Friday, October 19, 2018

FFB: Two Cases for Inspector Knollis

The contrast between Francis Vivian's early detective novels and his final two is rather striking. While the early novel show Gordon Knollis tirelessly uncovering evidence, delegating orders to his police team, and restraining his impatience with less than honest suspects, in the final two novels Knollis is relegated to the background and his keen detective skills seem to have lost their sharpness. In fact, he fails to find the correct culprit in one case. The introduction of Brother Ignatius, a Nestorian priest, in The Ladies of Locksley (1953) allows Vivian to explore his personal interests and his belief in mystical philosophy and psychic connections. This is further developed in the final Knollis detective novel Darkling Death (1956) in which the priest becomes the accidental sleuth of the novel.

First, take a look at how Vivian initially approached the detective novel in The Laughing Dog (1949), the fifth book in the series and about the exact midpoint of his crime writing career. It's as traditional as it comes. It may, in fact, be one of the better examples of a finely plotted detective novel with an extremely limited number of suspects along the lines of Cards of the Table, for we are only given four possible suspects in the bizarre strangling murder of Dr. Hugh Challoner.

The plot has a taint of an impossible crime about it without being a locked room mystery for the scene of the crime has several entrances and exits and there were multiple witnesses watching those doors before and after the murder took place. These eyewitness accounts reminded me of similar scenes in Carr's The Emperor's Snuffbox and The Ten Teacups. But rather than being a case of no one exiting or entering it is the opposite -- too many people were seen coming and going from the room, sometimes within minutes of having left. Knollis finds himself with a confounding case, one in which time and opportunity are all important in finding out exactly who among the many people who went into Challoner's consulting room to meet with the doctor was the person who also killed him.

Vivian also has a field day with the title of the book which turns out to be not only the prominent feature in Dr. Challoner's caricature, but also a doodle that turns up repeatedly on pieces of paper and in the doctor's diary. The term recurs throughout the novel until Knollis and his team finally realize what it truly refers to. By then secrets from the doctor's past come exploding into the present further complicating the case and providing ample fodder for motives for his murder.

The detection in The Laughing Dog is some of the best in the few books I've sampled in this brief series. Knollis does an excellent job of sharing information and doling out terse orders to the many police who make up the investigative team. Often the novel succeeds as an excellent police procedural in its depiction of police work and the way Vivian tells it all give the book a very contemporary flavor. There are some well done scenes between Knollis and Sgt. Ellis that elaborate on their friendship which only enhances the way the two work together. Ellis is forever being chided about his meerschaum pipe and the obnoxious tobacco he prefers which Knollis jokingly disparages as a blend of "Devil's Brew, Copper Beech and Senna Pods." Ellis is also an avid cinema-goer and will often suggest they take in a show with Disney cartoons to free up their mind on the case. He tells one cop that Mickey Mouse was responsible for Knollis coming up with the solution to one case. Finally, Knollis is often cajoled into stepping into a cafe where Ellis can indulge in his addiction to tea cakes and pastries along with a nicely brewed cup of tea. They make for an affable team and their discussion of the cases --a mixture of friendly banter, fraternal teasing and hardcore logic -- is a lively meeting of the minds.

While The Laughing Dog may be one of Vivian's better forays into pure detection following the fair play technique rather well and sometimes with the use of ingeniously planted clues, the same cannot be said of Darkling Death, a more somber affair as is suggested by the grim title. Here detection fades into the background as Vivian explores the psychological ramifications of a suspect who has lost his memory on the day of the crime. Brandeth Grayson, a writer of crime stories, was last seen entering the study where his odious brother-in-law Herby was found shot to death. But apart from recalling leaving for a walk he cannot remember exactly what he did and begins to doubt himself and more and more comes to believe he is responsible for the death.

The novel is dominated by Grayson's attempt to clear his name but also is teeming with tangential discussions. Vivian covers a wide range of topics including Peter Damian Ouspensky's theory of eternal recurrence, Lahsen's beliefs in reincarnation, Nestorian Christology, the merits of popular fiction vs. highbrow poetry, and numerous theological and philosophical debates between Grayson and Brother Ignatius. Detection often steps aside to make room for much domestic melodrama between Grayson, his wife and his pre-teen daughter Natalie. In addition to having been evicted from Herby's home the Grayson marriage is on the rocks. Corinne has made up her mind to be a wife to her husband in name only for the sake of their daughter, the intimacy shared by husband and wife she has forsaken. Bran Grayson, however, is determined to regain her heart as well as clearing his name of the murder charge.

And where is Knollis in all of this? He appears very late in the novel, featured in only a few sections with his most prominent scenes in the last two chapters. But rest assured he is dutifully digging through the numerous stories and veiled confessions of the many suspects. It seems as if everyone Knollis meets believes Grayson to be guilty of the murder, but none of them want the writer arrested and tried. Knollis must weed through a handful of implied confessions and dexterously told half-truths to find out who is lying and uncover the true criminal. But his rigid pursuit of the truth in this case may cost him his reputation. A near fatal assumption is averted in the  final scenes when Brother Ignatius proves to have the solution of the crime. And the priest must reluctantly break the seal of a confession in order to spare wrongful arrest and prevent besmirching Knollis' career.

Francis Vivian is an intriguing writer of crime fiction often finding clever ways to intersperse his personal philosophies with interesting commentary that surprisingly rarely detracts from the storyline. His belief in psychic connection is playfully hinted at (albeit as a red herring) in The Laughing Dog with the "prediction" of Dr. Challoner's past life when Aubrey Highton draws the caricature of the dog. But by the publication of Darkling Death Vivian has found a way in which his novels can be stories that exemplify his philosophy of recurrence of existence, psychic connection and the laws of karma. For real invigoration of the traditional detective novel Vivian's later novels provide challenging fodder for crime fiction devotees while his earlier novels will satisfy those readers who prefer the daunting task of matching wits with the author and fictional detective in trying to figure out whodunit.

As mentioned previously in my review of The Threefold Cord all ten of the Inspector Knollis detective novels have been reissued by Dean Street Press.  Each book is available in paperback or as a digital download.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

FFB: Voices in an Empty Room - Philip Loraine

THE STORY: Psychic experiments, decades old family secrets, ghostly possession, a forgotten crime... Something strange is happening in the house at 337 Gilman Street in San Francisco. Ellie Owen Spencer and her brother Richie have rented the main house to two women who every night conduct psychic experiments with the spirits of Ellie's ancestors. She and her brother know nothing of what's going on in the house ever since the took up residence in the adjunct coachouse. But then Ellie starts calling her brother and fiance John Lamb by the name Michael. When one night Ellie will not stop writhing on her bed in an apparently paranormally induced sexual ecstasy repeating the name Michael in a dark reverie John and Richie turn to Dr. Hillier for help. The mysteries are only beginning. What exactly happened in the house so long ago? What are those women up to? Are they responsible for what appears to be a case of spiritual possession?

THE CHARACTERS: Voices in an Empty Room (1973) is told from multiple viewpoints. John Lamb is the primary story teller, but Loraine has divided his book into four cleverly constructed sections that allow him to shift viewpoints and alternate plot lines among the cast of characters. The main plot seems to be about the mystery surrounding Ellie's sudden personality transformation and how this affects the burgeoning romance between John and his fiancee. But Loraine adds more to his labyrinthine story.

A second storyline follows the weird ghostly communications manifested by Lulu Jenkins at the behest of Amelia Guardi. Lulu is a bona fide medium with clairvoyant powers, she can see and hear then vocally recreate scenes from the past by channeling various spirits, and yet also predicts the future. She had these uncanny abilities since she was a child. But she is not the brightest bulb in the chandelier and has been easily manipulated by keener, more intelligent people like her former husband who was eager to make a quick buck off of her supernatural ability. Mrs. Guardi, a wealthy woman from Boston who has come to San Francisco to write a book about spiritualism, takes advantage of Lulu's acute powers in an effort to collect proof of life beyond death and that communication with the dead can indeed benefit the living. She is planning to write a book on the subject and gain fame, if not notoriety, in peeling back the veil that separates the living from the dead.

The strong contrast between the two women is handled masterfully and not without a sardonic wit and frequent ironic jabs. It is clear that each will pay dearly for their experiments in the paranormal and mucking about with concepts and events they have no control over. Lulu, a pathetic portrait of wasted talent who is victimized and exploited by corrupt individuals, is not without one fine moment of heroism. In one of her best scenes Lulu's transformation from mouse to lion is brought on by her memory and occurs when Mrs. Guardi repeats a line that Lulu first heard years before uttered by her con artist husband just before he robbed her of her savings and abandoned her. It's a perfect moment, but is ultimately one tinged with irony and failure.

Richie, Ellie's brother, seems initially to appear as a comic character. He's a typical caustically witty queen who turns up in 1970s pop fiction from writers who wanted to appear hip by tossing into their books a token gay character. That Loraine insists on referring to him as a homosexual throughout lessens the intended humor and yet Richie really does have most of the best lines. Luckily, Richie proves to be a firebrand in a couple of key scenes. Hell hath no fury like an angry gay guy. Don't mess with Richie, especially when he's doing his damnedest to save his sister from a hellish malady.

Dr. Hillier, the family physician guarding too many family secrets, and Godfrey Bellfort, the brother of the deeply troubled Stella Bellfort Spencer whose spirit is living again through Lulu round out the cast. Each of these men is as finely drawn as the lead characters and each have striking moments of importance related to the multi-layered story.

INNOVATIONS: Loraine has divided the book into four separate sections: The Living, The Psi, The Dead, The Coming Together.  As each title suggests the story progresses from an expository first section introducing us to the main players, then adding in the supernatural elements in the second section (psi is a term used both by the parapsychology world and pop culture to collectively refer to psychic phenomenon). The third section further develops the plot when the book turns into a literary detective story as John and Richie delve into the archives of the Lilienthal library and we are given a richly detailed history of the Harold Spencer and Owen Spencer families and the incidents that led to a covered up crime. Finally, in the last section both plotlines meet up and culminate in a unexpected twist followed by the resolution in a suitably Grand Guignol style grisly and bloody finale.

Voices in an Empty Room is one of the better supernatural novels to come out of the 1970s when books featuring psychic powers and demonic or ghostly possession exploded in popular fiction and dominated the shelves of the newly created Horror sections in bookstores. Drawing on the motifs and conventions of Victorian sensation and Gothic fiction Loraine has written a tale of madness, ghosts, and corporeal possession that seems less a story of 1973 than one more suited to the era of its influences. He contemporizes these motifs with an ample amount of sex (example: Ellie's possession by the ghostly Micheal is triggered by a lovemaking session with John) and topical references, but the emphasis on family honor, closely guarded secrets, and the preservation of the fabricated story of a troubled relative's life is far removed from the hipper themes of most 1970s novels.

Nevertheless, Loraine's masterful talent in storytelling and his often incisive writing hold sway over the reader. He has structured the novel in such a way with his alternating storylines and slow revelation of multiple secrets that the reader is compelled to move on anxious to get to the end. This page turning frenzy is coupled with the delivery of a truly surprising eleventh hour shock.

QUOTES:  Lamb had always believed that any city worth loving must not only be beautiful but full of interesting looking people, with a dash of eccentricity; San Francisco was well endowed with these virtues. He liked a city to be capable of instant generosity, as well as of reserving more secret and more intimate pleasures for those who will love her more deeply...

...the whole persona of this sibylline apparition scared the hell out of [Ellie]; and at the same time she was sure that unlike other people who used the expression "Believe me, I know," Mrs. Jenkins was speaking the exact truth. There was no doubt in Ellie's mind that she did know--but what? It seemed that this question was going to remain forever unanswered...

Mrs. Guardi was a woman who made careful plans and carried them out to the letter and to their conclusion. That there was something almost manic in her determination did not worry her; in this flabby and directionless world, it was the only way to get things done; it was true that occasionally other people had to suffer, but then people had always had to suffer for any great cause.

EASY TO FIND? I found several copies for sale of both US and UK editions,  hardcover and paperback. Most of them are affordably priced. Only a few of Loraine's books have been released in digital editions, but not Voices in an Empty Room.