Tuesday, June 26, 2018
Still Dead by Ronald Knox
Donald Reiver is the laird of Dorn in the Scottish Lowlands. His heir is his son Colin, and a less worthy heir would be difficult to imagine. His only real usefulness to the family is that his life has been insured, with the Indescribable Insurance Company, for a very large sum. Donald has been for many years estranged from his brother, Major Henry Reiver.
The family’s troubles seem to be multiplying. Young Colin’s growing dissipation has had fatal consequences - driving his car while the worse for drink he has run over and killed the son of the estate’s head gardener. And Donald has taken a chill and is dangerously ill. Ill enough to make it advisable to make his will. The will may well be a bone of contention - Donald has decided to leave everything to a religious sect that he has recently joined. This won’t effect the estate, which is entailed, but if Colin were to predecease Donald then the money from that insurance policy would go to the sect.
And now the gamekeeper has found a dead body by the roadside.
The puzzle here is not the cause of death. The Procurator Fiscal (this being Scotland there is no coroner’s inquest) is perfectly satisfied that the death was due to natural causes. The puzzle concerns the date of the victim’s death. Was the body discovered on the Monday, or on the Wednesday? Because, amazing as it may seem, there is genuine doubt on this point. And that explains the Indescribable Insurance Company’s keen interest in the matter. If the victim died on the Wednesday there is no problem and the claim will be paid. If however he died on the Monday then it’s a different matter, since on the Monday the premium had not been paid and the policy was technically not in force. Not surprisingly the Indescribable has asked their ace investigator Miles Bredon to look into the matter.
Miles sets off for Scotland, accompanied as usual by his wife Angela (Miles and Angela Bredon being one of the more likeable husband-and-wife teams in detective fiction). The date of death turns out to be a very real puzzle. The victim was certainly dead on the Wednesday. As to the Monday, the evidence is very contradictory and incomplete. While there’s no evidence to suggest murder there is the definite possibility that someone may have had a motive for moving or concealing the body and for generally muddying the waters about the date. And while there’s no reason to suspect murder Miles has to admit that there are a couple of things that worry him about this case. That torch battery worries him a good deal.
Of course some of the locals have their own explanation - it’s obvious that the gamekeeper has second sight. The initial discovery of the body was a preternatural event, and perfectly in keeping with the known fact of the Reiver family curse.
Knox was an extremely witty writer and his detective novels always have a delightfully amusing quality but he was also a firm believer in sound and disciplined plotting (he was after all the author of the famous Ten Commandments for Detective Fiction). He does some very clever stuff with clues in this book but I can’t say any more for fear of spoilers.
The book also includes footnote links to all the clues so when you get to the solution you can check back to make sure the author hasn’t been cheating!
That solution may not please all readers, being just a little unconventional.
Despite being a priest Knox was not the kind of writer to bludgeon the reader with his moral views. For Knox the writing of detective stories was a pleasant diversion and a stimulating intellectual exercise rather than an opportunity for preaching. Of course you cannot entirely eliminate morality from the detective story which is a type of fiction that is entirely dependent on a belief that there are such things as right and wrong. This novel does raise some moral issues but to the extent that they’re resolved they’re resolved in a surprisingly open-ended way.
Still Dead makes use of a number of tropes that are going to be pretty familiar to fans of golden age mysteries but Knox throws in enough twists to keep things interesting. Knox is always a joy to read. His style is light-hearted but he avoids the peril of indulging in whimsy.
I thoroughly enjoyed Still Dead. Perhaps not as ingenious as The Three Taps or The Footsteps at the Lock but still highly recommended.