Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Footsteps at the Lock (RIPXIV)

Ronald Knox is probably better known for his ironic ten commandments on the writing of mysteries than for the actual mysteries he wrote. But he did write some. He also translated the Bible from the Latin Vulgate version. And he's Penelope Fitzgerald's uncle and features in the collective biography she wrote of her father and uncles, The Knox Brothers.

The Footsteps at the Lock is the second of five novels featuring insurance investigator Miles Bredon. It involves two cousins: one going to the bad; the other, to the worse. The bad: drink, debt, and drugs. The worse: poetry, aestheticism, and Oscar Wilde. There's a grandfather who has written a will that contingently leaves a fortune to the older (bad) one of the cousins, if he survives to his twenty-fifth birthday; otherwise the worse cousin inherits. You see where this is going...

The two cousins go on a canoe trip down the upper reaches of the Thames; the older one disappears. Drowned? Drugged? Murdered?

Partway through the novel a second will appears in which a great aunt leaves an even larger fortune to the older cousin on slightly different terms. The aunt has an adoptive son who might stand to inherit depending on the exact order of everyone's death; Bredon's interest is really only in that question. His friend, Leyland, of Scotland Yard, is naturally more concerned to find the body, and the body's killer, should there be one.

Anyway, pretty amusing. I thought it was a bit overwritten at the start, but it settled down. And while I know pretty much nothing about serious drugs, opium being the drug in question here, I think it's safe to say Ronald Knox knows even less. No doubt that's to his credit. But I suspect everything he knows about opium can be derived from some lurid biography of Coleridge.

So, how does Knox do with his ten commandments? Mostly, I'd say he follows his own rules, but he does rather violate number six:
No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
He goes to a hotel and unexpectedly discovers a letter waiting for one of the suspects. On the other hand, several of his other rules involve prohibitions against unnecessary duplication--no identical twins! no more than one secret passage!--but not against the duplication of wills, so the letter, if not the spirit, of his commandments is (mostly) preserved.

There is, however, another famous list of rules for mystery writers, that of S. S. Van Dine, and he definitely violates number seven. If you want to avoid spoilers, I suggest you don't follow that link...

And while it's not so very spooky, it is a mystery, and so the first of my RIPXIV books!


  1. delightful post... and book. i really have the feeling i've read one of the five, but it's only on the vague outer fringes of memory... i'll look for some, tx

    1. Thank you! They mostly seem out of print, but I'd definitely read another

  2. Knox may not be well know as a writer, but that is some serious literary pedigree you list!

    This book sounds like fun but I’m not sure I’ll be seeking it out, what with the many other classic mystery writers ahead in the line. But then, if I ever see his name in a thrift store or library sale…who can tell what might happen?

    1. I think that's probably your only chance anyway! They all seem to be out of print.

      I enjoyed it and I was interested to read it because he was a member of the Detection Club (with Sayers & Chesterton) and because of the ten commandments thing. But it'll be serendipity as well for me if I read another.

  3. I just read about Knox on Wikipedia...he was a very serious religious scholar! Did you find indications of religion in this book?

    1. Yes and no, I'd say. None of the characters are obviously religious (and some are not) and there's no religion in the story line (unlike, say, the Father Brown mysteries.) But at the end there was definitely an interesting discussion of forgiveness and the distinction between thinking about a criminal action and committing it. Knox was already a Catholic by then and it struck me as informed by Catholic doctrine. But it was also hard to say much without spoiling the ending.