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.
Murder Jigsaw by Edwin and Mona Radford (Andrew Melrose, 1944) was the second title in their series that featured Dr. Harry Manson, who was a Chief Detective-Inspector of Scotland Yard as well as the lead scientist in Scotland Yard’s Crime Research Laboratory. It was published the same year as the first one, Inspector Manson’s Success. Dean Street Press has re-released six of the Radford mysteries. Murder Jigsaw has an informative introduction by crime fiction historian Nigel Moss. In this early story, Manson’s scientific and deductive skills are described in detail, laying the ground for future books. Moss states that the Radfords modelled him after Dr. John Thorndyke, R. Austin Freeman’s series detective and that they wanted a police representative to move away from the prevalent amateur detective.
The site of action is Tremarden Arms, a picturesque hotel in Cornwall known for its access to fine fishing waters. A curmudgeon of a retired Army colonel is found drowned in a river with his fishing tackle on the bank nearby. The death is assumed by everyone to be an accident. Dr. Manson, however, at the hotel for a short vacation, visits the scene out of curiosity and sees enough to know that the death was not accidental. The ensuing investigation maximizes the use of forensic procedures and tools as they were known at the time. At a couple of points in the story, the Radfords pause the narrative and invite the reader to assess the clues and decide who the culprit is.
Dr. Manson learns that the colonel was almost universally disliked, and suspects abound. He finds it particularly awkward that some of the hotel guests he has known for years through their mutual fishing interests are among the most likely perpetrators. The colonel defrauded two of the hotel guests, one of whom lost his home because of it, and he appeared to be blackmailing another hotel guest. All in all, not a loss but Dr. Manson is sworn to uphold the law and goes full out to collect and analyze evidence and to identify the murderer.
The Radfords via Dr. Manson were up to date on current knowledge in regards to fingerprinting; one of the last chapters of the book gave a thorough explanation of the science as it was understood at that time. Emphasis is definitely on scientific methods and logical thinking in the solution, reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes. Completely unrelated, just the mention of Cornwall invokes images of seaside villages and picturesque scenery in my mind, and the description of the countryside around the hotel was especially appealing. An interesting, cerebral read.
Ernest Carpenter Elmore (1901–1957) was an English theatre producer and director who wrote more than 35 novels, 30 of which were crime fiction published under the pseudonym John Bude. The rest were released under his name. Writing as John Bude, most of the mysteries were led by Inspector William Meredith. The first two Merediths appeared in 1935 and 1936, The Lake District Murder and The Sussex Downs Murder. They have been reprinted by the British Library. Two other crime novels featured Inspector Green and two more featured Inspector Sherwood. He also wrote some stand-alone mysteries, the first of which was The Cornish Coast Murder (Skeffington, 1935).
The Reverend Dodd, Vicar of St. Michael’s-on-the-Cliff, and Dr. Dodd, of the village Boscawen in Cornwall, meet every Monday for dinner and to divvy up the books received from the lending library at Greystoke. They each take three and then exchange them midweek, shipping them back over the next weekend and submitting a new list of requests. They were reviewing this week’s delivery–an Edgar Wallace, an Agatha Christie, a J.S. Fletcher, a Farjeon, a Freeman Wills-Croft, and a Dorothy L. Sayers—when the telephone urgently summons the doctor to the home of Julius Tregarthan, who his niece reports as having been murdered.
While Tregarthan was a Parish Councillor, a church-goer, president of local clubs, a justice of the peace on the Greystoke Bench, and a generous patron of local charities, he was also subject to frequent bouts of ill temper, and he was generally disliked by those who knew him. He and his niece were known to be at odds over her relationship with a man new to the village, who moved in a few years previously and who was engaged in writing a novel. Tregarthan was thought to deal with his tenants unfairly and had been harsh with those brought up before him on charges while he was acting as JP. In addition, his housekeeper had seen him arguing with someone she did not recognize in the garden before dinner. In short, there is any number of possible suspects for Inspector Bigswell’s consideration.
The vicar is delighted to have a real-life mystery to use his deductive skills on and he involves himself as much as the inspector allows. The identification of a culprit brings him to a halt, realizing that a fictional mystery is quite different from a real-life mystery in which he knows all of the players.
Bude’s writing style is pleasant but not dramatic, especially in its evocative description of Cornwall. The book is unhurried while its momentum does not flag in its execution of the plot. I will be reading more of his work.