BOOK CLUB REPORT #10: The Ninth Enemy

I can’t believe that Book Club is almost a year old! It has been a godsend to gather with friends once a month to read a mystery. True, our gatherings are on Zoom, which means there are no snacks. But that almost doesn’t matter because it’s such a pleasure to see these fellow mystery lovers and gab together for an hour or two. The extra bonus is that they’re all UK born, hailing from places like London, Baskerville-upon-Thames, and Old Toad Hall, and I could listen to them talk for hours. Yes, I wish we were gathered together at the British Library, with cups of coffee and a teacake perched on our laps, chattering excitedly about this or that author, and then all heading over to the nearby pub for a pie and a pint. But, at least, I have time to spend with my people, fellow readers and mystery lovers . . . folks who get me. 

There’s just one problem with Book Club. 

The books.

Seriously, we seem to be batting three for ten here. That may be what comes from meeting up with such well-read mystery fans as these: you can’t pick a sure-fire author and expect that nobody has read this Christie or that Carr. Anyway, aren’t book clubs supposed to places where you can experiment with something new??? If it hadn’t been for Book Club, I would have never acquainted myself with Francis Duncan or Virginia Rath. I would have never read Anthony Berkeley’s The Wychford Poisoning. It makes you think . . . . . . . what the hell are we doing here? 

And I feel bad for you, dear reader, because most of us are bloggers so every month you are inundated with reviews about Francis Duncan, Virginia Rath, and The Wych– oh, you get the point. And now, this month, I’m going to talk about Francis Vivian, and you’re probably getting your stomachs all tied up in knots of trepidation wondering if this book, The Ninth Enemy, the fourth out of ten adventures featuring Scotland Yard Inspector Gordon Knollis that have been republished by Dean Street Press and feature informative introductions by Curtis Evans, is a lulu or a lemon. 

I’m going to go ahead and blame COVID here which, in addition to preventing me from meeting up with Book Club at the British Library so that I could tell the person who suggested this book face to face that he was “bah-nahhhh-naaahhhs,” has put a serious crimp on my brain. I have much more trouble focusing on books that don’t grab me by the seat of my pants and propel me forward. (I refer you to my reads of August and September.) No, I’ll admit that part of the problem lies with me, myself and I. I’ve never been a quick reader, but I’m having trouble tolerating books that fail to get a fire burning in my belly. I need some literary sriracha. 

The Ninth Enemy takes place in the English countryside, and it’s bucolic as hell. When Inspector Knollis, a likable fellow, I will say, isn’t sitting around and talking with his assistant, Sergeant Ellis or Banford of the local constabulary – honestly, the police were the best thing about this book – he is wandering about fields and ponds and dams and village back roads in search of I know not what. The book was written in 1948, but in many ways it feels Victorian, particularly in the way it treats women. It also might be that I don’t get along with titles with numbers in them, as I remember struggling with an E. R. Punshon novel called Suspects – Nine. Or was it Ten Star Clues?? (Maybe I’ve been spoiled by the woman who wrote Ten Little Indians and Five Little Pigs . . . )

This book of numbers is very much a police procedural in that the focus rests almost entirely on the pleasant Knollis, Ellis, and Banford as they try to figure out who lured local bigwig Richard Huntingdon to the dam by the pond in the field and then shot him dead. During his investigation, Knollis identifies nine suspects, but here’s the problem: half of them are minor characters who are immediately eliminated, and one of them is dead. That narrows the field somewhat and makes mincemeat of that title! 

At the 66% point on my Kindle (I kept checking, never a good sign), Knollis narrows the field down to one person and spends the rest of the book trying to prove it. This led to a stunningly dated scene between a husband and wife that worked in Shakespeare’s day and probably led to some good chuckles with contemporary audiences but today leaves a sour aftertaste. Seriously, Vivian’s approach to women in this book is sour, making the book veer extra hard from lulu toward lemon. 

There is a twist at the end and a motive that comes out of nowhere and makes you ask, “What was this person thinking?” I did learn something about egg collecting and beekeeping, and to the book’s credit, none of this information was extraneous to the mystery. And yet none of this makes me want to collect eggs, keep bees, or read Francis Vivian again. However, the Puzzle Doctor stands by this author (you can read his review here), and maybe he can point me to a more compelling adventure with Inspector Knollis. I like the guy, but I sure wish he had taken a busman’s holiday to a more interesting place. 

You can also read Aidan’s review at Mysteries Ahoy.