Thursday, January 10, 2019

FFB: The Frog Was Yellow - Francis Vivian

Prior to his ten novel series starring Inspector Gordon Knollis Francis Vivian wrote a brief string of books featuring another policeman detective in the lead. The Frog Was Yellow (1940) is the apparently the second, possibly third, appearance of Acting Inspector (formerly Sergeant) Ronald Drew and his wife and sometime collaborator Drusila. (Yes, that makes her Dru Drew. Why on earth did he saddle her with that ridiculous moniker?) In this second outing Drusila, who we are reminded in a few footnotes was something of a skilled ghostbuster in their previous adventure Dark Moon (1939), acts as the first in a trio of narrators in the three separate “books” that make up the novel. Ronnie Drew is our second storyteller in part two and the novel is closed up with the reluctantly recruited third narrator in the voice of Inspector Burton, one of the many supporting policemen characters is this police procedural style detective novel. Though The Frog Was Yellow may have a decidedly strange title and its story may be tinged with a modicum of weirdness, it is nevertheless another stellar example of Vivian’s intricate plotting, fine fair play clueing, and thoroughly original storytelling.

The Drews are newlyweds in this novel and have just purchased a new home. While it is undergoing a heavy-duty renovation and refurbishing they are invited to stay at Black Canons, the home of Drusila’s (I just can’t call her Dru, though Ronnie does so all the time) friend Corry Dane and Corry’s great aunt and uncle Georgina and Henry Dane. The elder Danes are brother and sister, not spouses. Uncle Henry is recently on leave from the Home Office with whom he was an agent in stationed in Germany. Georgie has made a name and nuisance of herself as both an outspoken social activist and interfering busybody. When not protesting the death penalty in vociferous picketing she is handing out birth control literature to people she thinks have too large families. She has her nose in everyone’s business including her brother’s shady past in what was most likely a counterespionage scheme involving the Gestapo. Needless to say Georgie has made many enemies and will come to a bad end.

When Georgie is murdered under bizarre circumstances it is thought that an angry local man named Rawlinson (the recipient of her birth control handouts and her accusatory finger) is most likely responsible for her death. But one day later his body is found dumped down an abandoned well. Ronnie Drew, his wife Drusila, and several policemen join forces in an intensely intricate investigation to discover who killed the two people and why.

Ronnie and Drusila make for engaging couple. I believed them as a married couple, albeit newlyweds. The ways in which Drusila manages to be on the scene and assists in the investigation were all cleverly introduced into the story. There was never a time when I felt she was being a snoop or a know-it-all. Ronnie is only 29 years old and she is 23 yet they have a maturity to them that makes them all the more appealing. No Tommy and Tuppence lighthearted crime solving here. No competition between the two either. Drusila trusts her husband to do his job and she doesn’t give him advice even when she tells him that she know s who the killer is way back on page 122 in this 284 page book.

Every reader like a good amount of clues in a traditional detective novel. In The Frog Was Yellow there is a veritable avalanche of what readers expect from Golden Age detective novel, but even I have to admit Vivian was laying it on a bit thick in the Clue Department. Among this plethora of clues are an engraved brooch, a stolen packet of secret documents, a pair of woman’s gloves that appear and disappear too frequently, two separate disguises hidden in unusual places, a black homburg hat, recently oiled hinges on a handicraft shed, splashes of molten metal on the wall of the same shed, and of course the titular frog which turns out to be a lawn ornament with some barely noticeable blood stains. Are any of these red herrings? Not a single one! You may need a tally card to take notes and match up everything in the strangely complex plot.

For much of the book it appears that Lionel Scraptoft, the 29 year old estate keeper at Black Canons, is the killer. Though he claims to have been knocked unconscious near the scene of one murder nearly bi of evidence seems to point to him. Ronnie finds himself stepping in and giving expert advice and cautioning Superintendent Thompson to slow down and to apply the evidence to the case rather than fitting the circumstances to Scraptoft who Thompson is convinced is guilty.

What else would you like? Eyewitnesses? There are two. Killers in disguise? Present and accounted for. Bodies moved from the actual scene of the crime to divert suspicion? Check! Perhaps multiple solutions and some rabid accusations from the many suspects? You get them in abundance, too. As much as I have enjoyed multiple solutions in the work of Christianna Brand, who seemed to have cornered the market on them in her small number of detective novels, in The Frog Was Yellow this unusual plot motif may have been Vivian’s greatest handicap.

Vivian has impressively managed to come up with so many solutions to the two crimes and one attempted cover-up that by the penultimate chapter nearly everyone who appears in the novel has been named the guilty party. Each time a solution is presented we get legitimately outlined methods and motives with all the evidence accounted for. It’s an incredible feat of both imagination and intricate plotting. I was duly impressed. And yet…

In the final pages when we are confronted with the real murderer it all ends with something of an anticlimax. Having read of at least five different variations of how Georgie and Rawlinson were killed to be presented with a sixth (or is it seventh?) final and genuine solution diminished the surprise quotient. What should have been eyebrow raising shock instead elicited a mere “Oh really?” comment from me. But one final lurid touch did effect a gasp from me just before the novel's close.

4 comments:

  1. I think this was the first by him I read. Expect DSP to do his other books, but have still never found Dark Moon and Black Alibi. Elusive!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Good to know DSP is going to reprint these as well, Curt, because I have no objection to being buried by The Frog Was Yellow under an avalanche of clues and false solutions.

      Thanks for the review, John. I'll snatch it up the moment it gets reissued by DSP.

      Delete
    2. Despite my final criticism I really enjoyed this one, TomCat. His plotting captivates me even if he loves overkill. I know you will enjoy this one, too. Let’s hope it comes out soon.

      Delete
  2. You've sold me on Vivian (I've read two so far), but this one may be a tad too much for my plodding brain. I love his characterizations, tho.

    ReplyDelete