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.