Crime Fiction Alphabet – Letter B – W J Burley

This week I’ve chosen to feature W J Burley to illustrate the letter B for Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Alphabet. I knew of  his Wycliffe novels but had never read any, or watched any of the TV dramatisations, so I came to Wycliffe and the Last Rites with no preconceptions. I really don’t know why I never watched the 1990s TV series starring Jack Shepherd as Wycliffe, but as I didn’t I was able to form my own image of him in my mind directly from the book.

William John Burley was born in Falmouth, Cornwall in 1914. His first book was published in the 1968. All in all he produced 22 more Wycliffe books and 5 others. He died in 2002 whilst he was writing his 23 Wycliffe book. There is more information about him at this website – W J Burley.

Wycliffe and the Last Rites
Paperback: 192 pages
Publisher: Orion; New Ed edition (7 Nov 2002)
Language English
ISBN-10: 075284931X
ISBN-13: 978-0752849317
Source: I bought it

Description from the back cover:

A bizarre murder shakes the Cornish village of Moresk. Arriving at church on Easter morning the vicar discovers the body of a woman sprawled across the chancel steps. To add to the horror, the church is filled with the discordant sound of an organ chord, the notes apparently chosen at random and wedged down.

Has the church been desecrated by a Satanist ritual? Chief Superintendent Wycliffe sees the crime more as an expression of hatred directed at others in the community, besides the dead woman. His investigation, however, is frustrated at every turn, and when another horrific murder is committed Wycliffe thinks he knows who the killer is. But can he prove it?

My thoughts:

This novel has a strong sense of location, with many passages describing the beautiful countryside of Cornwall. The characters are also well defined – a small local community focussing on the twin sisters, Katherine Geach and Jessica Dobell. The relationship between them is strained, with Jessica having a sense of guilt about a hit and run accident she’d witnessed 16 years earlier and admitting that she hadn’t played fair with Katherine.  After their parents’ deaths Jessica had inherited the family farm and lived there with the Vintners and their son, a strange family filled with hatred and resentment over their reduced circumstances. Then there is the Vicar and his sister, who had been forced to move from their previous parish, the houseboat man, Lavin, who is badly disfigured following an accident, and Arnold Paul, the organist and his ‘brother’.

Detective Chief Superintendent Wycliffe is a quiet character who thinks things through before divulging his suspicions to his colleagues. He delegates tasks to his team leaving himself free to concentrate on the victim. To him ‘hope is an ultimate resource’. His evening walks are a necessity for him to ponder what he has discovered and he is calm and collected:

It was characteristic that he should walk rather than drive or be driven; he refused to allow his days to become crowded with events in a frenetic succession of images like a television screen, lacking even commercial breaks to aid digestion. (pages 44 -5)

His problem in finding the murderer is that all the possible leads pointed to a limited range of possible suspects but none of them matched his specification for the criminal. It seemed he had to believe the impossible. It’s a tightly plotted book, concisely and precisely written and I enjoyed it very much. I have one other book of Burley’s to read – Wycliffe and the House of Fear. After that I’ll be looking out for his other books.

10 thoughts on “Crime Fiction Alphabet – Letter B – W J Burley”

  1. I have recently begun watching the Wycliffe TV videos Margaret and thoroughly enjoy them. I have read a couple of the novels but they are not easy to find.
    Thanks for this contribution

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  2. I have only come across Wycliffe recently – the shows are being repeated on one of our new digital channels (that so far seem to air shows that are at least 15 years old). The shows are a bit slow but interesting – I had made a note to myself to check out one of the books from the library – sounds like I’ll be doing myself a favour.

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  3. Margaret – Thanks for reminding me of Wycliffe. I like his character a lot, and I think Burley was a terrific choice for this week’s letter. I haven’t read a Wycliffe in a while. Perhaps it’s time to look for another…

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  4. I hadn’t realised that W J Burley was born in Falmouth – it’s just a few miles from me and I’ve just written about Janie Bolitho who was born there too. Clearly a good breeding ground for crime writers!

    I liked the television series – though it took some horrible liberties with local geography and had a few too many Cornish sterotypes for my liking – but I haven’t picked up any of the books yet. Maybe I should.

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  5. I watched some of the episodes several years ago, and last year I read my first Wycliffe novel. I like both, but I think they are quite different and the main thing they share is the strong sense of place – but that is just my opinion.

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  6. Hi Margaret,

    I have so far only read ‘Wycliffe And The Pea Green Boat’ and I really enjoyed it.

    I watched the original screening of the series back in the 90s, but still enjoy watching the re-runs on the cable stations

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  7. I hadn’t heard of Wycliffe prior to your review, but I’ll have to keep an eye out for these books. It sounds like a great story. Thank you!

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  8. I have rather a soft spot for the TV series, despite the liberties – it’s so uneventful, it feels very different from the books, and I like Jack Shepherd. I read one recently – the first for a long time – and enjoyed it, so it’s nice to have a long series to work through again.

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