Unpopular Book Advent 2022 – Day 20

‘The Death of Mr Lomas’ by Francis Vivian
Originally published in 1941, reissued by Dean Street Press. Buy from them here.

The Dean Streep Press imprint is one of my very favourite publishers, their archaeological digs into the neglected depths of ‘Golden Age’ detective fiction as gratefully welcomed as those of the perhaps more visible ‘British Library Crime Classics’ series. I say ‘perhaps’ because in truth it is a long time since I have been into a physical book shop, yet I do recall that when I did frequent them I would always see some of the BL series laid out on display whilst Dean Street Press would be lucky to have a Brian Flynn title tucked away in a gloomy corner. Of course I’d always leave those Flynn books on the shelf for he is certainly not a favourite of mine, but you could easily say the same about some of the authors given new lease of life by the BL series. I mean, if another Carter Dickson title dares to appear then I’ll be tempted to commit murder myself, the victim most likely being someone wearing a t-shirt saying ‘I’m A Locked Room Mystery’. But hey, let’s not get off on the wrong foot here. Let’s get back to Positivity. It is the season, after all.

So if Dean Street Press might have dug up a few authors who don’t do it for me, then that is to be expected for I suspect that one of the first lessons in publishing is that You Can’t Please Everyone All Of The Time. So for every Brian Flynn there is an Ianthe Jerrold; for every Annie Haynes a Robin Forsyth. And vice versa for other folks, I am sure. Even if they are wrong.

I am sure too that we could agree on Francis Vivian and his Inspector Knollis though, no? Or is he also Not Everyone’s Cup of Tea? Certainly the fact that the books dropped out of sight for such a time between the publication of the last of the series in 1957 and the DSP resuscitation project in 2018 would suggest this to be the case. This fade into invisibility is all the more baffling when one considers that, as Curtis Evans notes in one his typically erudite introductions, “according to booksellers and librarians”, “Francis Vivian was neck and neck with Ngaio Marsh in second place after Agatha Christie.” Still, there is nothing so strange as history and the foibles of the book-buying public. Or, at the very least, fashions as dictated by The Critics.

Yet even with there clearly being a new audience for all of these reissued books the reception to the Francis Vivian books appears to have been strangely muted. Aside from a couple of similarly impressed fans dotted around the globe, these books seem to have slipped out below the radar, which is an, ahem, criminal state of affairs really. Perhaps it does not help that Inspector Knollis is hardly the most dynamic of paper and ink detectives. He’s not some cartoonish toff masquerading as an amateur sleuth and nor is he a sharply dressed Scotland Yard chap bristling with intuition. Rather he is quite plain, and if that is something I personally find refreshingly attractive then perhaps too others find it simply boring. But there is appeal in boredom occasionally and Plain is too often undervalued.

What Knollis values is good honest police work. His is a world built on connection. For every action a reaction, and all that. As he is keen on pointing out, there is no such thing as coincidence. Vivian lays this out from the off in the first Knollis book, 1941’s ‘The Death Of Mr Lomas’ when the Inspector points out that “Coincidence in books is disbelieved mainly because the writer has failed to draw attention to the fact that there is a link somewhere that makes the apparent coincidence a matter of logical inevitability. Two identical happenings in real life are called coincidence for the same reason, because the link is not readily discernible.” I like the fact that in laying out this elemental part of Knollis’ approach to police work Vivian not so much breaks the fourth wall as lightly scrapes at the flaking plaster, and this deftness of touch is repeated time and again across the series.

There is too a certain bleakness in the Knollis books which perhaps holds them back from being breakthrough crossover hits in present times where it often feels like many of those who profess a liking for unearthed ‘Golden Age’ books are interested only in some form of imagined ‘cozy’ whimsy (or, indeed, Wimsy) which never actually existed. Early on Knollis tells us that police officers “only see the worst people, and it isn’t good for one’s soul” and that he “get[s] so darned cold—emotionally, I mean—at this job.” He admits that he is “slowly losing faith in human nature and all the better values in life”, is “too much of a realist” and that he “threw [his] rose-tinted glasses away years ago.” The idea that those particular lines would have been written during the early years of WW2 is poignant, as I rather imagine that feeling of “losing faith in human nature” might have been widely felt across England, in spite of any rah-rah propaganda.

The death of Mr Lomas is in many respects quite a small crime, a grubby crime, one of those minor tragedies that take place below the radar in times of great upheaval. ‘The Death of Mr Lomas’ is itself too in many respects a small book, an existential creak of fiction, a quiet sorrow amongst the nightmare of genocide. It is none the worse for that though, and in many ways it is that smallness that most appeals. It may not, perhaps, be the best of Francis Vivian’s Inspector Knollis novels (if pressed I would likely give that nod to 1950’s ‘The Singing Masons’) but in a series where the quality seldom slips below the very best (1951’s ‘The Elusive Bowman’ might only seem to be a tiny slip in standard because it follows ‘The Singing Masons’) but it is the first of ten perfectly sculpted minor classics of the detective fiction genre that play to strengths of the carefully crafted rather than the ostentatiously clever. As such, I cannot recommend it, and the other books in the series, highly enough.

If, however you try Inspector Knollis and tell me you still prefer Dickson-Carter-Dickson-Carr and yer bluff Sir Henry Merrivale then, well, fair enough. Each to their own. You’d still be wrong though, and I’d still happily shut you up in your locked room and throw away the key.

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