Friday’s Forgotten Book: To Kill a Cat by W. J. Burley

The works of W. J. Burley have been on my TBR list for years. I was given the opportunity to acquire a few of them recently and was able to rectify my oversight. William John Burley (1914-2002) began writing after completing a mid-career degree at Oxford and taking up teaching. His initial foray into crime fiction was with Henry Pym, a thinly disguised version of Burley himself, who like Pym was a biology teacher in a grammar school. There were only two books with zoologist Pym, though, in 1966 and 1969. Between 1968 and 2000 he turned out 22 novels featuring Detective Chief Superintendent Charles Wycliffe in Cornwall, Burley’s home. This series served as the basis for the British television series Wycliffe which ran on ITV from July 1994 through July 1998 after a pilot in 1993.

To Kill a Cat (Victor Gollanz, 1970), renamed Wycliffe and How to Kill a Cat, is the second book in the series. Superintendent Wycliffe is on vacation in a resort area of Cornwall. He drops into the local police headquarters to greet a colleague and is just in time to overhear the desk sergeant take the report of a murder in a seedy hotel. Wycliffe decides to see for himself and finds a young woman strangled and battered. She was not at all the usual kind of client the hotel attracted, which puzzled the police as well as the owner. A search of her room reveals a thousand pounds in notes, about £15,500 in present-day currency, so robbery was clearly not the motive. Wycliffe learns that she grew up in the area, married, and then left for London to find a more exciting life. Why she returned no one knows. Wycliffe, who relies a good deal on impressions and nuances, receives the impression that the people who knew the victim had more to tell than they were saying. She knew some odd people and some shady characters, giving Wycliffe several investigative threads to follow.

A classic British police procedural, Burley seems to have fallen into his stride early in the series with plotting and pacing, easily balancing action against talking. Wycliffe is more interested in watching and thinking, so readers should not expect car chases and shoot-outs, only considered and logical police process. Certainly everyone should read a few Wycliffe titles just to be familiar with an iconic series.

These books have been reprinted often, so I was spoiled for choice when it came to selecting covers. I felt I had to include the one from the original UK release. The others are my favorites from the reissues.

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