The Singing Masons (1950) by Francis Vivian

Once again the Dean Street Press have brought an obscure vintage mystery writer back to our attention, this time reprinting the work of Francis Vivian, which was the penname for Arthur Ernest Ashley. He started out as a painter and decorator before publishing his first book in 1932 and the Dean Street Press have not reprinted just one of his mysteries, but all ten of his Inspector Knollis novels. The first in this series came out in 1941, with the last appearing in 1956. Vivian was quite knowledgeable on bee-keeping, to the extent that he lectured about it and it also plays a fundamental role in today’s read, in terms of the story’s plot, the execution of crime, as well as in the narrative’s descriptions which evidences a real sense of affection for these insects: ‘The bees reminded him of a group of village women preparing for an annual outing from the chapel. Some trotted from the interior of the hive, seemed to chat with other bees, and hurried back indoors as if they’d forgotten something…’

But back to the plot… Samuel Heatherington, a retired man and experienced bee keeper comes upon a grisly surprise when he goes chasing after a swarm of his bees which have decided to decamp to a hive within the garden of the late Roxana Doughty. Of course the surprise is the dead body of Gerald Batley, the nephew and heir of the deceased woman, who incidentally has also been missing for nearly a month. An inventive murder method is only the first intriguing angle to this case, as Inspector Knollis uncovers a number of much darker secrets, hidden pains and baffling facts.

Overall Thoughts

Puzzle fans will not be disappointed with this book. After all it always bodes well when the introduction notes Vivian’s hand for ‘ingenious plotting’ and the story’s emphasis on ‘fair play.’ The solution in particular clearly shows the reader where information has come from. I kind of had my eye on the killer but in a rather forgetful sort of way, so I hadn’t felt like I had solved it too soon. It was more of a vague hunch really.

The plot does not hang around, with the body appearing very soon in the book, yet this to-the-point tale does not fall short stylistically. It doesn’t suffer from excessive dryness (feel like I am sounding more like a skin moisturiser review at this point), and there are a number of pleasing sentences such as: ‘the facts of a murder case are like the lines of a poem or song – they make sense only if you get them in the right order.’ There is of course also the humorous exchanges between Knollis and his colleague Wilson. They make for an entertaining duo, which is a good thing as the story stays predominately with them. Knollish equally has a seemingly off hand, casual approach to his interviewing of suspects, but readers soon learn to know that a lot more is happening underneath the surface; invariably a trap of some kind for the suspects to fall into. Yet there are other good characters in this tale as well. Heatherington is especially good fun, being a rather garrulous old man, with a tendency to quote Shakespeare. Though I did wonder whether his initials were a deliberate reference to that famous bee keeping sleuth…

Finally for a puzzle focused mystery I was quite surprised by how emotive an ending Vivian gave his novel. You might guess the initial event but you don’t really see coming the full impact of the finale and I think Vivian ended his story on a very moving note.

So another good find by the Dean Street Press!

Rating: 4.25/5

Source: Review Copy (Dean Street Press)

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Tomcat and the Puzzle Doctor have also reviewed this title favourably.

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