After the Second World War, Ernest went to work as an assistant editor and "color man" (writer of local color stories) for the Notts Free Press, but he managed to produce no less than nine Knollis novels between 1947 and 1956, which, though largely forgotten today, proved quite popular. (Indefatigable Barry Pike authored a short piece in CADS on the Francis Vivian detective fiction a few years ago.)
During the late 40s and early 50s, when the Francis Vivian books was published in hardcover by noted crime novel polisher Hodder & Stoughton, a colleague at the Notts Free Press later recalled (possibly with some exaggeration), that Francis Vivian was "neck in neck [in hardcover sales and library rentals] with Ngaio Marsh in second place after Agatha Christie."
Ernest Ashley, or Francis Vivian as I shall call him henceforward, was a dabbler in many fields, about which he gave talks on the popular lecture circuit. Inevitably this esoterica would find its way into his detective novels, to the enjoyment of his fans.
|Cover depicting Samuel Heatherington|
"a retired carpenter and wheelwright
seventy-two years of age,
grey-haired, straight-backed, kindlyeyed
and a bee-master of the old school"
(and a very large bee!)
But what plots. He couldn't write a straightforward tale of A killing B for complex motives and call it a day. A and B would also be involved in archery, or black magic, or some subject which Ernest had researched to the nth degree, and you could be sure the denouement would depend on some fine point of archery or black magic.
One hobbyist passion of Francis Vivian's--one with the finest of crime fiction pedigrees--was beekeeping. It provided the background of his sixth Knollis detective novel, The Singing Masons (1950). The title is drawn from Shakespeare's Henry V, eighteen lines from which are quoted as an epigraph. I quote this in part:
For so work the honey bees/Creatures that, by a rule in nature, teach/The act of order to a peopled kingdom....their emperor/Who, busied in his majesty, surveys/The singing masons building roofs of gold....
Francis Vivian's former work colleague recalled of The Singing Masons that Vivian
|a natty beekeeper at work|
However, Ernest took great pride in the fact that the reader could always arrive at a correct solution simply from the given data. His Inspector (Knollis of the Yard) never picked up an undisclosed clue which, it was later revealed, held the solution to the mystery all along."
When reading The Singing Masons several years ago I enjoyed the beekeeping material and thought it nicely intertwined with the mystery, which concerns the grisly death of a handsome, socially ambitious philanderer in the rural English borough of Clevely. Inspector Knollis of the Yard is called in to assist local man Inspector Wilson, who finds Knollis too cerebral and dispassionate about this nasty case, where human malice stings like, well, bees:
|Italian honeybee at work|
"You make it sound horrible," grumbled Wilson, "almost as if we're doing you a good turn! Murders arranged to meet the convenience of investigators. Hangings arranged at the shortest notice. Quotations by return of post. Apply Police Headquarters, Victoria Street, Clevely. Bah!"
"In a job like ours we have to concentrate on the purely intellectual aspects of a case, Wilson. If we paused too often to consider the emotional side we'd go mad. Don't mistake my enthusiasm. It's entirely intellectual. Somewhere in this district is a person with brains to use them. It's going to be a battle of wits--and it isn't going to be an easy case!"
|Marlowe at work (Why so serious?)|
The Singing Masons is one of my favorite Francis Vivian mysteries. Dare I say it's a honey? I am glad to be able to announce that it and all the Inspector Knollis will soon be back in print, courtesy of Dean Street Press. More on this soon! I'll also have some additional detail on Masons.