(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Ronald A. Knox is better known as a critic than as a writer of detective fiction. His essay “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes,” published in Essays in Satire (1928), has become a classic. This lighthearted inquiry into the series of stories by Arthur Conan Doyle (who himself found Knox’s essay amusing and instructive) is now regarded as the seminal work in the higher criticism of Holmes and largely responsible for the subsequent expansion of Holmesian scholarship. The success of this essay depressed Knox, who regretted that his one permanent achievement in the genre was to have started “a bad joke.” In another well-known essay Knox discussed the “ten commandments” of the detective story. According to some critics, these rules of fair play for detective writers represent his most important contribution to the form.

Knox wrote his six detective novels to support himself as chaplain at Oxford University. Despite their pragmatic origin, his stories were carefully plotted and seriously intended, and a fascinating dialectic between the law of humankind and the law of God underlies their composition. When his detective fiction was written, there was a vogue for elaborate puzzles such as he presented and then ingeniously solved. Fashions have changed, however, and modern audiences are often bewildered by his highly allusive style (he sprinkles Latin quotations and literary references throughout the Bredon corpus). Modern readers are more concerned with the passions of the criminal than with the intellectual games that Knox plays with his readers. On the other hand, Knox was always scrupulously fair in providing clues and creating interesting problems; he was also witty, clever, and logical in arriving at his solutions. Though the modern reader may find his stories too cerebral, his time may come again.