The Threefold Cord

The Threefold Cord – Francis Vivian

This is the third of Vivian’s Inspector Knollis murder mystery tales and it is a cracking story. It has taken me a little while to warm to Vivian, but this is an intriguing tale, well-plotted and an excellent denouement which leaves no loose ends hanging around untidily. Published initially in 1947 and now reissued for a modern audience by Dean Street Press, it takes its title from a verse in Ecclesiastes; “and if a man prevail against that is alone, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not easily broken”. More prosaically, the case hangs on three blue silken cords.

The first two are found around the necks of Mildred Manchester’s dead pets, a budgerigar called Sweetums and a cat by the name of Boofuls, both strangled. The third is found in a pocket of Fred Manchester, an arrogant, ruthless furniture dealer, who is found brutally butchered by an axe and found in the greenhouse which houses his prized collection of cacti. Before Manchester meets his demise, he goes to the local police, demanding that Scotland Yard investigates what this spate of pet slaying and the cords mean, thinking that it is a presage of darker things to come.

Surprisingly, given that initially these seem trivial incidents by modern standards, even allowing for Manchester’s prominence in the town and the police chief, Colonel Mowbray thinking it all nonsense, Knollis is despatched to investigate and before he can even visit Manchester’s abode, he learns of the brutal murder.

Knollis is a straightforward investigator who makes a quick character study and is not afraid to voice his opinions as to the veracity of what he has been told. The narrative is not hampered by him having a faithful amanuensis hanging around to whom he has to recount and explain everything that has transpired. This helps maintain a formidable pace. It does not take a genius to work out who and why the pets were killed but the clue to Manchester’s own murder lies in part in his murky past, details of which are gradually pieced together.

There is a strange atmosphere in the house, as Knollis quickly detects, and there is an intriguing list of suspects, all of whom may have had some reason to see the back of Manchester. Unusually for novels of this genre and period, the servants are not either consigned to walk-on parts or included for their comedic value but are integral to the plot. While the maid provides some love interest, she is affianced to the chauffeur, she provides vital evidence which proves crucial to the solving of the case.

I also liked the actress, Dana Vaughan, who had decamped to the Manchester’s residence after suffering a breakdown after playing a starring pert in the London production of The Hempen Rope. Vivian produces a fine portrait of a vain, intense actress who, as a somnambulist, sometimes re-enacts the strangulation scene from the play in her sleep. Her bravura performance also provides Knollis with a clue to unlocking the mystery.

The plot takes a further turn when, almost out of the blue, Vivian introduces a chapter about a public hangman who met his death in mysterious circumstances. It is a fine piece of writing and its relevance to the Manchester case becomes clear as the rest of the narrative unfolds. A believable and logical plot is only let down by the introduction of a character with a hereditary facial scar. I’m no geneticist but I would take a lot of convincing that this is possible.

That apart, it is a great book, the best from Vivian that I have read, and superb entertainment. If you want to dip your toe into the world of Inspector Vivian and do not want to start from the beginning of the series, this is the one to start with.

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