The Three Taps: A Detective Story Without a Moral (1927) by Ronald Knox

Review by John S:

Miles Bredon, a brooding gentleman detective, and his very witty wife, Angela, travel to a god-forsaken village in the Midlands to investigate the death of a businessman called Mottram, found gassed in his hotel bedroom. If the cause of death is suicide, the Indescribable Insurance Company, on whose behalf Bredon is sleuthing, will refuse to pay out on a mouth-watering insurance policy. Mottram’s neighbour, a Roman Catholic bishop, is named as the beneficiary, but that information is not widely known at the time of his death. Bredon spends hours fretting over a game of patience, but the chirpy Angela treats the case as a great lark. There is the usual faffing around, talking to suspects and stalking them, before the mystery is solved. Miles and Angela get others to do the stalking. Some of the most significant faffing occurs in and around a ‘gorge’ where a document has been secreted and must be retrieved. I struggled to imagine a gorge in the Midlands, and found my thoughts straying to the Khyber Pass.

In the early chapters, Ronald Knox takes great delight in ridiculing the accents, turns of phrase, and other ill-bred gaffes of Mottram and the locals (the hotel landlady, maid, and so forth). We learn in addition that the dogged Inspector Leyland would not have obtained a commission in the war (1914-18) had there not been rather a shortage of gentlemen. Miles and Angela are slumming it, and largely for the sake of passing the time. But not all of the locals are figures of fun. Knox lavishes praise on the hardworking bishop and Catholic clergy of the diocese. Although Knox claims that the story has no moral, the good bishop does face a potentially serious moral test.

The story dawdles along, enlivened up to a point by Knox’s gleeful sniping at the plebs. Knox was one the smartest champagne Catholics of his day. The son of an Anglican bishop, he converted to Rome and spent many years as Catholic chaplain at Oxford University. He also became a close friend of Evelyn Waugh. Who might have enjoyed The Three Taps? Perhaps well-to-do Catholic ladies or masters at Stonyhurst would have found Knox’s tale diverting on a winter’s evening in the days before television. I can almost hear them chortling over their glasses of sherry and tumblers of whiskey and soda.

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