F.r Ronald Knox (of Detective Decalogue fame) wrote a number of detective stories. His first, The Viaduct Murder, might best be described as a serious satire on detective fiction. It was interesting, in a way, but not, frankly, satisfying. To some degree it was really more of a very long-winded attack on the Historical-Critical method than a detective story. After that he wrote a far more conventional detective story, The Three Taps.
Even there, while it was a more conventional story, it featured an unconventional detective, Miles Bredon. The first unusual thing was that the detective worked for an insurance company. Humorously, it was called The Indescribable Insurance Company (i.e. “The Indescribable,” for short). Here’s some of the initial description of him:
…[T]he Indescribable retained its own private detective. This fact was not advertised; nor was he ever referred to in the official communications of the Company except as ‘our representative’. He carried neither a lens nor a forceps—not even a revolver; he took no injections; he had no stupid confidential friend, but a private detective he was for all that. An amateur detective I will not call him, for the Company paid him, as you would expect, quite handsomely; but he had nothing whatever to do with Scotland Yard, where the umbrellas go to.
It’s also quite fascinating how F.r Knox described Miles Bredon being married (some paragraphs down, after talking about how he was lazy but very capable when his interest was roused):
He was well thought of, in fact, by everyone except himself. For himself, he bitterly regretted the necessity that had made him become a spy—he would use no other word for it, and constantly alarmed his friends by announcing his intention of going into the publishing trade, or doing something relatively honest. The influence which saved him on these occasions was that of—how shall I say it?—his wife. I know—I know it is quite wrong to have your detective married until the last chapter. But it is not my fault. It is the fault of two mocking eyes and two very capable hands that were employed in driving brass-hats to and fro in London at the end of the war. Bredon surrendered to these, and made a hasty but singularly fortunate marriage. Angela Bredon was under no illusions about the splendid figure in khaki that stood beside her at the altar. Wiser than her generation, she realized that marriages were not ‘for the duration’; that she would have to spend the rest of her life with a large, untidy, absent-minded man who would frequently forget that she was in the room. She saw that he needed above all things a nurse and a chauffeur, and she knew that she could supply both these deficiencies admirably. She took him as a husband, with all a husband’s failings, and the Indescribable itself could not have guaranteed her more surely against the future.
It’s interesting that the detective is married, and especially interesting that Fr. Knox actually addresses this in a way that breaks the fourth wall. “I know—I know it is quite wrong to have your detective married until the last chapter. But it is not my fault.”
Fr. Knox wrote The Three Taps in 1927 (or, more accurately, it was published then). This was fairly late in the golden age of detective fiction, though as I’ve noted this was a thing almost from the beginning. In A Study In Scarlet, Holmes comments on C. Auguste Dupin, as well as Monsieur Lecoq. (Lecoq was a fictional french detective published in France in the 1860s, though available in English translation.)
I really don’t know what to make off all this; none of Fr. Knox’s stories were really great, and his detective is not an exception. Miles Bredon is clever and does the deduction which the plot requires. He figures out the story in a flash of brilliance after playing a complicated game of solitaire (“patience”). But he feels almost as if his author was careful not to make him great. There seems to have been a convention in the golden age that detectives must have as many drawbacks as they have traits to their credit; in consequence they were often ugly, rude, or clumsy. The only real exception I can think of is Fr. Brown, who was a really great character and whose only balancing handicaps were being short, a roman catholic priest, and bad at remembering where his umbrella was.
Fr. Knox seems to have thought that if his detective was brilliant and capable of keeping a wife he couldn’t also be interesting or it would be too much.
I can only say that I once made a similar mistake in a novel I never published (or, strictly speaking, finished). Afraid of having the character called an author self-insert I made him completely unlike me. This meant, among other things, that he had no interests that I found even remotely interesting. The consequence, once I put it like this, is not surprising: I found him extraordinarily boring. This is not a good way for the author to relate to the main character of the book.
Perhaps a detective who is brilliant and capable of keeping a wife and also an interesting person is too much for this world, but for all that he’d be much more interesting to read about.
It may be that Fr. Knox didn’t really want to write detective fiction. That his first novel was a satire on detective fiction with only one joke in it does suggest this. However, unlike G.K. Chesterton—who did not write conventional detective stories either—Fr. Knox did not go off in his own direction. In writing Fr. Brown Chesterton had a positive vision for what he wanted to write, and wrote that. He did put it within the detective genre of his time, if only barely, but he pursued his own ends. Fr. Knox seems to be pursuing neither his own ends nor anyone else’s, and only sticks to convention, if in general he tries to stick to the edge of it rather than the center.
Fr. Knox was a man of no small accomplishments, and given that he took the trouble of writing up his detective decalogue and of being a member of the Detection Club, I can’t help but wonder why he went this way.