A review of The Sleeping Island by Francis Vivian
I think even his most ardent fans would be hard pressed to make a convincing case for including Arthur Ashley, who wrote under the nom de plume of Francis Vivian, amongst the doyens of the crime writers of the so-called Golden Age. However, it is undeniable that he was able to construct a solid, enjoyable story that kept his readers entertained. The Sleeping Island, the eighth outing for his police detective Inspector Knollis, originally published in 1951 and reissued by Dean Street Press, firmly falls into this category.
What holds Vivian back in part is Knollis himself. He is solid, reliable, diligent, hardworking, determined to unravel the mystery that is laid out before him, but he rather suffers from a charisma bypass, lacking that certain spark that marks out other detectives. His role is to bring some order to a set of bewildering events, and to see justice served in an as efficient and unobtrusive way as possible. Readers of the Knollis series rarely experience the sort of pyrotechnics other writers of the time delighted in.
That said, there is a different atmosphere to this story. It is one that has a rather darker edge to it and is sombre in tone, dealing with domestic violence, greed, Machiavellian plots to obtain a legacy, wartime misdemeanours, marital infidelity, and nosy neighbours. Readers of the genre are used to red herrings but here a packet of kippers prove crucial to unmasking the culprit and ensuring that justice is served.
Paul Murray is an unlikeable man. He married his wife, Brenda, for her money after her fiancé, Dennis Palmer, was drowned in a swimming accident off the island of Lampedusa, where he and Murray were stationed during the war. Life on the Mediterranean island was so quiet that the military there dubbed it the sleeping island, hence the book’s title. Within six weeks Murray had wooed and married Brenda. She still mourned the loss of Dennis, a source of constant irritation to Murray, and called their house Avalon, the island to which, according to Thomas Mallory, the mortally wounded King Arthur was taken to fall into a deep slumber until summoned to earth once more.
Murray’s military colleagues, some of whom live in the community, have always considered that there was more to Palmer’s death than met the eye, especially given the rapidity with which Murray had seized the opportunity to get his hands on Brenda’s money. Although he had a cast iron alibi, had Murray pulled off the perfect murder?
The ghost of Palmer haunts the book and the events that unfold can be seen as his return for vengeance. Brenda’s body is found face down in the lily pond in their garden. To add a touch of the macabre to the crime, their cat has been killed and mutilated too. Brenda had been considering a change to her will to cut Paul out. Had he struck to ensure that the money stayed in his hands?
Curiously, though, on the night in question Brenda had had an unusually high number of visitors, each of whom had some form of motivation for seeing her demise. Some of their behaviour was suspicious with much lurking behind bushes and listening to conversations, tampering with and hiding evidence, and laying false trails. Murray is the obvious fall guy, particularly if he had done away with Palmer, but Knollis does not see it that way.
As Knollis’ investigations proceed, he discovers another attempt at the perfect murder, this time with an unlikely suspect. The reader, I think, is invited to compare and contrast a perfect murder with a murder that the culprit thought was perfect but wasn’t, but the explanation of the Lampedusa affair was a little sketchy for my taste. Justice won out in the end in an entertaining tale, although one that did not quite reach the heights of Vivian’s middle period.