Tag Archives: Francis Vivian

Darkling Death

A review of Darkling Death by Francis Vivian

This is the tenth and final book in Francis Vivian’s Inspector Knollis series, originally published in 1956 and reissued by Dean Street Press, and it is a bit of an oddity. Vivian’s books always struck me as worthy, workmanlike with the occasional flash of brilliance, but Darkling Death is a disappointment, as much interested in exploring the nature of time, existence, and relationships as developing an intriguing mystery for his police detective, Gordon Knollis, to unravel.

The culprit for all this is Brother Ignatius, a peripatetic priest of the Nestorian order, whom we first met in The Ladies of Locksley. The opening scene is on a train where Ignatius shares a carriage with a writer, Brandreth Grayson, who has lost his money in a publishing venture by staying loyal to his partner. They are both on their way to a village in Norfolk, Grayson to face the music with his odious brother-in-law, Herbert Moston, and to salvage what is left of his marriage and be reunited with his daughter, while the priest is visiting an elderly member of his flock.

On the journey they start pontificating on the meaning of existence, a wide-ranging discussion that drags in the teachings of Ouspenskii amongst others. I could not quite work out whether this was Vivian’s homage to G K Chesterton or whether he was intending to take off the Catholic philosopher. Either way, he failed in his objective, and it made for a heavy, barely digestible opening to the novel.

No sooner has Grayson got to the village than he is involved in a violent argument with his brother-in-law which ends in a fight. Moston comes off second best and worse is to follow. As Grayson leaves the property, he hears two shots and believes he heard the voice, possibly of a woman, bidding him Good Evening. Instead of going directly back to his lodgings in the village pub, Grayson goes for a walk, quite where he cannot recall, and by the time he gets back, the local policeman has informed the regulars that Moston has been shot and is unlikely to survive.

Grayson makes an unfortunate gaff by revealing, all too readily, that he had a fight with Moston in the Gun Room and he finds himself the number one suspect. In their own way the principal regulars of the pub try to protect him, but his prospects look bleak just at the time that his fortunes seem to be turning round, with his agent finalising a lucrative deal for the filming rights of some of his books.

In truth, there is little in the way of detecting in this story and Knollis is very much sidelined. Brother Ignatius holds the key to the mystery, but to the frustration of all concerned, is bound by the conventions of the confessional and can only assist by hints and nods. The identity of the culprit is not hard to deduce as there is really only one person with a motive strong enough to do away with the odious Moston, although Vivian does his best with a fairly weak plot to throw in a red herring or two.

I was hoping that the series would end on a high, but I was left with the feeling that Vivian had done with Knollis, after producing books on a yearly basis there was a three year gap between The Ladies of Locksley and this one. Sadly, though, it never recovered from its stodgy beginning. This is definitely one for the completist and not one from which to begin your exploration of what had been up to this point a highly enjoyable series.

Vivian did go on to publish another work of detective fiction, Dead Opposite The Church, which is a stand-alone story. I will look it up in the hope that it is a more satisfying read.         

The Ladies of Locksley

A review of The Ladies of Locksley by Francis Vivian

The Ladies of Locksley is the ninth in Francis Vivian’s Inspector Knollis series, originally published in 1953 and now reissued for a modern readership by Dean Street Press. Inspector Gordon Knollis is  very in the school of diligent investigation and painstaking testing of alibis, one who often comes up against a dead end and has to spend time reconsidering his preconceptions, before starting again. Often the resolution of the problem comes to him in the unlikeliest circumstances, after a period of quiet reflection, a visit to the cinema or, as here, from a chance remark.

The book introduces us to a fascinating character, Brother Ignatius, a man of the cloth with a conscience who is bound by the conventions of the confessional, but who also has a deep abhorrence of capital punishment. He is not prepared to betray confidences, but equally is not prepared to see an innocent person face the gallows. Knollis too is no fan of the gallows, although he sees it as the unfortunate end-result of his investigations. Vivian’s novel reflects a growing distaste of a form of punishment which was last performed only eleven years after the publication of the novel with the hangings of Peter Allan and Gwynne Evans on August 13, 1964, although legislation to ban it was not passed until 1965.   

Ignatius is an old friend of Knollis, but he frustrates the policeman by his unwillingness to share the extent of his knowledge, content to just give nudges, hints, advice, and the odd warning that he is going down the wrong path. The priest/detective combination is a powerful trope in detective fiction, the priest giving spiritual and psychological insights which assist the physical investigations of the copper. It is a shame Vivian hit on this combination so late in the series as it certainly opens up some intriguing possibilities.

The book opens with Ignatius and Knollis having a philosophical discussion on investigation and judgment. Their views are not completely in harmony and, although an unconventional opening for what is a conventional murder mystery, it does pave the way for the reader to understand that Ignatius is not just being obstructive later in the book and that his actions are driven by conviction.

There is a second meeting before the action gets going, one in which two of the principal ladies of Locksley, Marion Cartland and Kathleen Morley, lock horns, each trying to assert their dominance over the other. Again, although not directly related to the mystery, it does shed light on the tensions between the two, whose husbands are in business together. Both leading lights of Women’s Club, they invite Sir Edmund Griffin, an eminent criminologist, to address them on the perfect murder. Kathleen takes the talk down verbatim. I wonder why?

Roger Cartland’s body is found in a car which has crashed, albeit carefully positioned in a narrow gap by the roadside. The unfortunate Cartland, a hypochondriac with a fetish for new wonder pills, had been poisoned before he got into the car. Who did it and why?

It is a complicated plot, and the reader needs to concentrate or else they will find themselves floundering as several shoals of red herrings twist and turn across the pages. Knollis recognises that the key to the mystery is the timing of when the poison was administered, but the timing that the expert has given for how long the poison would take to act does not fit in with the timetable Knollis has painstakingly constructed to test the various suspects’ seemingly cast-iron alibis.

However, there is no such thing as a perfect murder and one little slip is all that is needed to give the game away. A better understanding of the type of pill through which the poison was administered leads to the case’s resolution and a confrontation with the culprit. Their death by suicide rather than an appointment with the hangman fitted perfectly the anti-hanging leitmotif of the book.

This was a sophisticated and impressive book, easily one of Vivian’s best, and a fine piece of entertainment to boot.

The Sleeping Island

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.

The Elusive Bowman

A review of The Elusive Bowman by Francis Vivian

In this, the seventh outing of Inspector Knollis, originally published in 1951 and reissued by Dean Street Press, I learned more about archery from reading this book than I could possibly shake an arrow at. You do not need to be a toxophilite to get into this book, Vivian, the nom de plume of Arthur Ashley, wears his love and knowledge of the sport lightly but the nub of the case revolves around the intricacies of toxophily.

The book does have its drawbacks. The tightness of the plot means that, to be charitable, there are no more than five possible suspects, but Vivian does a fine job in maintaining the tension, shifting the focus on one and then another, leaving the reader as uncertain as the police as to who really did it.

Each of the principal suspects seem to have rock solid alibis and Inspector Knollis is twice on the verge of admitting defeat, once as a tactical ploy to see whether a relaxation of the pressure will provoke a change in behaviour and lead to one of the suspects giving themselves away, and once when he cannot see his way through the impasse. Much of the plot’s development is reliant upon a witness turning up out of the blue with a crucial piece of evidence or a conversation overheard rather than good old-fashioned police work. There is the sense that Vivian has constructed such a perfect crime that he too is struggling to provide Knollis with the keys with which to unlock it.

The finale is dramatic, possibly verging on the melodramatic, and seems quite rushed in comparison to the more languid investigation. On reflection I wonder whether this impression is deliberate, and that the construction of the book is a literary reconstruction of how you fire a bow. There is the careful selection of the arrow, pushing the nock of the arrow on to the string, drawing the bow, taking aim and then releasing the string. All of a sudden, the arrow flies through the air and, if you are lucky, hits the target. If so, it adds a further impressive dimension to a fine and entertaining book, which in my estimation ranks alongside The Singing Masons as one of Vivian’s best.

We meet Michael Maddison at the start of the story, landlord of the Fox Inn in Teverby-On-The-Hills. He lives there with his sister, Rhoda, and his orphaned niece, Gillian. Maddison turns out to be a nasty piece of work and is intent on thwarting the two women’s plans to marry. They both have eyes on Captain Harry Saunders who runs the local archery club. Both the women are keen archers and when Maddison is found in the cellar killed by an arrow through the chest, both women have the motive and skills to have committed murder.

Inevitably, the case is not as simple as that and during the course of his investigations, Knollis discovers blackmail, fraud, a secret marriage, an insomniac Colonel, and a set of rock-solid alibis. Vivian vividly portrays his principal characters, and the reader can readily get a sense of their frustrations, jealousies and reasons for wanting Maddison out of their lives.

If not exactly quivering with excitement the reader who picks up this fine book has a treat in store.    

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!