Ronald A. Knox Essay - Critical Essays


Ronald A. Knox was a Catholic apologist, and in all of his books, from theological treatises to detective stories, he tried to harmonize his literary efforts with his religious beliefs. He had deeply held principles, and he deduced things from them. He did not question his principles but explored ways in which human phenomena could be reconciled to them. For him, the world was a place of exile, of puzzles and probation. Home was the spiritual world, where these puzzles were resolved. These same themes occur in disguised forms throughout his detective stories, where crimes create tension and confusion but where their resolution brings peace and moral enlightenment.

Despite his deeply felt religious principles, Knox did not write his detective stories to illustrate and defend the faith. He wrote them to entertain, and no acquaintance with theology is necessary to enjoy these intricately plotted works. On one level Knox’s detective fiction is like an acrostic or a crossword puzzle (both of which he liked to solve). On another level, however, these stories can be read as medieval morality plays, in which good battles evil. This multiplicity of levels is a manifestation of the complexity of Knox, an urbane, exuberant, but ultimately serious man who could treat sacred themes lightly and profane themes profoundly. This man who refined his wit by studying the Greek and Roman classics became accessible to a wider public when he applied the methods of German Higher Criticism to the Sherlock Holmes stories.

“Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes”

Knox’s intention in “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes,” which first appeared in the magazine The Blue Book in 1912, was to satirize German biblical critics who had found all kinds of sources, authors, traditions, and forms to explain the various books of the Bible. He was aware of the inadequacies of these critical methods and wanted to expose the dangers of their exaggerated use in the study of Scripture. His tone of mock seriousness in this Holmes essay delighted his first readers, and it started a trend in scholarship that continues to the present, long after the specific satiric point of his essay has been forgotten.

One of the questions central to this essay is the existence of two Watsons. According to Knox, some scholars held that there was a proto-Watson, who wrote The Sign of the Four (1890), The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892), and The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901-1902), and a deutero-Watson, who wrote A Study in Scarlet (1887), “The Gloria Scott,” and The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1905). The theory of the two Watsons hinges on whether Sherlock Holmes really died in his tumble from the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. If “The Final Problem” was genuine, then the stories in The Return of Sherlock Holmes were fabrications. Knox analyzes the evidence that Holmes’s character and methods changed in the later stories. He even performs an astute linguistic analysis: The Holmes of the classic stories never splits an infinitive, whereas the Holmes of the Return stories splits infinitives on several occasions. Knox himself does not support the theory of the two Watsons. He believes that, though Watson wrote all the stories, there were actually two cycles: one set of stories that happened and another set that Watson invented. Watson also illustrates one of Knox’s rules for detective writers, because his intelligence is below that of the average reader. Knox compares Watson to the chorus in a Greek play—ever in touch with the action but always several steps behind in discovering what is really going on. Knox’s essay also analyzes Sherlock Holmes biographically (Knox argues that he was an Oxford man), philosophically (Knox argues that Holmes used observation a posteriori and deduction a priori), and psychologically (Knox argues that Holmes was a man of passion rather than a cold-hearted scientist).

“A Detective Story Decalogue”

A similar mixture of levity and seriousness, of the sacred and profane, can be seen in Knox’s essay “A Detective Story Decalogue.” It was certainly appropriate for a clergyman to set down the ten commandments for the writing of detective stories. Although these are presumably objective rules for the proper behavior of detective writers, they also manifest Knox’s personality and philosophy. He had no taste for the occult and macabre, and so he rules out all supernatural or preternatural agencies in detective stories. He had a taste for logic and fair play, insisting that the criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story and that in perpetrating the crime no poisons unknown to science may be used. Knox had no taste for magic solutions; thus, the detective may have inspirations but no unexplainable intuitions, and no accident must ever help him in solving a crime. Finally, the detective must not himself commit the crime, and he must not discover any clues that are not immediately revealed to the reader.

The Viaduct Murder

Knox punctiliously obeyed these rules in all six of his detective stories, although in his first, The Viaduct Murder (1925), one critic accused him of violating the “eleventh commandment” when he allowed the police to incriminate the right man. The Viaduct Murder begins as a lighthearted satire when four golfers discover a body with a mutilated head under the railroad trestle near the third tee. Was it murder or suicide? The coroner’s jury brings in a verdict of suicide while of unsound mind, but some at the golf club suspect murder. The four amateur detectives, who constantly criticize one another’s suggestions, pay more attention to clues than...

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