#456: Little Fictions – Curiosities from Adey: ‘Solved by Inspection’ (1931) by Ronald Knox

Locked Room Murders

Earlier this year, John Pugmire’s Locked Room International imprint answered the prayers of every impossible crime fan the world over by reprinting the genre reference bible Locked Room Murders (2nd ed., 1991) by Robert Adey, liberally revised by Mystery Scene co-publisher Brian Skupin.

It’s a fascinating work built around a very simple idea: the front section is an alphabetical list of authors and their impossible crime novels and short stories, giving their provenance and a brief (~15-20 words) outline of the problem, and the rear section contains a brief (<50 words) outline of the solution.  Thus, anyone who wishes to discover any impossible crime stories by a favourite author is free to browse the front section without spoilers and so be enticed into tracking down these stories to see how they fare…which is, in part, how TomCat and I ended up producing Ye Olde Book of Locked Room Conundrums a little while back.

So, now that I have my very own copy, I thought I’d take advantage of my proximity to that wonderful institution the British Library and look up a few more stories listed therein which had caught my eye, and then talk about them on here.  My criteria were pretty much “Huh, [author name] wrote an impossible crime short story? I’d be interested to read that!” and “Is [magazine of provenance] in the British Library catalogue?”.  So this week we start with possibly not the most obscure story — don’t worry, we’ll get more obscure as the weeks go by — but one that I’ve heard plenty about and never been able to track down: ‘Solved by Inspection’ (1931) by Ronald Knox.

BLBBoLRMThe version of this I read was taken from the Dorothy L. Sayers-edited Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery, and Horror (Second Series, 1931) published by Gollancz and containing quite some luminaries of the genre including Anthony Berkeley’s ‘The Avenging Chance’ (1929) which would go on to become The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929), plus recently-republished impossible crime stories such as G.D.H. and M. Cole’s ‘In a Telephone Cabinet’ (1928) which recently made it into the Otto Penzler-edited Black Lizard Big Book of Locked Room Mysteries (2014), and Freeman Wills Crofts’ baffling — and not entirely in a good way — ‘The Mystery of the Sleeping Car Express’ (1921), which cropped up in LRI’s other recent gigantic undertaking, The Realm of the Impossible [ss] (2017).

However, let’s get on with the business at hand.

The business at hand concerns “the eccentric millionaire, Herbert Jervison” who, having made his money in newspapers “had pottered about the East, and had got caught up with all that esoteric bilge — talked about Mahatmas and Yogis and things till even the most sanguine of his poor relations wouldn’t ask him to stay”.  And so Jervison spent his money setting up the Brotherhood of Light with four “Indian frauds” with the indeterminate aim of achieving some form of higher consciousness — it’s amusing here to see Knox flailing a bit, with references to “vegetarian food” and automatic writing — and at the start of the story he’s a recent corpse, having starved to death while conducting some kind of experiment to “set his soul free from his body”.   In and of itself not especially baffling, but for the fact that “he was fully victualed…for a fortnight” — Jervison had locked himself in the old gymnasium of his property with simply a bed and two weeks worth of food for company, and yet here he is, expired from a lack of eating:

It was not a room in which the ordinary man would have sat dow cheerfully to eat a meal; but, what was more important, it was a room in which you could not possibly starve.

It’s a nice problem, and one you feel Paul Halter attempting to echo in his novel The Seven Wonders of Crime (1997, tr. 2005) wherein a man dies of thirst while locked in a greenhouse with a pitcher full of water beside him.  Knox’s solution is actually a variation on what I had in mind for Halter’s resolution (maybe that should be the other way round…), but how Halter eventually chose to wind up that particular conundrum was, alas, somewhat disappointing.  Monsignor Knox, however, complete with reference to the scriptures, has a very, very smart answer, and I agree with Dan wholeheartedly when he calls “it extremely clever, simple and terrifically dark.  One that lingers in the mind for some time”.  Enough to make you rethink your plans of running a mystical cult after making your fortune and then deciding to separate the soul and body as part of some experiment to achieve transcendental awareness, at any rate.  Which, er, now I think about it probably isn’t on everyone’s bucket list…

The story us so good, in fact, that its exclusion from more recent, visible collections like those mentioned above — plus the British Library’s own Miraculous Mysteries (2017), the two Mike Ashley-edited Mammoth Books (2000 and 2006), and even David Stuart Davies’, ahem, contribution to the ranks — seem a bit odd.  Sure, it’s not really fair play, but that’s hardly counted against something in the past (or present), and it displays the utilisation of the professional detective admirably: Miles Bredon’s role as investigator for the superbly-named Indescribable Insurance Company casts this in a suitably humorous and yet era-appropriate light, and there’s even scope for some moral philosophy on the grounds of whether “a man who starves himself without meaning to kill himself” qualifies as having committed suicide.  For this to linger relatively unappreciated while the likes of — urf — ‘The Sands of Thyme’ (1954) by Michael Innes is allowed to stink up fully two of those collections is…well, a little weird.  Sure, it may be a rights thing, but given the availability of Knox’s novels in ebook format from The Murder Room that seems unlikely.


“I’m sure you have a theory, though…”

Part of me wonders if the racial attitudes on display might cause modern editors to shrink from it in horror.  Be it Bredon’s expression of surprise…

“Hullo, there’s a black man on the platform.”

…as his train pulls into the station at Yewbury, or the favourably-captured Dr. Mayhew — who “seemed incapable of suspicion and radiated hospitality” — confiding in Bredon on the way to the crime scene:

“Hope these niggers’ll clear out after this…lowering his voice for fear the driver [the “black man on the platform”] should overhear him.  “The neighbours don’t like ’em and that’s a fact”.

…it’s easy to see modern minds shying away from such language, especially from the mouths of ostensible ‘good guy’ characters.  And while I’d never suggest that the word ‘nigger’ should ever be taken lightly and have come down fully in favour of preserving original references to such ignorant attitudes, it would be a shame if no-one could find away around this to enable the story to be more widely anthologised.  It’s also worth mentioning that there’s never any suggestion that it’s purely on account of race that “the neighbours don’t like ’em” — the notion of a bunch of fakirs setting up some weird cult of transcendence next door has put the wind up many a GAD neighbour without the colour of the participants’ skin ever coming into it (Exhibit A, m’lud) — and so replacing the offensive term with something akin to ‘fakir’ (hell, you can even have that, editors of the future) would get around solidly 90% of the issues people may choose to make of it.

Anyway, we have veered from the subject.  While its problematic historical heritage will undoubtedly be a cause of discussion for some, taken for its intent — to provide and resolve a baffling circumstance in as efficient and clever a manner as possible — it’s a triumph.  I certainly enjoyed this a lot more than The Footsteps at the Lock (1928), the only Full Knox I’ve attempted to date, and after the intense dullness of his chapter in The Floating Admiral (1931) I suspect Father Ronald may be better suited to the short form.  Adey lists no more impossibilities, but this doesn’t mean I’ll stop here: if I can track down a collection of Knox’s shorter writings, it will definitely feature on this blog at some point.


Next week, then, something from the road less travelled…

44 thoughts on “#456: Little Fictions – Curiosities from Adey: ‘Solved by Inspection’ (1931) by Ronald Knox

    • Yeah, there is a distinctly Chestertonian vibe in the moral speculation around suicide — were Chesterton and insurance broker, this is the kind of thing he would have written.

      At a past Bodies from the Library, Dolores Gordon-Smith spoke very engagingly about Knox (mind you, she speaks engagingly about everything, the woman’s enthusiasm is infectious), and made the idea of his Sherlock Holmes “canonical” investigation sound superb. From the novel I’ve tried and this short story it’s difficult to glean too great an impression of his work — I wouldn’t have expected to become such a Crofts fan based on The Floating Admiral and Six Against the Yard — but I think I’ll try some more Short Knox first before approaching his longer works.

      The difficulty now is finding them…


        • They’re on Kindle? I had no idea, I though all the Murder Room titles were novels.

          Hmm, I’ve just checked and everything on UK Kindle appears to be a novel. Dammit!


          • I think there are only two other short stories from Knox, a Holmes pastiche which was in the recent British Library ‘Blood on the Tracks’ anthology, and ‘The Motive’ which I discovered in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (Vol. 12, No. 60, November 1948). He also wrote a sort of a story (eccentrically without a solution) for Six Against the Yard. Though not a story, Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes is a short thing worth reading.

            I thought the first two Bredon novels (Three Taps and Footsteps) were overly complicated and laboriously resolved, but I liked all the later ones (but I also liked his Floating Admiral chapter).

            I would like to look into some of his other fiction based on the titles. The novel: Memories of the Future, Being Memories of the Years 1915-1972, Written in The Year of Grace 1988 by Opal, Lady Porstock, 1923. The play: Thesauropolemopompus, pb. 1925 .


      • In my opinion, “Solved by Inspection” is the closest anyone ever came to writing a Chestertonian detective story that could actually have been written by Chesterton. I don’t think there’s a bigger compliment for a short detective story than that.

        This reminds me that Knox’s Still Dead is still languishing on the big pile. I have to get around to it one of these days, because its apparently better than his more well-known mystery novels.


        • I have a feeling Dolores Gordon-Smith recommended Still Dead as the one to read. I mean, I haven’t, but I’m pretty sure that’s what my notes from that BftL conference say. So at least you’re possibly on to a good one there…


  1. Sounds enjoyable – I wasn’t too impressed by the Knox contribution to The Floating Admiral either – and I like the idea behind your series as it’s good to get some pointers on worthwhile short fiction to look out for.


    • I liked the idea of Knox’s chapter in TFA — “Here are the things we can doubt and must therefore be cleared up” — but, lordy, didn’t it ever drag on. This is far more enjoyable, perhaps due to not being allowed to maunder on too greatly or get into jeremiads regarding evidence.

      I’m hoping to return to Adey on a regular basis — the proximity and accessibility of the British Library is too tempting to pass up, and the others stories coming up this month were interesting for me and great fun to discover (others may disagree…). Each school holiday I should be able to clear a day or two and go there to nerd up on obscure stuff, and hopefully pass on the good news to people here.,

      In fact, my only disappointment was that one story I was keen to feature in this opening tranche didn’t appear to be in their archives at the time…so, if nothing else, I have to go back and track that one down!


      • Well, happy hunting, and keep passing on the info as you digest it.

        On Knox, yes the premise of his section of The Floating Admiral was fine but it did become boring quite fast and discouraged me from being in any hurry to look for more of his work. Mind you, that was nothing to way I felt about Milward Kennedy after reading his efforts on both The Floating Admiral and Ask a Policeman!


        • Yeah, Kennedy didn’t exactly commend himself to me with Murder in Black and White (which he published under the nom de plume Evelyn Elder). I don’t even remember his effort in TFA — was he the one whose solution was “I have no idea what’s going on!”?

          I imagined I will have digested all the obscure ones in Adey by about 2063, and will then be able to start on the companion/follow-up that LRI have planned for 2019…


          • He came after John Rhode, and threw the first major spanner in the works, and managed to make every character in the story just that bit more irritating and unpleasant.


            • by “the first major spanner” do you means in terms of the downfall of the GAD-style novel? Can we chart the beginning of its downfall to Kennedy? Or did you mean something else.

              Also, yes, good heavens are the people in MiB&W irritating. As is the plot. And the denouement.


            • 😀 No, much as I might be tempted to hang the blame for planting the seeds of decline on Kennedy, I was actually referring to the way the story in The Floating Admiral was hanging together reasonably well until he dipped his oar in.


          • Clemence Dane was the one who had no idea what was going on. Kennedy was even worse–his choice for the murderer was a heretofore unknown character named “Mr. X” who never appeared in his chapter or anyone else’s.

            By the way, isn’t it interesting to see how all of the different writers presented their solutions in FLOATING ADMIRAL? Christie has a simple but brilliant idea that none of the other writers even thought of, Sayers gets so enthusiastic that she writes a 20-page explanation that could basically be a short story in itself, Knox goes postmodern and not only provides his own solution but also tries to guess what each of the other authors are going to say…


            • Yes, Sayers really got stuck in. But I have to say that I found Christie’s proposed solution to be just flat out preposterous.
              Mind you, we’re probably wandering far off topic here.


            • I remember very little about the individual solutions (as you can probably guess). I’ve only read the books once, and made the slight error of reading the chapter and then that author’s solution — so I have a slightly confusing mix of what “actually” happened as well as the potential solutions everyone provided along the way and, frankly, it’s a mess of ignominious proprotions.

              Having done ‘Behind the Screen’ and ‘The Scoop’ on here, I’d quite like to go back to TFA and do some kind of analysis…but precisely what shape that would take I have no idea. Give me a few years to work out the flow charts and then we’ll see what results.


  2. As others have said before me, this is the closest anyone ever came in terms of rivaling Chesterton’s short stories. It has an incredibly dark solution and ending revealed in a way that showcases just how despicable humanity can be in the pursuit of gain, something that Chesterton did several times, while also being very theological in places. One of my favorite short stories ever, second only to The House in Goblin Wood.
    Knox is much more suited to short stories than novels, I haven’t been able to finish any of his books even though I have several.


    • I am moderately devastated that I missed the Chesterton link, but in my defence I read Chesterton yeeeeears ago and struggled to find too much in his writings that I liked. ‘The Queer Feet’ has one of the most brilliant pieces of ratiocination yet put on paper, but, hairy Aaron, isn’t it ever mired in a lot of verbosity and nonsense.

      There’d be a good deate in the best short story from each GAD notable, or each Detection Club member or similar. It’d be interesting to see how authors applied themselves to the short form — I can believe Crofts might struggle, but someone like Knox might well emerge with a far stronger reputation.


      • Chesterton is amazing when at his best and he can fit ideology perfectly into the solution or central puzzle of a crime ( The best place to hide a tree is in a forest and whatnot). He does however suffer from mainly using the detective story as a medium for conveying his ideals and philosophy, instead of writing a detective story as a detective story. This often leads to a large amount of verbosity and filler that stifles the plot and makes several stories hard to read.
        Crofts is much more suited to the novel due to his main focal point being his meticulous investigation of crimes, something that doesn’t fit the short format of the short story. The success of an author in the short format can usually be seen by how they work in their novels or vice versa. Brand manages to still instill character while creating last line twists that bring shock, Carr creates beautiful pieces of atmosphere, and Christie makes stories that rely on previous held assumptions or false deductions, all elements found in their novels.


        • Chesterton is — like whisky, dinner party conversation, walks around public parks, and the music of Fleetwood Mac — something I’m hoping will start to appeal to me in later life. Like, right noe I don’t feel I’m missing anything, but 20 years from now I’m willing to be proved wrong.

          And if TIE is still going then, you’ll all get to hear about it (just the Chesterton, not the whisky or walks).


          • The problem (if you can call it that) with the music of Fleetwood Mac is that there are three distinct eras of the band, each with their own type of music. But I’m guessing that you mean the Buckingham-Nicks version of the band, not the infinitely superior former two versions of the band.



    • I dunno — the alternative would be to have the problems and then no solutions…and that seems weird to me. That would just be a book that is one huge tease, and you might then go to great lengths to track something down only for the solutin to be minor or a cheat or — as happens a few times herein — the problem to not be impossible at all.

      Don’t misunderstand, I totally get the point about spoilers, but is there a third way? Even if Adey listed his twenty masterpieces of similar, taste is subjective and there are a lot of stories in that book — picking a top [number] would be like asking one of us to pick our top two GAD novels and stand by it forever. Also, if he were to list something as not being very good but your taste differed from his…where does that leave you? It’s a tricky one, and the sensible options seems to be leaving it up to people if they want to spoil themselves on something or if they want to remain totally pure.

      I for one have checked out a couple of solutions for books I’m not sure I’d ever read for a variety of reasons — like The Locked Room by Sjowall and Wahloo — and feel that I’ve been vindicated in doing so, as they wouldn’t be worth taking the time to read. Anything I have even a vague interest in, and anything I know nothing about at all, I’ve stayed away from, and in 40 years from now I can always check out any solutions I’ve not got round to reading if the spirit takes me.

      But, yeah, I know it’s not ideal. As I say, if I third way presents itself which works better than this I’d genuinely love to hear it…


    • It is incredibly useful to essayists and historians who don’t want to bother reading EVERY SINGLE novel listed in the reference book. It was useful to me to find and list many of the books that had similar set-ups and see how the solution was pulled off. For instance after reading THE DEVIL DRIVES by Virgil Markham I wanted to know how many novels had a drowning in a locked room with no running water or plumbing. So I pored over the pages and looking for similar books and then looked up the solutions. Also, there are nifty notes added by Adey at the bottom of many of the solutions. In fact one night I went through the entire Solution section looking for those separate paragraphs while placing an index card above the solution. In doing so I discovered that some of those additional notes further praise the book while some of them disparage the book.

      BTW – Can you tell me, JJ, if one of the newly listed books is TERROR BY NIGHT by Lee Crosby? this is an impossible detective novel I discovered on my own and found not have been in Adey. I own a revised 1980s edition which has some blank pages and on them I began to handwrite in any books I read that classified for inclusion but were not listed. Crosby’s mystery is utterly bizarre and has a lot in common with a book by Samuel Hopkins Adams which is already listed.


      • The Crosby isn’t in there, no. But to the best of my understanding, John, nothing has been added as such — Brian Skupin has gone in and cleaned up some of the descriptions and explanations, but the titles are all the same as they were in the original 2nd ed. Anything “new” is, I believe, up for consideration for the supplementary volume LRI will prublish next year.

        Always lovely to find something good from an unexpected source, eh? Well, I’m assuming Terror by Night is good, of course 😀


  3. Great review and so glad you liked this one, it is a mini masterpiece. The other short that I wrote about (the non Sherlock) The Motive has an equally brilliant and dark murder set up and solution, that ends up being a throw away idea and not the main culmination of the plot but is so good never the less. It could have been an amazing short impossible story as well but Knox doesn’t take it that way, though I wish he would have. You’ll see what I mean when you get to it. It is also very very clever.

    And you will be pleased to know that The Motive has just been republished in a British Library short story collection for Christmas called The Christmas Card Crime and other Stories, which I just got through the post. It is a nice collection and contains a Carr, Hare, Lorac, Bude and Orczy short story. Happy to lend if you fancy? It could make an interesting ‘could have been brilliantly impossible but wasn’t list’.


    • I have not kept up with the BL collections at all — besides Miraculous Mysteries and Foreign Bodies I’ve not read a single one. The presence of Knox in this most recent one does make it a bit more appealing, I’ll be honest. And, hey, Carr! Does that mean we might see him gracing the BL shelves at some point…?

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Part of me wonders if the racial attitudes on display might cause modern editors to shrink from it in horror.

    I think they’re still publishing Chesterton’s The God of the Gongs for who knows what reason, so I doubt it’s this. (Or the smug religious bigotry for similar Chestertonian reasons.) And that’s just in GAD; it’s not like there’s a scarcity of racist books in print, alas.

    It does sound a very fascinating problem, though. I’m reminded of how the food for Bilbo’s birthday party in the Fellowship of the Ring film was covered in insecticide to stop the extras eating it all, but I somehow doubt that’s the solution here…


    • Is it fitting to suggest that ‘The God of the Gongs’ may simply be hiding like a tree in in the forest of all his other stories, and as such avoids particular notice? #smugface

      And — having not read Lord of the Rings — how do the guests eat the food, then? Is there, like, magic that enables them to do so? It’s usually magic.

      Thankfully, no, that’s not the case here. Though as universe crossovers go, Gandalf turning up to explain it by magic would, I’m sure, send a subset of the fandom into meltdown…


      • No, this was from the film set so they could do multiple takes without having to constantly restock the food.

        (And that Chesterton remark is right up there with some of the worst puns I’ve seen; well done sir!)


        • Oooooh, I thought it was something in the book. Okay, I’m an idiot.

          But, wait: did they just spray, like, the top layer, and then eat the food underneath? Have these people not heard of tupperware?


          • I don’t know; I’m afraid I don’t have the making-of book with me. Maybe someone could use it as a basis for a locked-room mystery?


  5. When I read this, I guessed a solution that is, I think, a slight improvement on Knox’s. ROT-13 for spoilers: gur orq vf qrfpevorq nf univat “veba envyvatf, bs gur glcr pbzzba va ubfcvgnyf” juvpu zrnaf gung vs vg jrer qenja nyy gur jnl hc gb gur prvyvat gura vg jbhyq sbez n pntr. Frphevat gjb furrgf bs zrgny pebffjnlf guebhtu gur fyngf jbhyq cerirag Wreivfba sebz nggnpxvat gur fxlyvtug. Guvf jbhyq nibvq gur arrq gb pbaivapr hf gung Wreivfba jnf fb fpnerq bs urvtugf gung ur jbhyq or hajvyyvat gb evfx whzcvat rira gb fnir uvf yvsr.

    As for the racism, Knox had no excuse. At best one might say that it’s lazy stereotyping in service of the story, to give a superficially plausible reason why the victim should have been willing to lock himself away for an extended period of time. But with a modicum of invention it would be surely possible to do better than this. For example, the victim was an incorrigible procrastinator and deliberately locked himself away in order to complete his monumental and definitive monograph on the prosody of Milton.


    • The essential problem here — someone starving themself for no discernable reason — is great, and I’m surprised there’s not more of it in impossible crime fiction. I suppose it’s a bit like “Huh, that gigantic immovable object has disappeared” in that there’s really only a very small number of possible solutions, but I’m surprised when there are so few examples of such a rich problem. At present, in fact, I’m struggling to think of anything beyond The Seven Wonders of Crime by Paul Halter.

      As for the racism…see, there’s nothing about the setup that requires that racist attitude. As I suggest, “fakirs” would substitute just as effectively. But, yeah, the precise framing of the “locking himself away” part of the problem does seem to have been plucked at somewhat randomly. As you rightly say, there would be several other ways to explain it.

      Still, a neat problem, though.


  6. Just read this story today, the Toronto Reference Library has a copy of the Oxford Book of English Detective Stories (have to go back there to read some more). It’s a great story, aside from the casual racism, but it bugs me that they kept saying he died of starvation. Wouldn’t it have been of dehydration?


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