Wycliffe and the Quiet Virgin by W J Burley

It’s that time of year again when I have less time for blogging – summer when the grass and the weeds grow in abundance. So what with that and a host of other things this post is shorter than I would like it to be.

I like W J Burley’s Wycliffe books. I’ve read several of them up to now and enjoyed each one. Set in Cornwall, they have a strong sense of place, and Wycliffe is a quiet, thoughtful detective.

In Wycliffe and the Quiet Virgin Chief Superintendent Wycliffe is staying with a Penzance lawyer, Ernest Bishop and his family for a few days over Christmas at the Bishops’ hill-top house. With his wife away in Kenya, Wycliffe is not looking forward to Christmas, and the welcome from the family is polite rather than welcoming. The situation only gets worse when a young girl goes missing after playing the part of the Virgin Mary in the local nativity play, and then her father also goes missing and her mother is found dead in their cottage. Wycliffe moves out of the Bishops’ house as it appears they may be suspects.

What follows is Wycliffe’s investigation which goes back to a crime committed five years earlier, involving many twists and turns. It was a quick and entertaining read with a lot of characters, but all are clearly distinguishable. The plot is complex and it was only as I was getting near the end that I began to have an inkling about the identity of the murderer.

W J Burley (1914 – 2002) lived near Newquay in Cornwall and was a teacher until he retired to concentrate on his writing. He wrote 22 Wycliffe novels. Wycliffe and the Quiet Virgin was the 13th, first published in 1986 and as such fits into Bev’s Vintage Mystery Cover Scavenger Hunt in the Silver Age (Vintage Mysteries first published any time from 1960 to 1989) in the category of ‘Spooky/House’ on its cover. It is also one of my 20 Books of Summer 2016.

My Week in Books: 30 March 2016

This Week in Books is a weekly round-up hosted by Lypsyy Lost & Found, about what I’ve been reading Now, Then & Next.

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A similar meme,  WWW Wednesday is run by Taking on a World of Words.

Now:  I’ve decided to concentrate on books from my to-be-read shelves and picked People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks, a book I’ve owned for nearly eight years. I can’t think why I haven’t read it before as so far I’m loving it.

Blurb:

People of the Book takes place in the aftermath of the Bosnian War, as a young book conservator arrives in Sarajevo to restore a lost treasure.

When Hannah Heath gets a call in the middle of the night in her Sydney home about a precious medieval manuscript which has been recovered from the smouldering ruins of wartorn Sarajevo, she knows she is on the brink of the experience of a lifetime. A renowned book conservator, she must now make her way to Bosnia to start work on restoring The Sarajevo Haggadah, a Jewish prayer book ‘“ to discover its secrets and piece together the story of its miraculous survival. But the trip will also set in motion a series of events that threaten to rock Hannah’s orderly life, including her encounter with Ozren Karamen, the young librarian who risked his life to save the book.

Then: I’ve recently finished Wycliffe and the Tangled Web by W J Burley, another book from my to-be-read shelves.

Blurb:

A beautiful schoolgirl goes missing from a Cornish village on the day she has told her boyfriend and sister she is pregnant. The possibility that she has been raped or murdered – or both – grows with every passing hour, and Chief Superintendent Wycliffe is brought in on the case.

The investigation reveals a complex network of family relationships and rivalries centred on the girl; and then Wycliffe finds a body – but not the one he expects. Have there been two murders? And if so, are they connected?

Wycliffe digs deeper, and soon realises that just beneath the normal, day-to-day surface of the community lies a web of hatred and resentment – a web he will have to untangle if he is to find the key to the mystery . . .

My post will follow soon.

Next: I’m reluctant to say what I’ll be reading next because I usually change my mind when the time comes. But, I shall be reading The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot for the Classics Club Spin some time in April – yet another book I’ve owned for years.

Blurb:

George Eliot drew on her own anguished childhood when she depicted the stormy relationship between Maggie and Tom Tulliver. Maggie’s often tormented battle to do her duty and belong on the one hand, and to be  herself, wild and natural, on the other, propels her from one crisis to another. As the Tulliver fortunes decline and fall, the rift between Maggie and her family becomes almost irreconcilable. But Maggie’s biggest mistake of all is to fall in love with Stephen Guest who is engaged to another woman.

Both a sharp and observant picture of English rural life and a profoundly convincing analysis of a woman’s psychology, The Mill on the Floss is a novel that tackles the complexities of morality versus desire.

What about you? What are you reading this week?

My Friday Post: Book Beginnings & The Friday 56

Friday is book excerpts day on two blogs:

Book Beginnings ButtonBook Beginnings on Fridays hosted by Rose City Reader, where bloggers share the first sentence or more of a current read, as well as initial thoughts about the sentence(s), impressions of the book, or anything else that the opening inspires.  Friday 56

The Friday 56 hosted by Freda’s Voice, where you grab a book and turn to page 56 (or 56% of an ebook), find one or more sentences (no spoilers), and post them.

I’ve just started to read Wycliffe and the Tangled Web by W. J.  Burley. It begins:

The fair girl looked out of place in a doctor’s waiting room: she seemed to glow with health.

From page 56:

‘Alice has just come down from the village; she says the police are questioning Ralph Martin again; they’ve got him in their van on the quay.

After reading a few long books I fancied something shorter – this book has just 191 pages. It’s set in Cornwall where Chief Superintendent Wycliffe is investigating the case of a schoolgirl who went missing on the day that she told her boyfriend and sister she was pregnant. As he digs deeper Wycliffe finds a web of hatred and resentment – a web he will have to untangle.

It promises to be both easy reading and a satisfying mystery. I’ve read a few of Burley’s Wycliffe books and enjoyed them.

Wycliffe in Paul's Court by W J Burley

We had to spend nearly 4 hours yesterday in the Newcastle Emergency Eye Department as D has a corneal abrasion. As my Kindle needed charging I picked up a lightweight paperback to slip into my bag to while away the time – and I nearly finished it whilst we were there! It was Wycliffe in Paul’s Court by W J Burley.

Synopsis from the back cover:

Paul’s Court is a quiet corner in the heart of the city: an oasis of peace and safety – until the night when there are two violent deaths. Willy Goppel, an émigré from Germany, is found hanging from a beam in his home; and fifteen-year-old Yvette Cole, who may or may not have lived up to her wild reputation, is strangled and thrown half naked over the churchyard hedge.

Chief Superintendent Wycliffe has the aid of a shrewd local sergeant, Kersey, but they still find this a difficult case to crack. Did Willy assault the girl and then hang himself? Or was his death not suicide after all? As Wycliffe and Kersey dig deeper they gradually untangle a complex network of secrets in the quiet of Paul’s Court …

My thoughts

Although there are plenty of suspects, all from the five houses in Paul’s Court I could easily distinguish them, even with the distractions of a hospital waiting room from children crying that they wanted to go home and people talking loudly next to me. On the other hand, I wasn’t able to concentrate enough to follow all the clues and it was only just before the culprit was revealed that I had any idea who it was. But it was still an enjoyable read.

Wycliffe is a quiet, thoughtful detective who doesn’t let himself become desk-bound and gets very involved with the investigation. This is the first time he has worked with Kersey, who sized him up thus:

He saw a man with a clear view of right and wrong who was not a bigot; he recognised a close-grained moral toughness with a hint of old-fashioned puritan zeal, but no wish to burn heretics. A man of compassion but no sentimentalist, a reformer but not a do-gooder. (page 70)

Wycliffe and Kersey make a good team; Kersey knows not just the area very well but also the local people and is able to give Wycliffe ‘vivid thumb-nail sketches of the inhabitants of Paul’s Court’. They are ordinary people, living ordinary lives but who find themselves in the middle of a murder investigation. W J Burley was very good at creating believable people caught up in extraordinary situations. I’ve read just a few of his 22 Wycliffe books – plenty more to read yet!

W.J. Burley (1914 – 20020 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 Inspector Wycliffe in 1966 and the series has been televised with Jack Shepherd starring in the title role. Wycliffe in Paul’s Court was first published in 1980.

Two R.I.P. IX Books

So far I’ve read five books that fit into the R.I.P. Challenge categories of Mystery, Suspense, Thriller, Dark Fantasy, Gothic, Horror, or Supernatural. As I’m behind with writing about these books here are just a few notes on two of them:

Wycliffe and the House of Fear by W J Burley. Like the other Wycliffe books this is set in Cornwall. Detective Superintendent Wycliffe is on holiday recuperating from an illness when he meets the intriguing Kemp family and visits Kellycoryk, their decaying ancestral home.  The Kemps’ behaviour is odd to say the least and when Roger Kemp’s second wife, Bridget disappears people remember  that his first wife had also disappeared in what had been assumed was a boating accident. Wycliffe is inevitably drawn into the investigation.

I have yet to read a Wycliffe book and be disappointed and this one is no exception. It’s a complex story with sinister undercurrents and good depiction of a dysfunctional family. It kept me guessing almost to the end. This fits into the ‘Mystery’ category.

The next one I read is the short story (just 27 pages), The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, which is definitely a suspense story of a young woman slowly but surely losing her mind – or is it a case of a woman suffering from post-natal depression most cruelly treated by her doctor husband? Her husband believes she has just a ‘slight hysterical tendency‘ and prescribes rest and sleep, scoffing at what he considers are her fantasies.

The un-named woman has just had a baby, which she is unable to bear to be near her. She spends most of her time in an attic bedroom, with barred windows and a bed fixed to the floor. The walls are covered in a hideous yellow wallpaper which has been torn off in places. It’s not a beautiful yellow like buttercups but it makes her think of old, foul bad yellow things – and it smells.  The pattern is tortuous and she sees a woman trapped behind the wallpaper as though behind bars, crawling and shaking the pattern attempting to escape. Definitely a creepy and disturbing story!

It reminded me of Marghanita Laski’s The Victorian Chaise-Longue with a similar sense of claustrophobia and helplessness. But The Yellow Wallpaper is much more horrific and by the end I began to question just what was real and what was imagination – it’s psychologically scary!

These two are both books from my to-be-read piles.

Catching Up With My Reading

Once more I’ve been reading books and moving on without writing about them. Here are just two of the books I’ve read recently:

The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier – I really liked this book, historical fiction about the life of Honor Bright after she emigrated from Dorset to America in 1850 where she joined a Quaker community in Ohio. It intertwines her story with that of the ‘Underground Railroad’, helping the runaway slaves from the southern states to escape to Canada.

Honor is a quilter, but finds that American quilts are not the same as English ones, just as America is very different from England, both in landscape, temperature and culture. She struggles to fit in, finding it hard to adjust. I thought this was well handled and the sense of period and place is impressive, with a wealth of detail about the land and the struggles of the settlers. She can’t face the journey back across the Atlantic and marries Jack Haymaker, a young farmer whose mother and sister disapprove of her.

The slavery question caused Honor a real dilemma, as she became involved in the Underground Railroad, a network of safe houses and people willing to provide food and shelter for the runaways. Should she abide by the law, or follow her Quaker beliefs about equality, thus putting the rest of her family at risk as well as herself? This is compounded by her relationship with Belle Mills and her disreputable brother Donovan who has taken a liking to Honor, but is also a slave-catcher, ruthless in his pursuit.

I think it’s a very entertaining book, full of colourful characters, although some, like Jack are not as well developed as others. I liked the detail about quilting, even though I have never done any! But it was the account of life on the frontier and the Underground Railroad that made the book for me. Here are Honor’s thoughts about slavery:

She had begun with a clear principle born of a lifetime of sitting in silent expectation: that all people are equal in God’s eyes, and so should not be enslaved to one another. Any system of slavery must be abolished. It had seemed simple in England; yet in Ohio that principle was chipped away at, by economic arguments, by personal circumstances, by deep-seated prejudice that Honor sensed even in Quakers. …

When an abstract principle became entangled in in daily life, it lost its clarity and became compromised and weakened. (page 259)

I borrowed this book from the library.

In complete contrast I moved on from The Last Runaway to Wycliffe and the Four Jacks by W J Burley, crime fiction set in Cornwall, featuring Chief Superintendent Wycliffe, who is on holiday but still gets drawn into a murder investigation.

Author David Cleeve, who writes under the pseudonym Peter Stride asks for Wycliffe’s advice about a series of sinister warnings he has received in the form of a playing card – the Jack of Diamonds. Then, a young woman is found dead, an apparently motiveless crime, but, as Wycliffe discovers, it follows a series of crimes, the clues all seeming to centre on an archaeological dig on Cleeve’s land. A further murder helps to pinpoint the culprit.

This is a quick read, with plenty of red herrings, but not too difficult to unravel. I liked it and I liked the personal touches that make Wycliffe a real person, a somewhat irritable man who likes his food, and gets on well with his wife. He is a thoughtful detective:

He was in a strange mood, suddenly everything had become unreal: the bare schoolroom with its peeling green walls, the battered tables, the scratched filing cabinets, his colleagues bending over their reports … He had known such experiences since childhood when, suddenly, everything seemed remarkable, nothing was ordinary any more. His mother would say: ‘Why aren’t you playing with your toys, Charles?’ Later, at school, it was ‘Day-dreaming again, Wycliffe!’ Now DS Lane was watching him and probably thinking, ‘Why dies he just sit there?’ (page 165)

It’s periods like this, however, that help Wycliffe focus his thoughts.

Wycliffe and the Four Jacks was first published in 1985. It’s the 12th in Burley’s series of 22 Wycliffe books.

Crime Fiction Alphabet: W is for Wycliffe …

Wycliffe and the Cycle of Death by W J Burley.

From the back cover:

When Matthew Glynn, a respectable bookseller is found bludgeoned and strangled, Chief Superintendent Wycliffe is mystified. Why would anyone want to kill him, and in such a brutal manner?

But a look at Glynn’s background reveals tension within the family. Alfred Glynn, an eccentric recluse, has held a grudge against his brother for years and the older brother, Maurice, argued bitterly with Matthew over the sale of family land. Add to this a discontented son, valuable documents in the bookseller’s safe, and the mysterious, still unexplained disappearance of Matthew’s wife years earlier, and Wycliffe faces one of his most impenetrable cases yet.

Then another Glynn dies and the murderer’s identity seems obvious. But Wycliffe is not convinced – and soon uncovers some very murky secrets, and the possibility of another murder …

My view:

The story is set in Penzance and its immediate neighbourhood, so Burley, who knew the area well (he lived near Newquay), sets the scene well. The three Glynn brothers didn’t get on, with a long-standing quarrel between Matthew and Alfred, which was connected to their mother, and a more recent row between Matthew and his other brother, Maurice, who objected to Matthew’s proposal to build houses near to Maurice’s pottery. And as Trice, the local DI,  tells Wycliffe, the locals are suspicious of outsiders – he’s talking not just about Cornwall, but about the local area, Penwith, which in Cornish means ‘ … “the extreme end”. The people here feel different – they are different.’

And this is a murder mystery with a difference, because all is not clear by the end. There are plenty of suspects, not just the brothers but also their sister and grown-up children. The reader is left to work out the puzzle, indeed Wycliffe struggles to come to terms with his suspicions and his mind is in turmoil:

With something approaching desperation, Wycliffe was trying to see the events in perspective, to relate them one to another and to imagine the repressed tensions and accumulated bitterness which had finally surfaced. But what troubled him most was the thought that he was being pushed beyond his role as an investigating officer into decisions which were either moral or judicial or both. (page 185)

I liked the book very much, with its complex plot, convincing characters, and in particular the way Wycliffe’s humane and thoughtful character is portrayed. The ending certainly makes you think.

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Orion; New Ed edition (2 Aug 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0752844458
  • ISBN-13: 978-0752844459
  • Source: I bought the book
  • My Rating: 4/5

A Crime Fiction Alphabet post for the letter W.