The Ninth Enemy sets up interesting situations but resolves them too early. While I was surprised by the ending, my issues with the killer’s motive left me unsatisfied.
Originally published in 1948
Inspector Knollis #4
Preceded by The Threefold Cord
Followed by The Laughing Dog
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.
Inspector Knollis is looking forward to enjoying a short break from work when he finds himself brought into a local murder case. The victim, Richard Huntingdon, is a prominent local figure who made a fortune as the founder of an engineering company before getting involved in a variety of civic organizations. His main passion though is to speak to the town’s youth to advocate for a return to chivalric values, frequently appearing in the local paper.
Huntingdon’s body is discovered near the edge of the local dam when his wife Jean hurries there in response to a message she received saying her daughter had met with a terrible accident. Instead of finding her daughter Dorrie, she finds he has been shot and a toy boat resembling her daughter’s floats in the water nearby. Dorrie is soon found to be safe and sound at a friend’s party raising all sorts of questions about the circumstances of Richard’s death.
Among the questions we need to ponder are whether Richard really left a message for Jean about Dorrie and, if so, why was he mistaken? Who killed Richard and why? What happened to Jean’s first husband years earlier? Who anonymously sent Dorrie her toy yacht for her birthday? There is, in short, a lot to dig into.
The Ninth Enemy gets off to an excellent start, quickly setting out its problems and starting to unravel some of the complex background to this case and the individuals involved in it. We learn a lot in those early chapters, particularly concerning some of the interpersonal relationships between the members of the Huntingdon family and their circle of friends which take some time to fully unpick. While some of these are perhaps a little more easily guessed than the author presumably intends, I still found it entertaining to watch Knollis at work as he carefully untangles these and gets to grips with the cast of suspects.
While some characters interested and puzzled me more than others, I appreciated that efforts are made to present a variety of types and several of the characters struck me as offering an interesting ambiguity. This is most clearly the case with our victim who we slowly get to know by hearing how the various characters perceive him. Those portraits are not always sympathetic but they do allow the reader to slowly build up a picture of the complex web of relationships and allow for some intriguing nuances in characterization that make him feel more credible as a creation. That strikes me as impressive in a novel where the victim is dead before we even begin reading.
Similarly I quite enjoyed following Knollis’ efforts as he tries to methodically work through each of his leads and interviews the various suspects. The character, while not particularly dynamic, is a strong example of the thoughtful detective and his behavior is often quite fun, if not altogether funny.
The problems come once the initial rush of activity subsides and we have most of the facts of the case at our disposal. From that point onwards the pacing of the story comes to feel noticeably slow as there are relatively few new clues for our detectives to come across.
My biggest issue with the book however relates to a decision Knollis makes to not look for the murder weapon midway through the investigation that just seems utterly bizarre to me. Several of his colleagues suggest that they ought to seek it out but he argues back that to look for it would be pointless as the accused would almost certainly claim it wasn’t theirs.
The reason I take issue with this is not that I think that Knollis’ claim is necessarily incorrect but that he then goes on to direct his underlings to conduct a search for a different item only tangentially related to the case. A consequence of this choice is that the storytelling, which had previously been quite direct, suddenly seems to noticeably stretch out and slow down.
As for the solution, I will admit that it caught me quite off guard and there were some aspects of it I quite appreciated. The problem is that the killer’s motivations feel a little silly and their plan seems poorly thought out to me. Unfortunately I think the surprise at the killer’s identity is offset for me by the feeling that the reason I failed to guess at it is that their plan is utterly ridiculous.
It’s a shame because I will say that I really had been enjoying the novel up until the midpoint and had been quite excited to see where it was headed. Certainly I liked this well enough to feel interested to try some other Vivian works in the future – if anyone has a suggestion for one that might be more to my liking I’d be happy to give it a try.