Tag Archives: Inspector Knollis

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!

The Laughing Dog

A review of The Laughing Dog by Francis Vivian

This is a fine story, the fifth in Francis Vivian’s Inspector Knollis, first published in 1950 and reissued for a modern readership by Dean Street Press. There is a touch of modernity in the story, with Knollis and, indeed, the culprit taking air trips. No longer does the detective have to rely upon his feet, a bicycle, a car or public transport. Times are moving on. There is also a broadening of horizons as the prologue and the all-important meeting between Dr Hugh Challoner and Aubrey Highton in Algiers.

I have always subscribed to the theory that less is more and this is certainly the case in a story which revolves around just three, possibly four, credible suspects. At first glance, this can seem incredibly limiting and a less skilled writer than Arthur Ashley, Francis Vivian is his nom de plume, could easily find that the reader will quickly put two and two together and lose interest. The restrictions of a limited cast list has forced Ashley to produce a tightly constructed plot with twists and turns along the way. All of the three main protagonists are not who they seem to be and as Knollis works his way through the problems before him, the reader finds that they are on a voyage of discovery which leaves them guessing until the very end.

Knollis is also ahead of his time as he has reservations about the ultimate price that a murderer has to pay. He recognises that it is his duty to endure that the rule of law is enforced but has qualms about the consequences. His conscience telegraphs the ending where justice is seen to be done but not courtesy of the hangman’s knot.

To date, Knollis has been a bit of an enigma, a dedicated, thorough police officer going about his duty but about whom we know very little. During the course of the story we learn that he has a wife and two boys and that he studied mechanical engineering, likening the process of detection to taking a machine apart and seeing how it works. He has a human face.

Challoner is a doctor and Aubrey Highton an artist who makes a living from drawing caricatures, claiming to see humans as birds or animals or even flowers. In Algiers the two meet and Highton depicts Challoner with the face of a laughing dog. Challoner reacts angrily to the drawing. Months later Challoner is found dead in his surgery with a cord around his neck and a doodle of a laughing dog in his desk diary.

Highton, now in England and found accommodation by Challoner, was due to be the last patient to see the doctor but a lady by the name of Madelaine Burke allows him to go in first. Knollis soon finds out that Challoner and Burke are more than just doctor and patient and that Challoner’s daughter and fiancé, Eric Lincoln, are bitterly opposed to the proposed marriage and were both on the premises at the time of the murder. Highton’s room is directly opposite the surgery and he has a bird’s eye view of what is going on and even draws a helpful sketch of what he saw when he entered the consulting room after the murder.

One or more of these four did the deed but as to motive this only becomes clearer as the murky secrets of each of their lives emerge. The plot does rely a little on concidence and the reader who wants to crack their grey cells in the hope of getting to the solution ahead of Knollis would be well advised to study the maps of the Doctor’s house and the street plan provided. The denouement lacks nothing in drama and poignancy. And, of course, the laughing dog provides the key to the mystery.

Whether you want to play sleuth or just enjoy a well-written, beautifully plotted story, this is worth putting on your reading list.