The Viaduct Murder by Ronald Knox

ViaductThe Viaduct Murder is my first foray into the works of Ronald Knox, one of the founder members of the Detection Club who is perhaps best remembered for his Decalogue – ten commandments for writers of mystery fiction to follow. This was his first novel and the only one he wrote that does not feature his series sleuth Miles Bredon.

During a round of golf, four men discover a corpse lying in the long grass near a viaduct. They move the body and send for the Police. As they wait they start to investigate the body, finding some evidence they keep back for themselves.

There are some curious details about the manner of death that stand out to our would-be sleuths. One of them notices a golf ball lying on the viaduct while others are struck by his having two watches set to different times and a daily train ticket when, as a regular rider, he ought to have held a season pass. When the coroner returns a verdict of suicide, the group feel certain that the coroner is wrong and decide to investigate for themselves.

I initially found this novel to be quite hard going, in part because he is quite a verbose writer but also because Knox is prone to injecting casual commentary into his narration that can slow things down. Fortunately I did acclimatize myself to that style after some time and by the end I had come to appreciate some of the asides that he makes.

Knox’s four amateur detectives are a pleasingly varied bunch from different backgrounds. Among their number are a priest, an academic and a man who had served in intelligence during the War and they each adopt their own approach to solving the mystery.

That mystery is quite a neat little puzzle however that I think rewards the reader’s patience if they stick with it. There are some aspects of the case that are quite technical and will involve thinking about railway timetables and characters’ movements while other developments are more in the adventure style such as traps being set. Knox stitches these elements together well to tell his story and I appreciated that the clues keep coming right up to the final few chapters of the book, making the excitement build towards its conclusion.

One of my favorite moments in the book is also among its strangest as one of our heroes presents us with a use for chewing gum that I had never encountered before and which would be quite clever if Knox could convince me it was plausible. As it is, I think of it as one of the book’s many little quirks and appreciated its novelty.

I was a little less impressed with Knox’s ultimate choice of murderer and I did feel that the book suffers from not establishing enough credible, developed characters with motives to kill. This gave the moment of the reveal a somewhat anticlimactic feel but while the killer’s identity may not be a big surprise, I enjoyed the final chapter in which it is revealed precisely how they committed the crime.

While I was not blown away by The Viaduct Murder, I did find it an interesting introduction to Knox’s work and I would say that it is an entertaining read. I won’t be rushing out to read the rest of Knox’s work immediately but having read more positive comments about the Miles Bredon novels I will no doubt eventually give one of those a go.

12 thoughts on “The Viaduct Murder by Ronald Knox

  1. I am fascinated by this chewing gum thing — does he make a lasso out of it to round up the bad guys? Or a blanket, to catch a falling baby? Or perhaps he freezes it pre-chewing, and then uses the hardened stick as a weapon to knock a ruffian out with. The possibilities seem endless.

    I’ve only read one Knox book…well, that’s not true — I’ve read the opening few chapters of The Footsteps at the Lock and that alone probably tells you what I thought of it. Some lovely descriptions of riverbanks, plenty of synonyms for “there were lots of different plants”, but low on intrigue and incident. Dolores Gordon-Smith recommended (I believe) the ovel Still Dead at last year’s Bodies from the Library, though, so if you were ever moved to look further this might be a good ‘un.

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    1. I had not realized there were quite so many heroic applications for gum! This involves stretching it out as though it were some sort of super-thin, near-invisible fibre which though conceivable would seem to me to be far too fragile to actually work with. Though I think it is a neat idea!

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  2. I’ve often wondered whether Knox is an author I should try, but I think this review is more evidence that I probably don’t need to. As tempting as it is to find out what the unusual application of chewing gum is, I think the prose style sounds a bit too much for me. Would you say he writes in a similar way to Crofts at all?

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    1. He writes in a more characterful style imo. These sleuths are not pedantic or detail focused so we are in a very different territory from French and there are more wry or lightly comical moments.

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    2. I hope you’re not giving up on him … please do try at least one. (Footsteps at the Lock, perhaps.) Knox was brilliantly intelligent and while his characterization wasn’t of the top rank, his writing skills were excellent and he certainly knew how to create a difficult puzzle. Grit your teeth and get through the introductory chapters and I think you will wind up enjoying yourself.

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  3. Have read this but forgotten it in it’s entirety. Still, keep meaning to try Knox again, if only because he also loved Trollope enough to write a continuation of Trollope’s Barchester Novels (which I haven’t yet read so cannot confirm whether there are any murders, nefarious doings or creative applications for chewing gum involved. I’m hoping for, at least, the latter.).

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    1. Interesting about the Trollope continuation. Stylistically they are rather different writers so I am curious whether he tried to mimic that style or if he just did his own thing.

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