The Viaduct Murder by Ronald Knox

2014 Limelight Reviews
Mystery and Crime

Ronald Knox wrote his first detective novel, The Viaduct Murders in 1925 and wrote Essays in Satire in 1928 in which he included the essay “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes” (which has as its premise the existence of Holmes as a figure of history),and in 1929 he proposed a Ten Commandments of detective fiction.

In this novel, The Viaduct Murders by Ronald Knox, these things caught my eye:

  • In introducing the fourth of the group of residents who become our “team” he describes Mr. Carmichael as having been a “don you knew as soon as he opened his mouth… A perpetual fountain of interesting small-talk, he unnerved his audience with a sense of intellectual repletion which was worse than boredom. He was over sixty-he, alone of the party was married, and lived in one of the bungalows with a colourless wife, who seemed to have been withered by long exposure to the sirocco of his conversation: at the moment she was absent, and he was lodging in the dormy-house like the rest. [We hear nothing more of her for the rest of the story. This is a weakness of being a priest who writes novels.]
  • Here is Knox’s description of the Mr Brotherhood’s housekeeper, Mrs Bramston: “She spoke painfully correct English, far more terrible than the native cockney which it half revealed and concealed. She commenced where others began, closed doors where others shut them, and recollected instead of remembering. Her final consonants were all sibilant, and seemed to form part of the succeeding word. She was a merciless and largely irrelevant talker, and the opportunity of a stranger’s visit delighted her, self-importance easily triumphing over any regret she may have felt for the apparently deceased.”
  • The inquest was held in a village school: “There was a curious smell of the schoolroom, which always suggests (it is hard to know why) ink and chalk…There was the inevitable series of animals represented round the walls looking like the religious emblems of some strange totemistic worship. The one opposite Reeves had a caption underneath it in very large letters, THE PIG IS A MAMMAL, as if to clear up any possible doubts which might be felt by the youth of the parish as to what a pig was.”

I have a list of dozen or so other remarkable or funny lines and observations. The story is a clue-based working out which takes up to three points in the novel when we feel we know where we are going. Then the “solution” becomes impossible and they start again. All with the same “facts” (more or less) until another solution is worked out…all according to Knox’s own 10 commandments of detection.

I enjoyed reading it. His wry observations are often funny and lighten the load but I don’t think I would want to work right through his complete works.

Dennis Dorwick
Mystery and Crime Group