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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.