Sable Messenger – Francis Vivian
Francis Vivian was the nom de plume of Nottinghamshire journalist, Arthur Ernest Ashley. This is the second of ten novels he wrote featuring Inspector Knollis and was published in 1947, six years after the opener, The Death of Mr Lomas and is reissued by Dean Street Press. In fictional terms, life has moved on by five years and Knollis has transferred to Scotland Yard. But such is Sir Wilfrid Burrows’ high regard of him that the local Chief Constable does not hesitate to ask for him to assist when the local effort fails to come up with a lead.
A Knollis adventure is not an adrenaline-fuelled, rollercoaster of a ride. It is a full-blooded police procedural as the detective plods his way through a mountain of leads, examining, demolishing or confirming alibis narrowing down the possibilities. He will say “something is going to happen in the next thirty minutes but I’m not sure what it is” and, sure enough, something does and he might even admit to thinking what happened would have happened. Knollis keeps his cards close to his chest, but in fairness to Vivian he plays fair with the reader. All the leads and clues are scrupulously declared and so the reader can entertain themselves, if they so choose, with trying to unravel the puzzle before Knollis reveals the answer.
Perhaps I was a bit jaded when I read this but, frankly, I couldn’t be bothered playing the amateur thief. I devoured the pages, a tribute to Vivian’s easy style and ability to keep things moving, but I didn’t feel the need to go much further. The set up seemed to me a tad dull and I was left wondering whether the set of circumstances really would lead up to someone killing another.
The novel finds us in deep suburbia, Westford Bridge to be precise, full of aspiring couples replete with their petty jealousies and seething with grievances. The victim, Robert Dexter, has answered a knock at his door of the ludicrously named but totally apt Himalaya Villas, and been stabbed to death. His wife, Lesley, described as a snob in the opening sentence of the book, finds him and screams. The wife of the neighbour, Mrs Rawley, who answered a knock at her own door a minute or so earlier, quickly appears on the scene and summons the police.
On the face of it, it seemed a pretty senseless and random murder. At best Dexter was little more than middle management in a local firm and, apart for a passion for collecting Elizabethan poetry, lived a quiet life. But as Knollis digs into the circumstances in more detail, he finds jealousy and rivalry at play and that Dexter has his hands on a valuable medieval manuscript, the eponymous Sable Messenger, which belonged to an elderly priest and which his cousin, Richard Dexter, had found in a priest’s cupboard. It becomes, as the plot unfolds, more of a device to bring another credible witness of the events into the open and to unearth the rivalry of the two Dexters for the hand of Lesley.
The book enters Freeman Wills Crofts’ territory when Knollis works out how the murderer could have escaped via the convenient river running behind Westford Bridge, by a study of and experiment with currents.
The opening sentence of the book reads like the beginning of a lecture on the insurance principle of proximate cause: “If Lesley Dexter had not been a snob her husband might have lived out his three-score-and-ten years”. Her attempts at social climbing, dragging her reluctant husband with her, sets in motion a series of events that leads to his demise. Whether they would really end up in a cold-blooded murder, for which the end result, if caught, was the death sentence, I somehow doubt.
I hope the series will contain some more satisfying stories.