this case—to describe better than most the part of the Highlands in which his stirring events take place.  But is he quite fair in allowing Bredon to keep an essential fact from his wife—and from the reader?

The Manchester Guardian (E.R. Punshon, 25 June 1937): Double Cross Purposes, by Father Knox, proves again that he possesses a style to which any young writer might do well to play the sedulous ape as well as an abundant wit. But only writers of the highest order have all talents in equal measure, and Father Knox falls a little short in his power of creating character, as also in that direct and clear sense of narrative which many lesser writers possess, that gift which explains how it is that some apparently commonplace authors achieve a success that many learned critics find incomprehensible. The complications in this tale of a treasure found and lost by the banks of a remote Scottish river, of a dead man in a locked garage, of the somewhat tortuous manoeuvres of Miles Bredon grow indeed so tangled as at times almost to bring the narrative to a standstill. In the end Miles Bredon explains everything quite clearly. It may be urged he could have followed a simpler line of country and been more candid both to his companions and to his employers, but then Father Knox would have had smaller opportunity first to tie and then to untie as elaborate a series of knots as any for which even he has been responsible.

Sydney Morning Herald (20 August 1937): A MODERN TREASURE HUNT.

If Australian readers can overlook Father Ronald Knox’s condescending and uninformed attitude towards “colonials,” they will find this latest novel of his to be a moderately interesting mystery story. The action takes place in Scotland, where a syndicate of two are seeking a treasure supposedly left behind by the Young Pretender when the fortunes of war caused him to flee the country in ’45. One of the treasure hunters is a publicity-seeking, unpleasant young Englishman of aristocratic connections. The second, Henderson, is the “colonial” of the story, a gentleman who rejoices in the name of Digger – because, according to Father Knox, he can dig so well, and, hence, is an asset to any treasure-hunting expedition. While giving Australia as the Digger’s birthplace, the author grants the other dominions some small claim to him: he is, apparently, known to the police all over the Empire. Henderson has had “a university education of sorts.” “Colonial,” quite obviously, since in moments of stress he is liable to say things like “that there.”

While the writing of this novel is well above the average for this type of fiction, it is possible that connoisseurs of detective stories will find things at which to cavil. The action is slow; after providing what appears to be a murder, and causing the reader to rack his brains to discover the perpetrator of it, Father Knox neatly extricates himself by means of an anti-climax; the perpetual badinage between Bredon, the detective, and his wife, while indicative of a beautifully harmonious marital relationship, will make some readers grit their teeth by the time the last page is reached.

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): Knox’s last detective story turns on a complex and unrealistic problem involving a young man of good family and his rather shady “colonial” helper, who together plan to hunt for Prince Charlie’s treasure on an island in a Scottish river.  Thereupon comes the justification for the title, the trickery being observed by Miles Bredon and his wife, representing the insurance interest.  At the end of a long book we are asked to marvel at the way in which both Bredon and the swindlers dealt easily and quickly with the problem of interpreting a chart that had been subjected to elaborate optical transposition.  More talk than action.  (A scarce item, usually misrepresented as being an alternative title of The Body in the Silo.)

3 thoughts on “Double Cross Purposes (Knox)

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