Ronald Knox, like his fellow Englishman G.K. Chesterton, was both a Roman Catholic and a detective fiction writer. Originally, it was Chesterton’s writing that lead Knox, a former Anglican priest at Trinity College, Oxford, towards converting to Catholicism. When Knox converted in 1917, Chesterton was still the Anglican son of a somewhat apathetic Unitarian family. Later, after Chesterton became a Catholic in 1922, the stream of influence switched course and Chesterton began to come under the joyful sway of Knox. Knox even delivered the gripping homily for Chesterton’s requiem mass at Westminster Cathedral in 1936.
In most Roman Catholic and conservative circles, Chesterton is justly lionized as one of the twentieth century’s greatest champions of Christian compassion and clear-headed reason. While the rest of the world was falling under the spells of irrational science, unquestioned technological advancement, and deeply atheistic politics, Chesterton was the strongest and brightest light in the forest, and because of that The Imaginative Conservative and other likeminded publications spend much of their time and effort highlighting the eternal truths espoused by the jolly and rotund man from Kensington.
Comparatively, Knox has flown somewhat under the radar. Although the Ronald Knox Society of North America maintains a website dedicated to his legacy and accomplishments, far too few articles or papers have been written about this fascinating Englishman.
Born in Leicestershire to an Anglican bishop father, young Knox quickly showed an aptitude for scholarship. After attending Eton and winning a scholarship, Knox entered Balliol College, Oxford. While there, Knox became a dazzling classicist with numerous awards for Latin and Greek attached to his name. After becoming a fellow at Trinity College, Oxford in 1910, Knox continued to impress colleagues and pupils alike with his incredible intellect and propensity for crafting well-reasoned and sound arguments. One of his pupils, the future Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, would take up Knox’s love of Ancient Greek texts even despite his mother’s dismissal of Knox for being too much of a high-church Anglican.
Throughout the remainder of his long life (Knox died in 1957 at age 69), Knox lived the life of a campus champlain and a well-read essayist and translator. Unfortunately, these tasks paid little and Knox’s stipend from Oxford was meagre. In order to supplement his earnings, Knox took to writing detective tales—a seemingly frivolous genre that Knox took very seriously.
As an avid reader of detective stories and novels, Knox was one of the earliest scholars of the genre, and in fact his 1912 essay “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes” essentially established the Sherlockian tradition. In the humorous “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes,” Knox treated Holmes and Dr. Watson as historical personages of some note. Presented to The Gryphon Club, a semi-serious collection academics and essayists, “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes,” which was first published in The Blue Book Magazine, helped to not only popularize serious critical appraisals of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters, but it also laid the groundwork for Sherlockiana—a type of fan-centric appreciation for the characters that runs the gamut from earnest non-canonical treatments to farcical mock histories that include Holmes and Dr. Watson.
Knox’s scholarship did not stop here either. As a member of the illustrious Detection Club, which included members such as Dorothy L. Sayers (a mystery writer and Christian humanist who believed that her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy was her masterpiece), Agatha Christie, and Chesterton, Knox played a large part in the development of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. This golden epoch, which lasted throughout the interwar years, not only saw the popularization of the traditional British mystery, but it also gave birth to the much more violent and grim American hard-boiled school of writing. Knox’s most lasting contribution to this era was his series of ten commandments for the Detection Club. These rules, which are frequently discussed by detective fiction scholars and enthusiasts, included the following:
- The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow;
- All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course;
- No more than one secret room or passage is allowable. I would add that a secret passage should not be brought in at all unless the action takes place in a kind of house where such devices might be expected;
- No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end;
- No Chinaman must figure into the story;
- No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right;
- The detective must not, himself, commit the crime;
- The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader;
- The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but only very slightly, below that of the average reader;
- Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.
While commandment Number Five gets most of the academy’s attention today (Knox is routinely called “racist,” even though this commandment was done in reaction to the overuse of xenophobic stereotypes), Knox’s entire decalogue proved to be incredibly important at the time. While other members of the Detection Club did their best to follow these strictures, men like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler (who bluntly stated his disgust for Knox and the British school of detective writing in his essay “The Simple Art of Murder”) rejected them outright. In a way, Knox’s decalogue proved the be the demarcation line between the Golden Age of Detective Fiction’s two competing sub-genres: the British “cozy,” which placed a greater emphasis on the central crime’s puzzle, and the American “hard-boiled,” which placed a bigger premium on action and attitude.
Not content with being either a detective fiction scholar or a codifier of the rules, Knox also wrote his own detective novels. Starting in 1926 with the publication of The Viaduct Murder, Knox would go on to write six detective novels between 1926 and 1937. Miles Bredon, a private detective with the Indescribable Insurance Company, and his wife Angela are the primary sleuths in these charming, almost whimsical novels. Characteristically, Knox’s novels offer complex plots tucked inside of descriptive accounts of the English countryside and its many personalities. During World War II, Bredon would leave his job with Indescribable in order to become an intelligence officer, while his creator spent the war years lecturing about the importance of faith in age of evil.
Like his contemporaries Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien, Knox used popular fiction as a way to communicate conservative values during a time of almost unquestioned Progressivism. And like Chesterton, whose own fictional detective acted as a humanist foil to the scientism of Sherlock Holmes, Knox’s life work concerned itself with focusing on the eternal things such as faith, family, and the Western tradition. While nowhere near as well known as his fellow English Catholic intellectuals, Knox’s legacy is still very much with us today, even though few conservatives seem to appreciate this very productive English cleric and detective fiction author.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
1. As a side note, Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman were Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts, and Roosevelt even went so far as to write a fanciful letter outlining the reasons why Holmes was in actuality an American.