W.J. Burley (1914 – 2002) was first an engineer, and later went to Balliol to read zoology as a mature student. On leaving Oxford he went into teaching and, until his retirement, was senior biology master in a large mixed grammar school in Newquay. He created Wycliffe in 1966 and the series was televised in the 1990s with Jack Shepherd starring in the title role. But I’ve never watched any of them. Set in Cornwall, they have a strong sense of place, and Wycliffe is a quiet, thoughtful detective.
Wycliffe and How to Kill a Cat is the second book in the series and is the 7th one I’ve read. It was first published in 1970 as To Kill a Cat. It’s well written, with descriptions of the coast of Cornwall, firmly set in the late 1960s, specifically at the time of the astronauts first moon landing in July 1969. At one point Wycliffe reflects on the fact that a quarter of a million miles away men were walking on the moon.
Superintendent Wycliffe, despite being on holiday can’t help getting involved when a young woman is found murdered in her seedy hotel bedroom. She’d been strangled and her face had been savagely smashed in. A thousand pounds was still in a drawer, hidden beneath her clothes, so the motive wasn’t theft.
It’s a complex story that kept me guessing to the end. Once Wycliffe had established the young woman’s identity, there were several suspects he investigated, including her husband, a meek man whose mother dominated him and his aunt who doted on him, or maybe it was the owner of the nightclub, the Voodoo where she’d worked, or one of its patrons. I kept thinking it was this person and then that person …
I like Wycliffe, a quiet man who works on instinct, but I did feel sorry for his wife, left very much on her own as he occupied himself on investigating the murder – after all they were supposed to be on holiday. She doesn’t complain. Instead she made friends with some local people and went out with them in their motor launch to explore a bit of Du Maurier country.
Wycliffe is a comparative newcomer to the area and the divisional inspector, Inspector Fehling’s first impression of him was not favourable. He thought that Wycliffe did not look like a policeman. He didn’t look ‘tall enough and he seemed almost frail. A teacher, some kind of academic, perhaps a parson, but never a policeman.’ This reminded me that there used to be a minimum height requirement for policemen of 5ft 8in tall.
These two extracts describe how Wycliffe worked:
“Wycliffe stood for a while, apparently lost in thought. Actually, though ideas chased each other through his mind they could hardly be said to have any pattern of rational consecutive thought.”
“It was when he made an effort to think in a disciplined way about anything that he was most conscious of his shortcomings. And this reflection brought him back to the case. Not only did he find sustained logical thought difficult but he was always short of written data. He had the official reports but these were so full as to be almost useless. Any other detective would have a sheaf of private notes, but he rarely wrote anything down and if he did he either lost it or threw it away. Notes were repugnant to him. Even now he ought to be sitting at a desk with a notepad in front of him, jotting down his ideas, transposing and relating facts like a jig-saw.”
This is police procedural, reflecting the social values and attitudes of the 1960s. It’s an early book in the series, but I think it clearly shows Wycliffe’s character and the way he worked. I’ve read the books in the series totally out of order, so it was good to read the second one. I’m still wondering about the title as there are no details in it about how to kill a cat! I’m hoping to read the first one – Wycliffe and the Three Toed Pussy, which despite its title is not about an actual cat either, but about a young woman with a deformed foot.