Detecting Cornwall

WYCLIFFE AND THE FOUR JACKS, by W J Burley, published in 1985 – and WYCLIFFE AND THE TANGLED WEB, also by Burley (but of course), published in1988

Bookshelf 15, shelf 4, books 10 and 11

It’s a bit like Cheddars – you can’t just eat up one detective story; you need more. Well, I do anyway, and the same applies to sequences of novels (heaven only knows what will happen if the dice select one of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin books). Oxfam may have been where I found these rather lovely yellow-jacketed Gollancz hardbacks to fuel my addiction.

So not one tiltle here, but two.

Why do we read detective fiction, I wonder? Why is it so very popular?

I think it partly appeals to our puzzle-solving instincts, and partly to our desire to see order come from chaos, and you can’t get more transgressive than murder.

But of course there’s more to a good detective novel than the solving of the crime. Otherwise reading one would be little different to completing a sudoku, only with extra blunt instruments.

Of course you need a stonkingly good plot. But you also need believable characters, sympathetic or not – and your main detective really does not need  to be alcoholic, addicted to drugs or a complete screwball – and you need an interesting setting. Often the best crime writers tend to explore a particular location over several books, and it’s best when it’s one which readers ‘think’ they know, but which the writer then reveals in all its actual grimness or hypocrisy. Think Morse’s Oxford or the Edinburgh of John Rebus.

In the case of the Wycliffe books, it’s Cornwall. 

That’s hardly surprising: Burley (1914-2002) was a complete Cornishman. But though he always sets the Wycliffe books in a recognisable area, he’s also at pains to distort it slightly so there’s no risk of any confusion between fiction or reality. A necessary precaution when you live in the community you’re writing about – especially if you write about nasty little murders and sins coming home to roost…

The first of the two, Four Jacks, is set in the Roseland peninsula. For me, this is one of the books which most conjures up Cornwall, partly because it’s set in the summer, and partly because the landscape is so lovingly described. And it’s a Cornish Cornwall despite the holiday setting – not the Cornwall of the visitors who basically form a backdrop to the action, walking around in the distance and taking, in the case of Tangled Web, boat trips on which they witness arguments. That particular book is set in a version of Mevagissey.

I must admit that I don’t know the Cornwall of the 1980s well enough to comment on how accurate Burley’s representation of it was, but I do know small communities – small rural communities – and they hardly change. Burley has, in many ways, got them sussed. And Wycliffe, Burley’s main detective, understands them too:

‘…he had been brought up in the narrow world of family feuds, squabbles over land, and the conflicting interests of landlord and tenant.’

(This is a world – Tangled Web – in which it seems perfectly reasonable to put an elderly aunt in the freezer when she dies at an inconvenient time. And I don’t find it exaggerated one bit.)

And then there are the ‘incomers’ like the unpleasant David Cleeve – he’s the focus of Jacks – though he is an extreme case: a famous writer with a dodgy past. For me, though Cleeve may be the focus of the book, the peripheral characters are where my interest lies: the Borlases, brother and sisters, whose niece is murdered by accident; Laura Wynn, the new-age protester against an archaeological dig… they can be major or minor, but they’re sketched in well. For instance, Jack Polmear, pub landlord, barely appears – but I’ve met a Jack Polmear or two, he’s so convincing.

Ultimately, however, the appeal of Burley’s books for me lies in the motivation behind the crimes. It’s never overly melodramatic, exaggerated or ridiculous. It’s often derived from mistaken assumptions and muddle, which strikes me as being realistic (though I may be operating under a muddled and mistaken assumption myself, of course). I think it is probably this aspect of his work which has led to comparisons with Simenon. That, and the fact that he’s not at all repetitious.

In many detective novels you can work out who did it well in advance, not because of any clues the author may have dropped – that’s acceptable, and part of the game – but because it’s always the weak young man or the person with the cast-iron alibi or the person who wasn’t even there. That’s not true of Burley’s Wycliffe books at all; yes, you can find clues and shout at Wycliffe ‘It’s a synonym for John!’ or ‘She’s lying!’, but there’s no preordained plot device.

What they do have is a good central detective (who was, I think, well played by Jack Shepherd in the 1990s TV series), an excellent supporting cast and a well-planned, atmospheric plot.

For those who also appreciate W J Burley, there’s a small website which celebrates his work – check it out. If you’re interested in the technical side of planning detective novel, there’s a page on there specifically looking at how he plotted out Wycliffe and the Tangled Web.

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2 thoughts on “Detecting Cornwall

  1. Annie

    I wonder whether reading detective fiction appeals too to our instincts to make sense of our lives ? Perhaps to see wrongs righted aswell ? I hope Mari Strachan’s The Earth Hums in B Flat and A.D. Miller’s Snowdrops are on your shelves, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed diving into and surfacing though these this year.

    Reply
    1. Kate Post author

      I’m sure you’re right… there’s order in the world after all (despite evidence to the contrary)… I’ve read the Strachan – got her new one for Christmas but not read that yet – but I don’t know Snowdrops. I’ll have to investigate (once I’ve stopped relying on dice for my reading)!

      Reply

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