The Office of the Dead by Andrew Taylor is the third book in the Roth Trilogy. I read the first two, The Four Last Things and The Judgement of Strangers a couple of years ago and I wish I’d read this one straight afterwards, because I had to refresh my memory before I started The Office of the Dead.
It’s set in the 1950s, some twenty years earlier than The Judgement of Strangers, and completes the story of the Byfield and Appleyard families. I absolutely loved it. As it says on the back cover this is a chilling novel of crime and retribution. It works perfectly well on its own, but is even better if you’ve read the first two books. The way Andrew Taylor has constructed this trilogy, working backwards in time is just perfect.
Synopsis from Andrew Taylor’s website:
It’s 1958, and the party’s over for Wendy Appleyard: she finds herself penniless, jobless and on the brink of divorce. So she runs to her oldest friend Janet Byfield, who seems to have everything Wendy lacks: a handsome husband, a lovely little daughter, Rosie, and a beautiful home in the Cathedral Close of Rosington. David Byfield is on the verge of promotion, and Janet is the perfect wife for an ambitious young clergyman.
But perfection has always been dangerous, and gradually the idyll sours. Old sins come to haunt the present and breed new sins in their place. The shadow of death seeps through the Close, and with it comes a double mystery stretching back to turn-of-the-century Rosington, to a doomed poet-priest called Francis Youlgreave.
Only Wendy, the outsider looking in, glimpses the truth. But can she grasp its dark and twisted logic in time to prevent the coming tragedy?
The Office of the Dead answers many of the questions I had from the other two books – questions about David Byfield, the theologian who can barely control his emotions; Reverend Francis Youlgreave, the turn of the century canon librarian and poet, and most of all about Rosie, David and Janet’s daughter. In this book she is a small and very self absorbed little girl who has her 5th birthday during the course of the book. She calls herself ‘Nobody‘, because ‘Nobody’s perfect‘ and she can’t be parted from her doll, Angel.
There is also an excellent portrayal of senile dementia in Janet’s father – John Treevor. Janet says he is ‘getting a bit confused‘, but at times he was capable of acting perfectly rationally and at times not – which made it all the more difficult to know what was true and what only took place in his mind, and so all the more tense and sinister. Did John Treevor commit suicide or was he murdered and if so, was it the stranger he said was watching the house, or someone else?
Running alongside the story of the Byfields are several other inter-connecting strands, Wendy (who is the narrator) and her estranged husband, Henry; the man with the bald spot roughly the shape of a map of Africa, who is following Wendy – who is he working for and why is he interested in Canon Youlgreave. Youlgreave, a character from the past who had died in 1903? He is described by old Mrs Gotobed as a ‘good man‘, but he had been forced to resign after he had ‘lost all touch with reality ‘ and had caused a scandal.
In fact the overall mood of the book is about the difficulties in remembering, or is it twisting, the past, about mental breakdowns and about the effect the past had on the future. In that respect I think it’s best to read the books in order.
I’ve just seen that there is a new short story, €˜The Long Sonata of the Dead‘, about the continuing legacy of Francis Youlgreave, due to be published on Kindle on 1 April. I’m looking forward to reading it.
And then I’d like to read the first two books in reverse order and see what it effect that has on the story. There is so much more I could write about this book – about the characters (totally convincing), about the setting and the writing (well written etc) and about the pace – the creation of tension and suspense etc (just right), but really all I need to say is that I thought it was brilliant!