Book Corner – August 2020 (1)

The Death of Mr Lomas – Francis Vivian

Francis Vivian was the nom de plume of Arthur Ashley, a Nottinghamshire-based painter and decorator until, in 1932, he turned his hand to writing popular fiction. The Death of Mr Lomas, published in 1941, is the first book in which he introduced to his readership his most famous detective creation, Inspector Gordon Knollis. There were ten Knollis stories in all, the last published in 1956.

Vivian was an inveterate collector of information, he was an expert on bee keeping, for example, and he could not resist sharing his love of the arcane with his readers. He was also known as playing fair, the attentive reader could always crack the problem from the data that had been given during the course of the narrative. Knollis would never pick up on a clue that had not been disclosed before. This technique makes for a satisfying read as you pit your wits against the Inspector and wait with anticipation for the end to see whether you had indeed fingered the culprit and understood how it was all done.

Vivian’s books were also noted for their fiendishly complicated plots and The Death of Mr Lomas is no different, a panoply of characters drifting in and out of the narrative. The book also touches on a couple of slightly surprising elements, cocaine dealing and cross-dressing, echoing Ethel Lina White’s Wax and Moray Dalton’s The Strange Case of Harriet Hall. The sensitive modern reader should be aware that Vivian does lapse into casually racist language at times in often the most surprising contexts, for example in this book when describing the colour of a pair of curtains.  

One day the Chief Constable of Burnham, Sir William Burrows, a bluff, blustering character, receives a visit from a respectable shopkeeper, Mr Lomas. Lomas shocks Burrows by claiming that he is being poisoned without being able to substantiate his fears. The policeman sends him away, suggesting that he is suffering from a nervous disorder. Later that night Lomas’ body is found in the river. He had consumed a lot of whisky that night, but the spirit had been adulterated with cocaine. Even more astonishingly, Lomas, who had a flourishing beard complete with moustaches, was clean shaven.

We find Knollis at home spending a quiet evening with his wife, both reading books, when he is disturbed with news of the murder. The discomforted Chief Constable relays to his Inspector the contents of the unusual interview he had had with Lomas. There is no doubt who is in charge of the investigation and there is a running joke throughout the narrative whenever the pair meet, the Chief struggling to identify the Emsworth that Knollis alludes to.

Knollis’ modus operandi is to work through the problem methodically, navigating his way through a rather convoluted series of events, some twists threatening to send him down a blind alley. The ending, given the stately progress of the rest of the book, seemed to me to be a tad rushed and melodramatic. However, all in all it was an entertaining read with flashes of humour, where the focus was solely and simply on the solving of the crime. Too many veer off to give us a rounder picture of the principal characters. This is a no-nonsense whodunit and all the better for it.

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