The Singing Masons – An Inspector Knollis Mystery by Francis Vivian – bee-keeping and murder!

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Bee – keeping is a complicated art. So is the detection of murder in 1950, during the last days of the Golden Age of crime writing. This elegantly written book combines information about bee – keeping in detail through the experience and explanation of Old Samuel Heatherington with the intuitive and detailed detection by Detective Inspector Gordon Knollis. Francis Vivian’s novel is at once a book of its time and a mystery which manages to be a detective story that has all the elements; a limited number of suspects, a satisfying mystery and vivid characters, each with their own motives and backstories. Set in a village which is the scene of wedding plans, a young couple’s dashed hopes and a thoroughly nasty young man, this is a steady murder mystery without gore and dramatic action, but which requires thought and careful deduction from the clues and suggestions carefully given in the narrative. While gossip and reputations become a necessary background for the careful compilation of a list of suspects, this is a time before instant communication and complicated forensic science when Shakespearean quotes are generally recognised and give a tile to this satisfying novel. One of ten books by Francis Vivian reprinted by Dean Street Press recently, I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this intriguing book. 


The book begins with a swarm of bees on the move, setting the tone of a novel where the reader is greatly informed as to why bees move en masse and what to do if they are seen. Old Heatherington sets off in pursuit, pausing to enlist the help of a boy who in time will be sent to phone for Phil and Georgie Maynard. As he follows the swarm into a garden with a convenient hive, Heatherington reflects on the sad losses of the young couple, when their own attempts to earn money from hives was foiled by a fire.When they arrive he is pondering the unlikely sight of a bee hive sitting in the garden of a recently deceased lady who had angrily rejected his offer of such a thing from him, insulting him with the memorable phrase “So don’t keep on at me, you – you beekeeper!”. The house and garden represent a mystery, as the nephew that was meant to benefit from the woman’s will is missing. Georgie herself is a niece who was not meant to benefit from the contrary will, as she and her husband were expected to learn independence from such deprivation. When the swarm is removed from the hive, the site of the mysterious box is debated. Why is it in this garden, in a damp spot? Do the two paving slabs placed there give a clue to a well? It is only when they are moved that the body is found, the police summoned, and eventually Knolis and his new colleague, Inspector Osiah Wilson, are set on course in this “unusual” murder. Glamour photography, a detailed knowledge of bees and the dangers they can pose, together with careful alibi investigation will take the reader along on a mystery which satisfies on many levels.


This is the first  of Vivian’s novel I have read, but I would be interested to read more by this spirited and careful writer, and therefore am very pleased that he has been chosen to have so many of his novels reprinted by the excellent Dean Street Press.  

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