Friday 12 April 2013

Forgotten Book - Still Dead

Still Dead, by Ronald Knox, was published in 1934 and features Knox's regular sleuth, the insurance investigator Miles Bredon. The setting is Scotland, and the mystery is one of those vanishing-body puzzles. Colin Reiver's corpse was spotted, apparently, on a Monday, but then disappeared before turning up on the Wednesday. He seemed to have died of exposure - but had he been murdered, and if so, when and by whom?

The set-up is very good, and the unravelling of it so complicated that many readers will be glad of the footnotes Knox helpfully supplies to point out where relevant clues appeared earlier in the text. I did, however, feel that here -as in an earlier Knox book, The Footsteps at the Lock - my interest faltered because of the lack of sufficient incident after the initial flurry of activity. My old friend Robert Barnard often used to say that second murders in books are "vulgar", but a further killing here would, quite frankly,have livened up the second half of the story.

Colin is not someone for whom we feel much sympathy. He has killed a child in a road accident, although the criminal justice system didn't pin the blame on him. To get away from it all, he is sent by his family on a cruise to Madeira and the Med, but his death occurs as soon as he returns to the family estate in Scotland.

Although I was not greatly enamoured of the plot, I enjoyed some of Knox's little touches, touches which suggested to me that, had he taken the detective genre as seriously as, say, Dorothy L. Sayers, he could have made a more notable contribution to it as a novelist. In fact, he is now better remembered for a few good short stories, and his 'Decalogue', a tongue-in-cheek set of rules for writing detective fiction. But there are moments of genuine passion here, notably in his scathing words about a doctor who is a eugenicist - and eugenics were popular with many people until the horrors of their practical application in Nazi Germany became apparent. I could have done with more of this real feeling in the book, and a bit less of the almost interminable debate about what had actually happened to Colin's body. Not a masterpiece, then, but one with a number of points of genuine distinction which make Still Dead still worth reading.


The Passing Tramp said...

My review of this one:

I think Knox's detective novels are are so restrained as the be a bit dull (he reminds me of another ecclesiastic, Victor Whitechurch, in this regard). The problem has interest but is handled in such a dry manner. It's interesting to contrast how Nicolas Blake took a similar plot line, the hit-and-run death of a child, and invested it with an air of tragedy utterly lacking in Still Dead.

What I most enjoyed in Still Dead were the asides. Knox was a very witty essayist and some of that quality shows up in Still Dead.

Martin Edwards said...

Curt, I agree. A good writer, but he didn't put enough time and effort into his stories - unlike Henry Wade, for instance. I feel sometimes he got bored by his own novels towards the end.