‘Inspector Knollis of Scotland Yard is hoping for a nice quiet weekend in the country. Instead he is embroiled in a murder case—the death by gunshot of local bigwig Richard Huntingdon. Jean, the dead man’s wife, discovers the body in dense woods near a river. Knollis soon learns that Jean’s previous husband also met an untimely end, not that she is the only suspect. Despite his reputation for good deeds, Huntingdon had enemies in the district, including the progressive Bishop of Northcote. And it turns out the late Mr. Huntingdon was intimately involved with a grade-A femme fatale… Knollis, along with the redoubtable Sergeant Ellis, has to deal with a plethora of puzzling clues before solving this bucolic case of Murder most Foul. Key to the mystery is a toy yacht found floating on the river near the body—a craft almost identical to the gift recently received—anonymously—by Huntingdon’s young daughter, Dorrie.’
In this tale Inspector Knollis finds himself on a busman’s holiday, which is quickly established on the first page. Detectives never seem to be able to go on holiday without at least one person getting bumped off in the vicinity. Personally, I would get nervous if a sleuth came to holiday near me. It is almost advisable to go on holiday yourself, just to be in a different geographical area!
The victim is set up as a doer, who spends a lot of time being on committees and in hobby societies. Civic duty is important to them. However, as regular readers of a mysteries know, this does not automatically make someone a nice or agreeable person to be around. His self-importance is soon taken down a peg or two when one character mentions that: ‘He makes a lot of speeches […] His favourite speech is Chivalry in This Modern Age. It is alleged that the compositors on the Herald staff keep the speech made up in type and merely alter the name of the hall in which the thing is made, and the group he happens to be addressing.’
Hoax phone calls are a staple trope of classic crime fiction and can have many purposes. They can lead someone to their own doom, (see Q. E. D. (1930) by Lynn Brock), they can get someone out of the way so a murder can take place, (see Agatha Christie’s The Murder at the Vicarage (1930)) and they can also be used to bring more people to a crime scene so they can be incriminated for the crime committed, (see Welcome Death (1954) by Glyn Daniel). In Vivian’s book hoax phone calls are used for the first and third purposes, meaning a number of respectable members of the local community are found in close proximity to the murder. Without going into spoilers I would say Vivian does something else quite interesting with the hoax phone calls, which adds to the book’s overall puzzle.
Another aspect of the novel engagingly used is that of a child character. I felt the writer incorporated them into the central mystery with meaningful inclusion. I didn’t feel they were just there for comedy purposes by being obnoxious. Whilst the characterisation in this book is perhaps a little uneven, one character which did interest me was the wife of the victim. She initially seems something of a stereotype, but I think as the story progresses she becomes a more complex figure.
As I mentioned above chivalry was a favourite topic of the victim, so it was interesting to see how this concept then takes something of bashing as the narrative continues. There is a sense that it leads to unhealthy relationships. Early on in the story the victim is contrasted with the local bishop, with it being said that:
‘The Bishop is a firm believer in the equality of the sexes, and believes that women should stand beside men as equals and not ask nor expect any consideration as an alleged weaker sex. Richard was of a chivalrous nature, and believed that women actually were the weaker sex, and should be treated as such. Again, Richard believed in the inherent good in human nature, while the Bishop is a member of the old hell-and-brim-stone school, believing in original sin and the literal truth of the Adam and Eve legend. He lectures on the necessity of wrestling with the evil side of man’s nature, whereas poor dear Richard believed we should concentrate on the development of one’s better self.’
I found this interesting passage, as the way it parcels out different beliefs does not fully follow stereotypical lines. Ordinarily the stereotype would suggest that the bishop be against sex equality. Not a bad thing, just thought it was unusual. One thing that did puzzle me though was this comment about the victim:
‘The monkey-puzzle tree in the garden. That, according to your theories, fits in with his Edwardian ideas on chivalry. I mean, can you imagine a believer in sex equality having a monkey-puzzle tree in his garden?’
Is this actually thing? With trepidation I googled the symbolism of monkey puzzle trees and all I could find was an ‘old Fenland belief that planting a monkey puzzle on the edge of a graveyard would prevent the Devil from entering during a burial. This link with the Devil extends country-wide; many even believing that the Devil lives in the monkey puzzle tree’ (Woodland Trust).
The way the investigation develops and how information is brought out is done well and readers who enjoy a well-constructed crime would likely enjoy this mystery. Evidence is gained piece by piece and new and often perplexing information is dispersed effectively to maintain reader interest. The final quarter keeps the reader on its toes as the narrative seems to go one way and then another and then takes a final veer in another direction. One piece of evidence is withheld for a long time and the reason for doing so seemed a bit lame. I also did wonder about the fairness of the overall solution, as arguably one witness’s evidence is misleading. I appreciate it is up to the detective to follow these things up, so maybe it is just the timing of this inaccurate information which made it seem less fair.