Ronald Knox was an important and interesting figure in the history of detective fiction. He pioneered Sherlockian scholarship and popularised the idea of 'rules' for the game of writing detective stories, and in his work in both fields there is evidence of the flair for satire that was one of his trade marks. He was a founder member of the Detection Club, editor of a major anthology, and author of six detective novels.
Knox was a polymath and his interest in detective fiction was one among many of his enthusiasms. Perhaps this helps to explain why the six detective novels he wrote, although admired in their day, have not survived as well as the work of some of his Detection Club colleagues. But The Meirion Press has now produced paperback editions of his first two ventures into crime fiction. The Three Taps was his second novel, published in 1927, and the first to feature his series sleuth, the insurance investigator Miles Bredon.
The book begins with an example of Knox's writing at its satiric best as he describes the wonderfully named Indescribable Insurance Company, for which Bredon works. We're also told about a 'euthanasia policy', a concept possibly (I don't know) of Knox's own invention, which plays an important part in the plot. Such a policy has been taken out by a man called Jephthah Mottram. When Mottram dies in mysterious circumstances in a decrepit inn in a Midland town, Bredon is called in.
We seem to be confronted here with a locked room puzzle. But is it a murder case? Might Mottram have committed suicide or died by accident? These questions are central to the story and Knox focuses at least as much on 'howdunit' as on 'whodunit'. The trouble is that the contrivances which ultimately explain what happened didn't engage my interest as much as I'd hoped. There is some very enjoyable writing along the way, but on the whole I was underwhelmed. Worth reading, though, for Knox's prose, which (at its best) is stylish and entertaining.