Friday, August 17, 2018

Murderers Beeware, Inspector Knollis Is on the Case! The Singing Masons (1950), by Francis Vivian and the Reprinting of the Inspector Knollis Mysteries

Arthur Ernest Ashley (1906-1979), the son and grandson of Notthinghamshire photographers and picture framers, led an interesting and unusual working life.  His elder brother, noted freelance photographer Hallam Ashley (1900-1987), followed the family muse.  Ernest from a young age worked as a sign painter and decorator, however, until in 1932 he successfully established himself as a short fiction writer for newspapers and general magazines. Five years later, under the pseudonym "Francis Vivian," he published his first detective novel, Death at the Salutation.  After publishing these and five more mysteries, in 1941 he produced his first Inspector Gordon Knollis novel, The Death of Mr. Lomas, the first of ten series tales of murder and detection.

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 schoo
(and a very large bee!)
Francis Vivian's former work colleague recalled of his crime fiction:

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
added to an already complicated inventory of blackmail, lust, counter-lust, social climbing, and murder the fact that the protagonists happened to be bee-keepers, and before you knew it somebody's life was hanging by the thread of American Foul Brood, a dead bee which clearly was an Italian-Caucasian cross, and a misplaced WBC hive with a foundation frame susceptible to wax moth infestation.  Cyanide was not omitted. 

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
"It's a most interesting case, Wilson.  Fascinating, in fact!"

"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?)
It is indeed a hard case, involving Croftsian alibis and movements.  To help readers along a map is provided (and who doesn't love that in a vintage mystery).  One alibi hinges partly on the person having attended a showing of Robert Montgomery's film adaptation of Raymond Chandler's The Lady in the Lake!  But all the clues don't come out of the Croftsian bag of tricks, and there's a clever solution indeed, as well as an unexpectedly hard-hitting conclusion.

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.


  1. Sounds like an author I'd really enjoy and I'm glad to hear that Dean Street Press will be reissuing them. Really I am. It's just that I cannot keep up with what I want to read now and here you are tempting me with even more largesse. Woe is me and bring'em on. I'll go down swinging.

    1. I live to bankrupt! (Is that a deliberate quotation of the Tom Petty song?)

    2. Well, at least you're fully aware of what you've wrought on us all. That's something, I suppose. ;)

      I'm looking forward to working my way through this series and The Singing Masons sounds like an interesting detective story.

    3. I hope you like them, I'm going to get some more up on him soon. Can't go wrong with bees in a mystery! ;)

  2. Which book is the one laden with black magic? I'll read that one first. Never heard of this guy nor come across any of his books. Sounds like the kind of eccentric writer that I would enjoy.

    1. The most black magical ones are non-series, but I hope those will be reprinted! We shall see how these do.

    2. Ah well, here's hoping. I read the blurbs of the Insp. Knollis books on the Book Depository website and couldn't see any that hinted at occult incidents in the plot. But I did find a few that appealed to me. You made the writer sound so intriguing and so I went hunting for cheap vintage copies. Also I'm too impatient to wait two full months for them to be released. I now have a copy of THE THREEFOLD CORD and soon will have DARKLING DEATH. I'll read both quickly and have essays ready to post in October the very day that Dean Street releases the first Francis Vivian reprint.

    3. For the black magic check out Dark Moon and Black Alibi, I think--those are the ones I don't have! His prewar books are very rare.