Monday, May 22, 2017

E.H. Visiak, Detective!

The poet Kenneth Hopkins (1914-1988) was for many years a friend of E.H. Visiak (1878-1972). Hopkins published three detective novels featuring the elderly Dr. William Blow and his friend Professor Gideon Manciple.  In published order they are She Died Because . . .  (1957), Dead Against My Principles (1960) and Body Blow (1962).  In US editions, they were published out of order (Dead first, She second and Body third), between 1962 and 1965, and the blurbs get the ages of Blow and Manciple wrong. When She Died Because ... was first published in England, Blow's age is about 79.  Curiously, that's the same age as E.H. Visiak was at that time.  Coincidence?  No, for Hopkins dedicated the book "To E.H. Visiak, as dedicated a scholar as Dr. Blow, but luckier with his domestics."  And in inscribing a copy of Body Blow to John Arlott, Hopkins wrote: "No prizes for recognising the original of Dr. Blow."

She Died Because ... begins with Dr. Blow engaged in his fifteen-year task of editing the complete works of Samuel Butler, when he realizes he is hungry. He reasons through the facts to ascertain that his housekeeper must not have brought him food, and perhaps he had missed tea with his friend Manciple, who lives in the rooms underneath him. After observing the housekeeper's body lying on the floor of her room, Blow summons Manciple for help, not realizing it is three in the morning. Here's a paragraph of skillful and witty characterization, appearing in the one-sided conversation of Dr. Blow as he, at Manciple's urging, has telephoned the police:

E.H. Visiak in the mid-1960s
“Ah. Is that the police station? Just so. I am telephoning up about my housekeeper, Mrs. Sollihull. Sollihull—certainly not, my name is Blow: BLOW, Blow, Dr. Blow.  I must explain that I am not, however, a Doctor of Medicine. I should, in that event, have known at once that she was dead; as it was, Manciple told me. Manciple. Dear me, he is internationally known, I assure you.  I must ask you not to interrupt. My housekeeper, Mrs. Sollihull, when she didn’t bring my tea, you understand, as she always does, or rather did—at first I thought it was Wednesday, which would have explained it. Yes, you foolish fellow, I know it is Wednesday now, but it wasn’t yesterday. Really, the police are too stupid—he’s saying now, Manciple, that is is Wednesday. . . .  Policeman! You must please listen carefully or call one of your superiors, I am being very patient with you. My housekeeper, Mrs. Sollihull, is lying dead in her room. I have a witness. Now I want you to come round here first thing in the morning and deal with it—what time do you open? There is the body and everything. I shall be obliged to go out to breakfast in the circumstances, but I shall return by ten o’clock. Oh, certainly, if you prefer it. The address is Ten Priory Place; it is the second turning on the left after you pass the junction of North Street with High Street; and we are at the lower end, overlooking the sea—number ten, the top flat. I shall be waiting for you. It is very early, but you know your own business best, Good-bye.”

This lampooning of Visiak as Dr. Blow is affectionate, witty and addictive. I zipped through all three Dr. Blow novels when I first discovered them in Perennial Library paperbacks in the mid-1980s. And I periodically re-read them, both for sheer pleasure and for the insight they give to the often inscrutable character of their model.

Hopkins wrote Visiak's obituary for the Royal Society of Literature, noting that Visiak "lived a secluded life, and in later years his health was indifferent, and he reserved his energies for his own work, and for entertaining a few friends who delighted in his learning and insight. How many evenings have I passed in that seaside flat high above Adelaide Crescent in Hove, with the dark room heavy with cigar smoke, and Visiak's deep voice elucidating some tricky point in the interpretation of the Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, or a disputed reading in Of Prelatical Episcopacy: it all sounds pretty dull stuff, but Visiak had the gift of making it exciting, and that's a gift somewhat rare among scholars."

Besides the three Dr. Blow novels, Hopkins published five other mystery novels, four of which concern a newspaperman named Gerry Lee, including The Girl Who Died (1955), The Forty-First Passenger (1958), Pierce with a Pin (1960), and Campus Corpse (1963).  Hopkins's final mystery was Amateur Agent (1964), published under the pseudonym "Christopher Adams".

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