The Singing Masons

A review of The Singing Masons by Francis Vivian

Book Four of The Georgics by Publius Vergilius Maro, or Virgil, the one in which he deals with bee keeping, was a set book for my Latin A level and Part One of my Tripos at University. I have never been able to look at bees in the same way since, but I am not so churlish as to deride their industry and collective spirit nor to wonder at the skill, knowledge and determination of the committed apiarist. I just do not want their charges anywhere near me.

Arthur Ernest Ashley, whose nom de plume was Francis Vivian, was an enthusiastic beekeeper and there was a certain air of inevitability that he would put this knowledge to good use as he did in this, his seventh book in the Inspector Knollis series, originally published in 1950 and now reissued by Dean Street Press. Fortunately, he wears his expertise lightly and whilst there is much about the beekeeper’s art and techniques, it is easily digestible and pertinent to the plot. One wonders what Freeman Wills Crofts would have made of it.

The book owes its title to Shakespeare’s description of bees in Henry V. I have found that a knowledge of the scriptures and Shakespeare is a pre-requisite to unlock the whodunit aspect of many a detective novel form the genre’s so-called Golden Age and it is the case here. It is fascinating to reflect that authors of the period were confident enough that many of their readers would have been fed on a diet of the Bible and Shakespeare at school to have been familiar with such references and understand their import. Education has moved on to a more varied diet and less emphasis on learning by rote but it does mean modern readers start at a distinct disadvantage.

If only the local policeman in charge, Inspector Osiah Wilson, had allowed the garrulous old beekeeper, Samuel Heatherington, to complete the quotation, he might have saved himself and Inspector Knollis, drafted in from the Yard, a lot of trouble. Heatherington’s bees swarm and lead the old man to a hive in the deceased Roxana Doughty’s garden. The cottage is empty but Heatherington is surprised to find a hive there as she hated bees. Its position, directly over a well, was not conducive to the bees’ health. At the insistence of Georgie Maynard, who with her husband, Phil, have joined to help, the hive is removed, a well is uncovered and the body of Doughty’s nephew and heir, Gerald Batley, who had been missing for a month, is discovered. He had been bashed on the head and poisoned with a form of cyanide.

The Maynards, it transpires, have had their own run of bad luck and Knollis quickly surmises that they were victims of a concerted attack. Did they know and was this sufficient motive for murder. Batley was a bit of a womaniser, to boot, and had some photos of his conquests, some of whom were anxious to recover them. Did this or the outrage of an affronted husband provide sufficient motive for murder? There were signs of a struggle at Batley’s flat, but how did his body get to the well and how was he poisoned? Where did the hive come from?

Knollis is nothing if not thorough and he works his way through these questions and more until he comes to the only possible solution, one that I had arrived at before him, I can smugly assert. The denouement is dramatic and tragic, a fitting finale to an excellent book which is widely regarded as Vivian’s best and rightly so. It has also made me even warier of bees!

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