The Three Taps by Ronald Knox
Back in March I wrote about the first crime novel by Ronald Knox, The Viaduct Murder, which I found quite entertaining though I felt its final third was quite disappointing. The Three Taps was Knox’s second novel and the first to feature his series sleuth, Miles Bredon.
The novel opens with a length and very amusing description of the Indescribable Company, an insurance agency with considerable resources. We are following one of their clients, Mr. Mottram, who holds an Euthanasia Policy with them.
According to the terms of that policy, if he dies before his sixty-fifth birthday his beneficiaries would receive half a million pounds. Should he survive beyond that age then he is entitled to an annuity. Should he commit suicide however he would not be entitled to a penny.
The reason for his visit to the company is that he is looking to cash out of his policy early, against the terms and company practice. He explains that he has recently received a diagnosis that he will die within the next two years but rather than his heirs receiving a half million pounds upon his death, he is proposing that they terminate the policy and refund half of his premium payments instead so he can enjoy his final few months. This offer is politely refused and, after he has gone, the Company sends Miles to look into matters. Miles and his wife follow him to a hotel in the country where they discover he has died as a result of poisoning by gas in circumstances that are far from clear.
The problem is that there are features of the crime scene that are suggestive of both suicide and murder. For one thing the body is found in a room that has been locked from the inside. However it is noted that the gas taps are actually switched off in the room and the window is open while some of his actions the evening before do not seem to tally with those of a man who expects to kill himself. It’s an intriguing scenario that only becomes more confusing as we learn more about the circumstances of the death.
Knox’s sleuth, Miles Bredon, makes his first appearance here and it is clear that he is cut from a rather different mold than many of his contemporaries. While he is smart and perceptive, his attention will drift and he is described as being somewhat lethargic. This case does catch his interest however, in part because he lays a small (but soon to increase) bet on the outcome with the police officer investigating the death. The two of them will investigate this case together, sharing their findings while Miles’ wife also plays an important role in conducting some of the interviews and making suggestions.
I really enjoyed the interactions between Miles and Angela which are breezy and comedic in tone. Angela plays a significant part in this investigation and shows some strong detective skills of her own, working to extract information from sources, and keeps her husband on task. It’s a fun relationship and I think Knox uses them superbly, balancing the comedic interactions with serious, thoughtful detection.
Returning to the case itself, one of the most striking aspects of the book for me was that the author does not follow the usual template for novels that feature a death which looks like suicide. Typically in such stories the author takes pains to get past any such uncertainty and quickly establish that it is a case of murder before presenting us with a gallery of suspects.
Knox does not follow that game plan here at all, keeping the questions about the nature of the death open until very close to the end. That he manages to do so while keeping his plot fair play is laudable and he manages to do this by focusing less on the question of whodunit than pondering howdunit and whydunit.
The genius of the circumstances Knox outlines are that there is a tension within the evidence that seems impossible to resolve. If you accept that it was a case of suicide then how do you explain the evidence that suggests someone had been in the room after his death. If it is murder then why did someone go to the trouble of making it look like a suicide when that would remove the financial incentive for murder in the first place?
The solution that Knox gives us is really quite clever, both in terms of the mechanical way it was worked but also in its psychological aspects. I didn’t come close to figuring it out myself and while I think the technical explanation does become a little dry in those parts, I thought it presented some novel features that make it quite distinct.
As enjoyable as the book is however, it is not without a few problems. One of these relates to the ending where though I feel that while a piece of information is fairly clued, I am not sure that it was as well conveyed in the setup as it is in the final explanation. I somewhat suspect that this is one of those cases where contemporary audiences may have reacted differently to that piece of information.
The other is harder to explain without getting into spoilery territory which I’d like to avoid as much as possible. What I will say is that I think some aspects of the ending may run contrary to the reader’s expectations of what this sort of book is supposed to do. Those who like to focus on spotting the suspects may feel a little disappointed at how few options Knox gives us. That is not to say that those elements aren’t there, just that they are not as prominent as usual.
Overall I was far more impressed with The Three Taps than I had been with my previous foray into Knox’s work. There are some really solid ideas here and I thought the crime scene was enjoyably devious. Perhaps more importantly, I really liked Miles and Angela and will hope to be able to get back to them again soon.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Means of Murder in the Title (What)