At first sight, Ronald Knox is not a likely candidate for an author of mystery novels. Other, more well-known facts about the humble English monsignor wouldn’t exactly point in that direction: convert, priest, one-man translator of the whole Bible, scholar of religious history, apologist, preacher, and subject of one of Evelyn Waugh’s two literary biographies (the other being St. Helena, Constantine’s mother). Yet in addition to all that, Knox wrote six of the twentieth century’s best mystery novels. So what are we to make of that?
Perhaps the first and most logical reaction is to assume that Knox dabbled in detective fiction as a way of relaxing the little grey cells after all his priestly and scholarly labors, easing himself to sleep or whiling away quiet days on holiday by puttering around with missing bodies, impossible alibis, and the cool logic of deduction. Other great brains have had recourse to such harmless forms of entertainment — just take the late Thomistic thinker, Ralph McInerny, who provided Ignatius Press with a steady stream of ecclesiastical novels composed after his day’s labor of munching through Thomas’ Opera Omnia was done.
Yet for Knox, this simple explanation doesn’t quite fit the bill, as his mysteries sail too close to his major theological themes to be mere intellectual diversions. In fact, it’s not too much to say that Knox’s detective fiction is actually part of his theological enterprise; he simply found that there were some theological ideas that were so important and so complex that they had to be expressed in novel form.
Now happily I don’t mean that Knox sat at his desk grimly churning out thinly veiled novelistic accounts of the processions and missions of the Trinity, or didactic moral fables about Johnny Virtue triumphing over that dastardly Billy Vice. The particular concern that drove his mystery novels was an understanding of history — how it is discovered, and how its truths are told. In other words, he fittingly realized that the best way to explore how historical narrative works is through narrative.
Let me explain. Knox was greatly concerned by certain contemporary developments in the study of the Bible and the Christian past, most especially a naive and reductionistic belief in the power of modern-day scholars to “get behind” Scripture and tradition to reveal a pure science of history, that explains everything and leaves no loose ends to be tied up by the unprofessional expedient of faith. History, of course, is a tremendously important field of human knowledge, and ought to be applied rigorously to aspects of our Incarnate faith, including the Scriptures, the life of the Church, and the practice of theology through time.
But the great danger about history is that — to use an image that Knox masterfully incorporates into his first novel, The Viaduct Murders — in writing history, contemporary people talk to their ancestors, but their ancestors can’t talk back. History is necessarily a one-sided conversation, where those writing the books have all the say and so are free to draw this figure in villainous lines and that figure in heroic colors, or to narrate chains of causal events that seem utterly irrefutable until set alongside an equally irrefutable but mutually contradictory narrative of the same events. We just don’t have all the pieces to tell perfect histories; some have been lost, some intentionally destroyed, and many others are simply hidden in plain sight to a modern gaze.
These truths about history and its narration are exactly why the mystery novel is the perfect place to explore them; the problems of history are the problems of detective fiction. The detective is dropped into a scene about which he has only fractured and partial evidence, often the most vital witnesses can no longer speak, not every telling document can be trusted, and above all the detective’s own self-awareness of being a detective detecting can blind him to the true course of events, causing him, for instance, to see vast conspiracies where in fact mere accident reigned supreme.
This is why Knox’s mysteries are so much fun, and so tremendously helpful for shaping a healthy historical consciousness. His characters (usually the indefatigable Miles Bredon and whoever else happens to be around) spend a few hundred pages passing around the meager handful of facts they’ve gleaned, stopping occasionally to spin wild and grand narratives that tie everything together and are proven on the next page to be utterly false, settling finally on a truth that is arrived at only by real hard work and thoughtful reflection.
There are no tricks to Knox’s novels; the secret to his mysteries is not to find the priest or hunt for hidden Church doctrine. The only way to figure out his mysteries is to pay attention to reality, to refuse to be beguiled by the latest theory, to stick close to how people actually act, and above all not to be intoxicated by one’s own brilliance. There is a solution — just as history is real and really important for how we live our lives — but the only way to find the truth is through humility: humility to the past, humility before God, and humility before ourselves and others. And it’s no mystery why that’s such a joy to read about: it’s also how we live our lives.
Image: Nemo, Crime Scene