The Office of the Dead

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?

My view:

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!

The Judgement of Strangers by Andrew Taylor

The Judgement of Strangers is the second in Andrew Taylor’s Roth Trilogy, an ideal choice for  R.I.P.VII. This second book fills in some of the back story of the first, The Four Last Things, which I wrote about earlier. It covers events that took place in 1970 and although there is an atmosphere of suspense and mystery it is by no means as chilling and scary as The Four Last Things.

It’s narrated in the first person by David Byfield, who is a sexually frustrated, widowed parish priest with a mysterious past. When he marries Vanessa, his beautiful teenage daughter, Rosie, seems to accept her. But, it’s obvious that David is unaware of Rosie’s psychological troubles and is beset with problems – his own passions, the attentions of the menopausal spinster churchwarden, Audrey Oliphant, as well as his obsession with Joanna, the new young owner of Roth Park.

And then the murders begin and it seems that the influence of Francis Youlgreave, a 19th century opium addict, poet and priest who committed suicide at Roth Park is still prevalent. Vanessa is fascinated by him. The sole surviving member of the family, Lady Youlgreave, now  senile lives in the Old Manor House with her equally senile dogs, Beauty and Beast. She allows Vanessa to study Francis Youlgreave’s journals. The pressure and suspense build, with the climax at the village fete, which ends in disaster. 

 In some ways this book is a bit like an Agatha Christie mystery – set in a village (there’s a helpful map), with a mix of characters, locals, gentry and newcomers. The plot is complex and although it can be read as a self-contained novel, it really is best to read the trilogy in order, because there are answers in this book to some of the questions posed in the first and I think it could spoil the suspense if you read them the out of order. There are also intriguing glimpses into the past. I’m keen to read the third book – The Office of the Dead – as soon as possible. And I’d like then to re-read them in reverse order, just to see the difference.

Crime Fiction Alphabet: T is for …

The Four Last Things by Andrew Taylor.

This is the first in the Roth trilogy, a tense and scary opening book. So chilling that I nearly stopped reading it and only continued because I couldn’t get the story out of my head and I wanted to know how it ended.

The complete trilogy is about the linked histories of the Appleyards and the Byfields. The books work backwards in time, with this first book being the last chronologically, set in the 1990s, and each book works as a stand-alone, self-contained story. Andrew Taylor states they are designed to work together, but they can be read in any order. The second novel, The Judgement of Strangers, describes events that took place during the summer of 1970, with the third, The Office of the Dead, ten years earlier again. But, having read the first book and the second, I think it is best to read them in that order, because there are people and things that happen that have roots in the second (and I suspect because I haven’t read it yet) the last book and it would spoil the story to know these in advance.

The Four Last Things tells the story of Lucy Appleyard, aged four, who is snatched from her child minder’s one cold winter afternoon. Her parents, Sally, a deacon in the church of England and Michael, a police sergeant, are distraught. Their fears mount as grisly body parts are discovered first in a graveyard and then in a church. A sense of evil and menace permeates the book, told from varying viewpoints conveying Sally’s and Michael’s terror and powerlessness. The characterisation is strong, so much so that I feared for Lucy’s safety and even sympathised with one of the kidnappers.

It’s not just the characters and the mysteries that kept me captivated reading The Four Last Things, because the settings are so well described and so atmospheric, so vivid that I could easily see them in my mind – the dingy London streets and alleyways, the old churches and graveyards, and the overgrown back garden of 29 Rosington Road.

The reason I found this book is so compelling to read is that, although there are horrific elements to it (although not in gratuitous detail) and it’s about the kidnapping of a little girl (which always horrifies me), it’s also a puzzle, posing questions such as why and how these events came about. And the answers aren’t all in this first book. There are tantalising glimpses of the kidnappers’ backgrounds and their psychological make-up, which in themselves are so disturbing. There are questions too about the parents – Sally wonders if there is a religious motivation behind the kidnapping, particularly after the incident in church where she is cursed by an old woman. And what is so troubling in Michael’s background, why is he so reliant on his ‘Uncle David’, an Anglo-Catholic known as Father Byfield? Where do the Reverend Francis Youlgreave and the parish of Roth fit in ? What had happened there when David was the vicar? It was these questions that made me pick up the next book as soon as I’d finished the first. I have just finished it this morning and have some of the answers, but also more questions. I’ll be writing more in another post on The Judgement of Strangers some time soon.

The title is a reference to a painting of the Last Judgement showing the ‘four last things’ identified in a passage in the Apocrypha as ‘Death and Judgement and Heaven and Hell.’ Sally comes to realise that ‘where hell is, there is Lucy.’

vaguely remembered watching a TV version of this with Emilia Fox and Charles Dance as two of the characters. Looking it up, I see that this was in 2007 under the title Fallen Angel. Fallen Angel is also the title of the HarperCollins paperback omnibus of the trilogy (formerly published as Requiem For an Angel). I think the books will stick in my mind longer than the TV version did. For me reading is almost always better than watching a film or TV drama.

A Crime Fiction Alphabet post for the letter T.

This book also fits very nicely into the R.I.P. VII Challenge.

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins; (Reissue) edition (5 Feb 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007105118
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007105113
  • Source: my own copy
  • My rating: 4/5
  • Author’s website: Andrew Taylor