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.

1 comment:

  1. Well, you have sold me on The Laughing Dog! As you described it, there appears to be nothing I wouldn't like about it and, from what I have read, Vivian preferred to work with a very close, tightly-knit circle of suspects (c.f. The Singing Masons and The Elusive Bowman). He certainly was an interesting mystery writer who deserved to be finally resurrected from obscurity.

    By the way, you have less than two weeks for that review of Pattern for Murder. ;)