The Laughing Dog

A review of The Laughing Dog by Francis Vivian

This is a fine story, the fifth in Francis Vivian’s Inspector Knollis, first published in 1950 and reissued for a modern readership by Dean Street Press. There is a touch of modernity in the story, with Knollis and, indeed, the culprit taking air trips. No longer does the detective have to rely upon his feet, a bicycle, a car or public transport. Times are moving on. There is also a broadening of horizons as the prologue and the all-important meeting between Dr Hugh Challoner and Aubrey Highton in Algiers.

I have always subscribed to the theory that less is more and this is certainly the case in a story which revolves around just three, possibly four, credible suspects. At first glance, this can seem incredibly limiting and a less skilled writer than Arthur Ashley, Francis Vivian is his nom de plume, could easily find that the reader will quickly put two and two together and lose interest. The restrictions of a limited cast list has forced Ashley to produce a tightly constructed plot with twists and turns along the way. All of the three main protagonists are not who they seem to be and as Knollis works his way through the problems before him, the reader finds that they are on a voyage of discovery which leaves them guessing until the very end.

Knollis is also ahead of his time as he has reservations about the ultimate price that a murderer has to pay. He recognises that it is his duty to endure that the rule of law is enforced but has qualms about the consequences. His conscience telegraphs the ending where justice is seen to be done but not courtesy of the hangman’s knot.

To date, Knollis has been a bit of an enigma, a dedicated, thorough police officer going about his duty but about whom we know very little. During the course of the story we learn that he has a wife and two boys and that he studied mechanical engineering, likening the process of detection to taking a machine apart and seeing how it works. He has a human face.

Challoner is a doctor and Aubrey Highton an artist who makes a living from drawing caricatures, claiming to see humans as birds or animals or even flowers. In Algiers the two meet and Highton depicts Challoner with the face of a laughing dog. Challoner reacts angrily to the drawing. Months later Challoner is found dead in his surgery with a cord around his neck and a doodle of a laughing dog in his desk diary.

Highton, now in England and found accommodation by Challoner, was due to be the last patient to see the doctor but a lady by the name of Madelaine Burke allows him to go in first. Knollis soon finds out that Challoner and Burke are more than just doctor and patient and that Challoner’s daughter and fiancé, Eric Lincoln, are bitterly opposed to the proposed marriage and were both on the premises at the time of the murder. Highton’s room is directly opposite the surgery and he has a bird’s eye view of what is going on and even draws a helpful sketch of what he saw when he entered the consulting room after the murder.

One or more of these four did the deed but as to motive this only becomes clearer as the murky secrets of each of their lives emerge. The plot does rely a little on concidence and the reader who wants to crack their grey cells in the hope of getting to the solution ahead of Knollis would be well advised to study the maps of the Doctor’s house and the street plan provided. The denouement lacks nothing in drama and poignancy. And, of course, the laughing dog provides the key to the mystery.

Whether you want to play sleuth or just enjoy a well-written, beautifully plotted story, this is worth putting on your reading list.

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