Written by a returning Cousin Jenny, this book is a curious mix of traditional Cornish tales and recipes and the state of British cooking she found onWritten by a returning Cousin Jenny, this book is a curious mix of traditional Cornish tales and recipes and the state of British cooking she found on her return in the early eighties. As such, saffron buns, hevva cake, stargazy pie, fairings, pasties, etc. somehow nestle up against croissants, fish a l'Armoricaine, crab thermidore and oysters a la Florentine.
One day, someone will write a truly great Cornish cookbook. This isn't it and, to the best of my knowledge, no one has yet but this does help to fill in the gap for now....more
Burley returns to familiar territory in this Wycliffe adventure, exploring the claustrophobic atmosphere of a large family living in the one big houseBurley returns to familiar territory in this Wycliffe adventure, exploring the claustrophobic atmosphere of a large family living in the one big house, isolated from the rest of their community.
I spotted the plot twist a little later than I probably should have done, and it's a typically enjoyable, easy read if slightly short of his usual standards....more
A picture might be better than a thousand words, but W.J. Burley can paint a picture with a very few of them.
Although the Wycliffe books are set in MoA picture might be better than a thousand words, but W.J. Burley can paint a picture with a very few of them.
Although the Wycliffe books are set in Modern Britain (the first in the series was published in the late 1960's and the last in the early 2000's, each being set squarely in the publication year with Wycliffe and his family ageing not one jot even as, bizarrely, his junior officers age, get promoted, and retire around him) the tone of them belongs to a different era. Forensics are called in and police procedure carried through but what matters most is Wycliffe's hunches. It's a familiar formula for mystery novels and one which has been proven to work; it does, after all, allow the reader to more easily relate to the protagonist as they usually share the same revelations - even if they are a few pages ahead of the detective himself.
This particular Wycliffe story is set in the Falmouth art world (never as famous a set as Newlyn or St. Ives) and follows Burley exploring ideas about obsession and emotional development in a sins of the fathers context.
Painting a picture with so few words? Burley was a master of characterisation. For me though, it's always nice to visit my home country when I read his books, so that may sway my judgement....more
Not one of W.J. Burley's best. This is far more of a police procedural than the early Wycliffes and, although it contains (view spoiler)[several familNot one of W.J. Burley's best. This is far more of a police procedural than the early Wycliffes and, although it contains (view spoiler)[several family secrets and crimes other than the murder committed at the start of the novel (hide spoiler)], these serve only to distract the detective work (the Tangled Web of the title). A further departure in this book from previous entries in the series is the introduction of a new storytelling device: namely the constant marking of the passage of time.
This serves to make time the dominant character in the novel - the reader is always aware of its passage. Whilst the passage of time is obviously of importance to solving any crime (and especially one involving a missing person) it nevertheless jars somewhat with Burley's usual writing style, which lacks urgency.
One interesting diversion for fans of Wycliffe is the constant development of policework that happens in the background of the series: the books were written over a period of more than forty years and, even though Wycliffe and his family (and Franks) never age other, supporting, characters are promoted and retired. Beyond that, the nature of the work changes. This book, for example, sees reference to "TV's Crimewatch" and the deployment of "VDU screens" alongside the typewriters in the incident room. Something Wycliffe is predictably suspicious of. Forensics have also changed, with some techniques used in previous novels now used for a quick assessment of a crime scene but no longer considered reliable or precise enough to use as evidence in a court.
Overall then, this is a pleasant diversion, but not as engaging as others in the series: one for fans rather than newcomers to Burley's elegant writing.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
This is one of the best of the Wycliffe novels. All of the elements which W.J. Burley excels at are pres"Secrets and lies! It's all secrets and lies!"
This is one of the best of the Wycliffe novels. All of the elements which W.J. Burley excels at are present: a family living on top of each other in a big house, evocations of the Cornish landscape and Wycliffe's cerebrational walks (Burley uses that word a lot in this book: either he had a thesaurus to hand or I missed it in previous volumes - it's a good word though!).
In part then, the book owes its success to the author's conservatism: by the time he wrote this he'd been a published author for more than twenty years and in this work he sticks to his strengths without any kind of experimentation. There's even the odd in-joke: comparing 'today's policing' (published in 1990, so we're talking c.1988-89) to the situation twenty years ago the reader is acutely aware Wycliffe was working that way himself a few volumes prior (I've written about the anachronism of Wycliffe's age in other reviews). It's also effective because the plot holds together a little better than some of the other mysteries. Here, the reader is allowed to infer a good deal, but an unexplained mystery remains at the end and, without firm evidence, Wycliffe is forced to compromise....more
I’m very much enjoying listening to the current BBC radio series Foreign Bodies which charts the history of twentieth century Europe through its fictional detectives. This is social history explored through literary device and it works well but it also chimes with a conviction that I’ve long held: that W.J. Burley’s books are one of the more authentic Cornish voices in modern fiction. The press release accompanying the series offered this explanation for its significance:
“In crime fiction, everyday details become crucial clues: the way people dress and speak, the cars they drive, the jobs they have, the meals they eat. And the motivations of the criminals often turn on guilty secrets: how wealth was created, who slept with who, or a character’s role during the war. The intricate story of a place and a time is often explained in more detail in detective novels than in more literary fiction or newspapers, both of which can take contemporary information for granted. “1
Wycliffe became very much more famous than Burley during the latter part of the author’s lifetime, a circumstance that he struggled to come to terms with: it would seem that the successful TV adaptations were a somewhat Faustian pact. We live in a world where it is easy to deride the popular as the populist and success in the arts is often met with accusations of simplicity, as if nothing of any value can possibly appeal to the masses. Mirroring my contention with the Wycliffe novels, it is worth pointing out that Alan Kent has made just such an appeal to affirming a recognisably Cornish representation in the Wycliffe TV serial2. Before appearing on the small-screen, Burley did receive some critical praise for the Wycliffe books3 but it’s probably fair to say that the same kind of cultural snobbishness that could write off those adaptations as mass entertainment of little inherent worth rapidly saw those novels relegated to the insultingly named “English Cozy” genre. It’s ironic then, that the detective series to which Wycliffe is most often compared, Georges Simenon’s Maigret, should also be adapted by ITV and yet suffer none of this cultural baggage; perhaps the fact that the author was Belgian helped to save him and his character from Little-Englander attitudes?
It may seem peculiar to review the seventeenth novel in the Wycliffe series here before any of the earlier ones but I wanted to approach the topic with relatively fresh eyes and so chose one I had not read before. For readers new to the character, it’s worth noting that all the novels stand alone and, as such, they can easily be read in any order. For those who wish to read them in the order they were written in there are several little in-jokes concerning the development of police work during the time of the novels: written over a period of more than thirty years at the end of the twentieth century we see a lot of changes in the nature of the work (the introduction of computers, new forensic techniques and the forever shifting relationship with the mass-media) and in wider culture (posters on college bedsit walls change from The Beatles to Oasis, anti-smoking sentiment gradually creeps, brass bands are replaced by night-clubs, close-knit communities are encircled by tourists and second-home owners before fragmenting and reforming across a wider area facilitated by the modern ubiquity of car ownership). The one constant is Wycliffe, who never ages despite those around him getting promoted and retired through the course of the series.
Wycliffe and the Dead Flautist was first published in 1991 and another period detail from then that I’d almost forgotten is immediately to the fore: the resignation with which we expected an annual hosepipe ban. Here the rivers are low, the ground is hard and the plants are dying. In what’s called literary fiction (another genre name I despise – isn’t all fiction literary?) such a setting would provide a major element in the story; here it is mainly background detail – the very same kind of detail that was used to discuss European history in Foreign Bodies. The ever greater freedom of movement to Europe is also concisely expressed here as Wycliffe returns from a car holiday in France and muses on retiring there: both concepts really at their peak for the middle classes at that time; this is contrasted with rising disquiet about the influence of the EC (forever a concern in Cornwall) and with global warming.
The novel opens with a scene between young lovers, sneaking out after dark for an assignation. The relationship is delicately presented without a word wasted – a hallmark of Burley’s writing – the assignation takes place on a creek in the upper reaches of the tidal Fal and the landscape is instantly familiar to anyone who knows the area: redolent with the moist, musty smells of the wood and the sweet rottenness of the mud when the tide’s out. Burley sketches landscapes well – never over-describing but always writing enough for the reader to recognise places or else hang the details of his own imaginings on the framework. What he really excels at however, is writing atmosphere and he relishes exploring the psychological burden of people in a small community bound together through circumstance and convenience and how they react when those circumstances begin to change.
“His wife was silent for so long that he turned to face her. She was looking at him, her eyes so coldly speculative that he was disturbed. She said in a level, unemotional voice: ‘Up to now I’ve never troubled about your little games but if you’re mixed up in this then you’d better watch out.’
He was alarmed; he had never known her either so bitter or so self-confident, usually she took refuge in hysterical weeping. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about Beth. What am I supposed to have done? Unless you tell me – ‘”
In many of his Wycliffe books, as well as others, he examines this particular facet of human nature through the device of an extended family living together in a large house; here he has two such families to play with: the local landlord and their hereditary estate lawyers living in an adjacent house, both some distance from the village (granite and slate core, sprawling bungalows around the edge…). By the time he wrote this book Burley knew exactly what he was doing with his prose and here he has fun throwing around literary references (Poirot, Frankenstein, Perry Mason) and joking with the reader regards literary conventions:
“’It’s overcomplicated. The story writer creates a theoretical framework for a crime and by devising alibis and false trails he turns it into a test of wits. The real-life criminal, if he’s going to get away with it, keeps it simple and, if we catch him, it’s as much by luck as by cunning.’”
The mystery here is one of Burley’s better contrived ones: you may guess whodunnit, but explaining why is considerably more difficult and guesses are, of course, useless in a police procedural: evidence is required. Burley cast Wycliffe in Cornwall because that was his home for most of his life and the place he knew best; just like the difficulty in guessing why the killer did it in this book it’s difficult to explain why they should be such effective depictions of Cornwall: I very much doubt that was his intention. As the BBC indicated though, the devil is in the details. Burley did not set out to write about Cornwall but he couldn’t help himself, his love for and knowledge of his birthplace seeps into the pages of each Wycliffe book as the necessary detail for crimes committed and their detection. To write convincingly about people’s lives, passions and motives without that kind of detail would be nigh-on impossible....more
W.J. Burley was a supremely gifted writer; one whose prose could appear simple but whose command and use of the English language was that of a precisiW.J. Burley was a supremely gifted writer; one whose prose could appear simple but whose command and use of the English language was that of a precisionist. Every so often, that apparent simplicity is given the lie:
'There were only two other tables occupied, one by an elderly, studious-looking couple who were probably touring Cornish churches or looking for ley lines; the other, by two pin-striped salesmen types who must surely have strayed off the spine road and got pixilated.'
In the hands of lesser authors, dropping words like that into their prose could appear as showing off but here, it's perfect. One short paragraph/long sentence built of familiar words which nevertheless convey a precise meaning, balanced by one unfamiliar one. Pixilated. Befuddled or confused, derived from pixie-led or pixie-elated. What better word to describe two businessmen breakfasting in a Cornish pub? That word conveys so much and, in that, it's as precise and appropriate as any of the other, more familiar words.
Wycliffe and the Last Rites is as technically well written as those familiar with Burley would expect, then, and his familiar themes of claustrophobia and family ties are present here, although perhaps not dealt with as deftly as usual and perhaps, also, with a slightly different spin. The 'whodunnit' element though is sadly lacking - the reader can guess who and why from the very first chapter, which is a shame. It's almost a cliché and it's frustrating to wonder when the police will reach the same conclusion. ...more
Like many other Wycliffe novels this one hinges on events that happened in the distant past. Unlike many others this one does not focus on familial orLike many other Wycliffe novels this one hinges on events that happened in the distant past. Unlike many others this one does not focus on familial or community tensions, eschewing the tension of that set-up for an altogether different kind of psychodrama. The book opens with the discovery of a body in the Gwithian towans and we get to see the fallout of that discovery as it awakens old wounds in a group of shool-day friends who are, for the most part, no longer on speaking terms.
That discovery proves to be more than merely picking at a scab, however, as it leads to personal tragedy and to murder - it's that (real) murder that ends up being the focus of the investigation after Wycliffe, Kersey and Lane are led a merry dance. The story features one of W.J. Burley's more nasty and memorable villains....more
Bernard Deacon taught me Cornish history back when he was still at ICS. During that time he was always stressing the need to navigate between overtlyBernard Deacon taught me Cornish history back when he was still at ICS. During that time he was always stressing the need to navigate between overtly nationalist history and overtly local. I tended to think that was a very difficult thing to do in writing: the choice of subject necessarily pulls you toward the nationalist unless making a very determined effort to write the latter, downplaying certain themes in the process.
So, now that he's written a grand narrative, how successfully does he practice what he preaches? I think the easiest way to gauge his success is by the somewhat incredulous reactions to his text. Forum members on Cornwall24 state that "he has damaged the cause" whilst The English Historical Review echoes my concerns ("While clearly trying to follow an objective path between ‘ kernowsceptic ’ and ‘ kernowcentric ’ positions, the book clearly has as its central theme the origins and development of Cornish distinctiveness.") but asks "was Cornwall more different from Devon than Devon was from neighbouring Somerset, or Yorkshire from Lancashire?". In other words, the book tells a history that is too English (not Cornish enough) for some and too Cornish for others.