Friday, 23 March 2012

Forgotten Book - The Footsteps at the Lock

Ronald Knox, author of today’s Forgotten Book, The Footsteps at the Lock, was to my mind a rather frustrating detective novelist. He had great gifts – an understanding of human nature, a sharp wit, and an intricate mind – that suited him ideally to Golden Age fiction. Yet overall, I fear, the verdict must be that he under-achieved.

This novel is an example of what I mean. It begins splendidly, and wittily, setting the scene for a story about complications over an inheritance. Two cousins who loathe each other decide, for dubious reasons, to go on a boat trip together – and one of them goes missing. Has he been killed by his cousin? The plot soon thickens agreeably.

Miles Bredon, an insurance investigator, is called in by his firm, and he is accompanied by his likeable wife Angela. Unfortunately, the story-line becomes bogged down in complications about what precisely did happen on the ill-fated boat trip, and the arrival on the scene of an improbable American called Erasmus Quirk doesn’t improve things, although it does turn out to be highly relevant to the plot.

The real trouble is that one of the cousins turns out to be very different in practice from the way in which he is at first presented, and this uncertain handling of character seems to me to be at the heart of Knox’s struggle with the genre. Intellectually, he was a master of it, but he could not inject into his books the same level of empathy with his people that, say, Henry Wade, Sayers or Christie achieved. For a priest, this seems rather surprising, and one does wonder whether his approach was over-intellectual. So The Footsteps at the Lock ranks as a fair example of the classic detective novel, but not the masterpiece I began to hope for when relishing the early pages.


Anonymous said...

Martin - Thank you for such a thoughtful review. It just goes to show how much characterisation matters in a detective story, even if it isn't a psychological mystery.

Morgenländer said...

Yes, that's the way I feel about Knox, too.

It's a pity because Knox was a very gifted writer whose elegant style, wit and urbanity should make for a great novelist.

By far his best detective novel is the farcical "Viaduct murder" which seems to be written by an offspring of Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse.

Kind regards

Deb said...

I read this book a number of years ago, so perhaps I'm misremembering it, but I found it rather tedious, especially parts that dealt with exactly where the boat would be at exactly what time, etc. I also seem to remember that a piece of physical evidence is recovered some time after the cousin goes missing, and I thought to myself, "Wouldn't that have been found before now?" (Or am I thinking of another book?)

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Deb - I also read it a few years ago and my lasting impression is similar - that the story was way too mechanical. I'd kind of given up on Knox but will look out for the Viaduct Murder.

Martin Edwards said...

Interesting comments, thanks very much. I have got a copy of The Viaduct Murder, but haven't got round to reading it yet....I quite liked The Body in the Silo, by the way.

Marshall said...

The Ronald Knox gets too bogged down in niggling details - in order to finish the book I had to skim certain parts because they were just too convoluted and inconclusive. He’s not Agatha Christie, that’s for sure. Later in life ,he produced a fine translation of the Bible in contemporary English - the first one to do so, I believe