Category Archives: Fiction

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.


Concerning cow-creamers

THE CODE OF THE WOOSTERS by P G Wodehouse, originally published in 1938

Bookcase 2, Shelf 1, Book 27

Ah – this has revealed one of the problems associated with letting Fate choose from your library (ahem, that gives my collection of books a status they really do not deserve, but let’s stick with it). The rolling dice pick something you just don’t fancy reading.

Well, not at that particular time. Don’t get me wrong; I like Wodehouse – but I was feeling in a much more non-fiction frame of mind, and so, and so – this went by the board. And then I did what I promised myself I would do: picked it up and read it anyway. Unfortunately I was drinking tea at the time, and snorting + hot liquids – not a good combination.

After I’d mopped everything down, I settled into Wodehouse’s splendid language and lost myself in the saga – or rather the ‘sinister affair’ – of ‘Gussie Fink-Nottle, Madeline Bassett, Old Pop Bassett, Stiffy Byng, the Rev. H. P. (‘Stinker’) Pinker, the eighteenth-century cow-creamer, and the small brown leather-covered notebook’.

I make no apologies, by the way, for quoting. I’m with Stephen Fry, who said of Wodehouse ‘I am not alone in believing he has come closer than any writer of English to approaching Shakespeare’s complete mastery and transcendency of language’. All you have to do is tune in, and the next thing you know is that tea is coming down your nose. Inelegant but inevitable.

The cow-creamer – ‘a sort of silver cow with a kind of blotto look on its face’ – is critical. Bertie Wooster is sent on a cow-creamer-related mission by his Aunt Dahlia:

“‘Aunt Dahlia, this is blackmail!’
‘Yes, isn’t it?’ she said, and beetled off…”

(who is a wonderful role model, and one I fully intend to emulate when dealing with my own nephew). This unsurprisingly results in the usual confusion, and a chaos which only Jeeves can resolve. Bertie’s aunts are some of Wodehouse’s greatest creations, notably Aunt Agatha ‘who eats broken bottles and wears barbed wire next the skin’. Fortunately this is Dahlia’s book. Not that it helps.

There’s no point going into minute plot details; like all of P G’s Wooster books, The Code of the Woosters builds misunderstanding upon misunderstanding and unwonted assumption upon unwonted assumption. Along the way French chefs have to be retained, lobster is consumed in unwise quantities, and an incriminating notebook is lost.

Of course, Jeeves sorts it all out, but only after Bertie has attempted – disastrously – to act as a substitute. But the absolute joy, for me anyway, lies in the characters. It’s packed with wonderful descriptions. Take Madeline Bassett, Gussie’s fiancée: ‘a ghastly girl … I remember her telling me once that rabbits were gnomes in attendance on the Fairy Queen. Perfect rot, of course. They’re nothing of the sort’. And there’s Gussie Fink-Nottle, Bertie’s ‘fish-faced friend’ and newt-fancier.

However, my personal fave has to be Roderick Spode. The awful Spode is the ‘founder and head of the Saviours of Britain, a Fascist organisation better known as the Black Shorts’. Yes, that is Shorts:

…’By the way, when you say “shorts”, you mean “shirts”, of course.’
‘No. By the time Spode formed his association, there were no shirts left. He and his adherents wear black shorts.’
‘Footer bags, you mean?’
‘How perfectly foul.’
‘Bare knees?’
‘Bare knees.’

Bear in mind this was published in 1938 (and Spode has the requisite moustache as well as his black shorts), and then fast-forward to what happened after the War when P G Wodehouse was accused of collaboration. I find it difficult to believe that anyone reading his shredding of 1930s British fascism in this book could have actually believed he deliberately collaborated – been ridiculously naive, yes, but not coldly collaborated. Spode, you see, has a shameful secret which I will not reveal here. Needless to say, it is Jeeves who ferrets it out.

And one final word: I love the covers of these old Penguin Wodehouse editions. The illustrator was Ionicus, aka Joshua Armitage, 1913-1998. When I was little I developed a deep love of the covers of my grandfather’s Dalesman magazine, also by Ionicus. What came first, I wonder, in my affections? Maybe I picked up P G W because of the illustrations on the covers. There are worse reasons…