The Laughing Dog (1949) by Francis Vivian

In was in Algiers where  Dr Hugh Challoner struck up a friendship with Aubrey Highton, a former member of the French Foreign Legion, now whiling away his days doing caricature sketches in the marketplace. Impressed by Highton, Challoner invites him to England to stay with him, to give him a chance to start again. As a thank you, Highton sketches Challoner as a laughing dog, an image that inexplicably chills the doctor to his very core…

Back in England, and Challoner is found strangled in his surgery. With only a handful of suspects to deal with, none of whom is willing to tell the whole truth, Inspector Knollis has a complex problem to untangle. But what is the significance of the laughing dog? And why does it keep appearing in the case?

This is my fifth Inspector Knollis case, one of the more unsung series that Dean Street Press has reprinted. I know, it’s hard to hear anything over the ballyhoo and excitement about Brian Flynn – more coming soonish, folks – but there doesn’t seem to be much noise about these, which is a read shame, as I think this is one of the more interesting of their discoveries. Or Curtis Evans’ discoveries. Probably Curtis, now I think about it.

Vivian seems to have a certain pattern that he likes, namely a very small circle of suspects, and if I had to have a gripe here, the suspicions that circles around the four – Challoner’s lady friend, Challoner’s daughter, her paramour and Highton himself – does, plotwise at least, get a little repetitive. Someone says something, someone else denies it, the first person adjusts their statement, and so on. Plotwise, it does seem a bit like a game of “Pin The Tail On The Murderer” and it does seem a bit like it could have been anyone, until we reach the final chapter and we realise that there was a clue all the time. Admittedly it’s a visual clue that you have to pay attention to spot, but a clue, nonetheless.

You also have to swallow something rather… well, it’s not as ridiculous as when Dame Agatha did it, in my mind her stupidest plot idea, but it does seem a bit daft that two people… no, I’ll let you read the book and figure it out.

Vivian is a good writer, however, and while his plot goes in circles at times, his writing is charming and Knollis is an intelligent and interesting lead. Superintendent Manson, who got on my wick a tad in The Ladies of Locksley, seems much more bearable here and there’s always something on the page to make me smile. The suspects, while some could use a good slap for keeping secrets for no particular reason, are well-developed – Vivian makes use of their small number to spend time on them.

Overall, the murderer’s plan is typical Golden Age (i.e. there are easier ways to achieve things) but there is a sense going through it. At the end of the day, this is a very entertaining read and while perhaps not his most convincing plot, Inspector Knollis keeps us entertained throughout. Looking forward to my next Vivian.

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