Iain's Leisure Reading

W.J.Burley - The Wycliffe books   

In some charity shop somewhere I chanced upon the first three books in W J Burley's Wycliffe series, and thought I would give them a go.

W J (William John ) Burley was born in Falmouth in Cornwall in 1914. After school, he worked in senior management for various gas companies, but after the second world war, had a career change. He got a scholorship to study zoology at Balliol College, Oxford. In 1953, with his honours degree, he then became a teacher, eventually ending up at Newquay Grammar School in 1955. Soon after that he took up writing, and is best known for crime fiction and his character detective Charles Wycliffe. The first Wycliffe book was published in 1968. Burley retired from teaching in 1974, but carried on writing until his death in Cornwall at the age of 88. He died in 2002.

Wycliffe and the Three-Toed Pussy     (1968)

I read this book in July, 2017.

This is book 1 in W.J.Burley's series about Detective Chief Superintendent Charles Wycliffe - just known as Wycliffe - and set in the author's home county of Cornwall. We are gradually introduced to Wycliffe as a decent man, happily married to his wife Helen, and they live in a flat in Exeter (which of course is in Devon). They have twins, a boy and a girl, now apparently away at Uni.

Wycliffe seems to work by really getting to know the likely suspects in the crime by almost living among them. He likes to leave a local DI, in this case DI Darley, to run the detail of the investigation - to do all the work, and all the running around. Wycliffe likes to think things through. Her used to be in the Midlands - but has recently transferred down to Cornwall. I was reminded of Ruth Rendell's Chief Inspector Wexford - both are good detectives, decent men, and happily married, which makes a change from the usual flawed, tormented DI loner found elsewhere in crime fiction.

This was a slightly old fashioned tale. A local beautiful woman is found in her cottage shot dead. Her left stocking has been removed to show a deformed foot - she only had three toes. She seemed to live rent free, and had a reputation from entertaining a variety of men friends through the day and at night. She didn't charge up front for her "services", but periodically got loans that would never be repaid. She also seemed well versed in the arts of blackmail. The murdered woman was Anna Welles - known to everyone as Pussy Welles. She seemed to enjoyn manipulating and humiliating her men victims. It seemed to be more a power trip than conventional prostitution - and this is the clue that Wycliffe uses to solve the mystery.

We are introduced to her collection of men friends - one of whom, or his wife, presumably killed her. It's almost like the Agatha Christie house party stories - an isolated location with everyone trapped there, and one a murderer. And true to form, Wycliffe assembles all the suspects together at the end to reveal who did it.

I thought it was a well written tale that augured well for the s rest of the series. Thankfully it's a lot better than the previous book that I read - "Gently Continental." I will read on and see how the series goes.

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Wycliffe and How to Kill a Cat     (1970)

I read this book in July, 2017.

This is book 2 in W J Burley's Wycliffe series and gradually we are getting to know a little more about Wycliffe's methods and character. He is not really a team player, nor one for paper work. It is surprising that he has been promoted to Chief Superintendent - but he has a proven track record. He seems to get away without keeping written notes - everything is accumulated in his head, and by some mysterious osmosis, a solution to the crime seems to emerge. Wycliffe is worried at the start of each new case that his intuition may let him down - its not something that he is in charge of and if it doesn't work, he has no process to fall back on, so what would he do ?

I liked the opening to this book. Wycliffe and his wife Helen are on holiday presumably at some Cornish seaside resort. He knows an inspector at the local police station, and calls in to say hello only to find that his friend is off sick. However a local murder has just been reported, and Wycliffe decides to take an interest. It is an interesting case of an apparently up market beautiful young woman who has been discovered naked and strangled in a bed in the Marina Hotel - a decidedly seedy establishment in the docks. Her face had been savagely beaten after death, and 1,000 cash is found undisturbed in a drawer. Wierdly she seems to have been strangled ever so gently, almost lovingly, but then attacked in a frenzy. Wycliffe wonders if the two acts could have been done by different people, a strange case indeed. Wycliffe is hooked, and Helen is very understanding. The local DI is Inspector Fehling, almost a giant of a man. DCI James Gill from head office / Wycliffe's area squad is also summoned to assist. The dead girl is "Dawn Peters" (not her real name) who had worked as a stripper at the local Voodoo club owned and run by a Mr Masson- Smythe and his wife Thelma. Dawn had a reputation as being very wild and into casual sex, including with Masson Smythe. Dawn had some hold over the Masson-Smythes - she knew about their interesting side line. Previously Dawn had been married to a very reserved local business man - William Collins the owner of the local book shop. Collins still lived with his domineering mum and Aunt Kate who idolised Collins as the son she never had, and would do anything for him. Also at the book shop is a manager / book keeper - the very prim Miss Rogers who would probably have married Collins before the flighty "Dawn Peters" appeared. In short, it becomes obvious that there is no shortage of likely suspects (and motives), and Wycliffe moves amongst them getting to know their characters.

Inspector Fehling and DCI Gill do all the work, after all Wycliffe had been on holiday. Eventually it's all worked out but I thought it a most unsatisfactory ending. They have a confession and someone is charged - case completed. But Wycliffe knows that someone else is equally guilty and he has decided just to let the matter rest. What a strange decision from Wycliffe. DCI James Gill tells his friend and boss Wycliffe that he mustn't play God in this game, but Wycliffe replies "I'm not playing God, Jim, you've got the roles mixed, I'm cast as Pontious Pilate." It's a sort of clever ending, but not really justice.

All in all, quite a nice little story and I enjoyed reading this tale in spite of the ending.

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Wycliffe and the Guilt Edged Alibi     (1971)

I read this book in August, 2017.

This is book three in the detective Chief Superintendent Wycliffe series by W J Burley. It's set in Devon / Cornwall. It's a nice, straight forward tale, not edge of the seat stuff, but entertaining and we are now getting to know the main character Wycliffe and his peculiar ways. He is still relying on instinct, but when asked to explain he can usually present a rational explanation of an accumulation of clues being somehow rearranged and connected and pointing to some conclusion. He must be very difficult to work with - he is definitely an eccentric. He is quite happy to let DCI Gill do all the work, and get on with things whilst he rambles about getting to know the place and its inhabitants. It is almost as if he is conducting a separate investigation.

In this story we are in the West Country town of Treen, itself separated by a river into East and West Treen, and connected by a ferry. The ferryman fishes the body of a dead woman out of the river - its that of Caroline Bryce, the beautiful wife of Matthew, the oldest of the three Bryce brothers who own most of the town businesses, and provide a lot of local employment. Mathew is rather unworldly, happy to play with his old steam model engines, Sydney runs the businesses, and George is an idler and ladies man. Caroline was a lot younger than Matthew, and looked elsewhere for entertainment. She had numerous affairs, but Matthew seemed indifferent. She even had an affair with brother George, and still Matthew didn't care. The pride of Matthew's life was his daughter Zel - if something happened to her he certainly would care. There is also Caroline's half brother Clement Morley, politician, former minister, a friend of the chief constable, and someone who expects action. By a strange twist of fate, Moreley and Wycliffe were at school together.

Just about everyone in the story could have been the murderer. All had a motive. The company business was to be sold, Caroline and Sydney were in favour, and together could outvote Matthew. With Caroline dead, Mathew was able to cancel the sale. Had he killed his wife to achieve this ? Everyone who knew him thought he would be incapable of such an action. Had George done the deed, but if so, why ? Or had Zel persuaded her boyfriend to do the deed. And what about Clement Moreley who was possibly being blackmailed by Caroline. Wycliffe moves amongst them all - he feels the clue to the murder lies well in the past, and slowly he is building a picture.

I thought it was a good well written story. Wycliffe reminds me of Chief Inspector / Superintendent George Gently , but the Gently books are hard going because of the author's flowery, obscure language. M.J. Burley can communicate clearly and simply - Alan Hunter should have read Wycliffe, and picked up a few tips.

Of course Wycliffe solves the a case but I'm not sure what a good defence lawyer could make of his breaking and entering antics. Its set in the early 1970s - simpler times. All in all though, a good read, I thought.

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Wycliffe and Death in a Salubrious Place     (1973)

I read this book in September, 2017.

This is book 4 in the detective Chief Superintendent Wycliffe series set in the West Country. It is a nice, straight forward series. Wycliffe is a good investigator - not the usual troubled soul of so many other series. The books have a beginning, a middle, and an end. We are presented with a puzzle, and join Wycliffe and his crew - i.e. the very well organised DCI Gill - as they work their way through all the clues and evidence until it is all solved - and Wycliffe goes on his way.

In this story, Evie is a young girl in the Scilly Isles whose body is found at the foot of a quarry. Did she jump, or was she pushed ? The islanders are a close knit community who quickly blame an outsider for the suspected murder - an ex pop idol Vince Peters who retired from fame and bought a substantial property in the middle of the island. He set up a disco in an outbuilding, and attracted all the local youth. He was a great hit with all the local girls - how many did he sleep with ?

Wycliffe is sent to avert a linching and convince the islanders that Evie's death will be investigated thoroughly. If he concludes that it is suicide, then that will be accepted. But Wycliffe concludes that it is murder. Evie was 4 months pregnant - was Vince Peters the father ? Did he kill her rather than marry her ? Or did her former boyfriend Jackie Martin kill her - stung by her rejection ? Or perhaps it was Vince's full time partner Clarisssa who did it out of jealousy, or perhaps it was Vince's brother to inherit some much needed money. In short, there are lots of suspects.

Wycliffe as usual sort of relies on informed intuition. He gets to know everyone really well, keeps asking questions, sleeps on it, tries not to get too bogged down with detail, and somehow puzzles it out. Of course, there is another death just to complicate matters, but it is all sorted in the end.

Wycliffe doesn't like police politics - he doesn't suck up to anyone, and so will never rise further up the police hierarchy. He has cultivated a reputation as an eccentric which sort of protects him - and he does have an excellent clear up rate.

It's all well written, and very believable. The book held my attention throughout, and the ending made sense. In short, its an OK series, good value for money and time spent.

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Wycliffe and Death in Stanley Street     (1974)

I read this book in October, 2017.

This is book 5 in the detective Chief Superintendent Wycliffe series set in the West Country. Police area headquarters has just been relocated to some large seaside town presumably in Cornwall, and Wycliffe and his wife Helen have moved from Exeter. They have bought a substantial granite house with its own drive sitting in grounds of half an acre, and with lovely sea views over the estuary. Helen loves the new house, and is in her element getting the house just to her liking. In this story it is almost Christmas, and the twins David and Ruth are home from Uni. Otherwise it's business as usual, with DCI Gill doing all the work and Wycliffe being somewhat eccentric in character, but still a brilliant detective.

The crime here is the murder of a prostitute Lily Painter in her flat in dockland Stanley Street. Lily is very upmarket, well read, educated, sophisticated, but still has a seedy address. A coworker Brenda discovers the body strangled and naked in her flat. DCI Gill says it's obviously a sex murder, but Wycliffe is not so sure. It turns out that Lily is really Christine Powell whose father was a well respected local local businessman. Christine dabbled in property - using a bit of blackmail to get inside info on good deals. Wycliffe poses the question who was killed - was it Lily Painter, or Christne Powell ? There are lot of possible suspects. Was it someone whom Christine was blackmailing, or some property rival, or someone else ? Christine had two boyfriends - the very inexperienced young architect Paul Morris, and the cruel but dashing Derek Robson who works as book buyer for Mr Jarvis. A local waitress made up a foursome. Jarvis seemed a very successful bookseller specialising in antiquarian books. He is so succeessful he is patron of local artists. "I didn't realise there was so much money in bookselling" says Wycliffe, and of course Jarvis (and Robson) made their money in other ways.

It's a good story, not too overcomplicated. A property owned by the dead Christine Powell is destroyed in an obvious arson attack. A badly disfigured body is found in the ashes, but we don't know whose body it is. There are two possibilities. If A was the victim and died, then B was the murderer and survived, but which was which ? Nowadays a DNA sample would solve the mystery but the technique had not yet discovered. Of course the book builds to a good climax, and Wycliffe takes a huge risk to get his murderer.

I like these stories. Wycliffe is an honest likeable character, happily married to Helen - a bit eccentric (perhaps a deliberate act) but very astute. It's promising to be a good series.

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Wycliffe and The Pea Green Boat     (1975)

I read this book in December, 2017.

I criticised Wycliffe and How to Kill a Cat, (1970) book two of the series, for having a most unsatisfactory ending - Wycliffe played judge and jury and didn't charge the crook, but let him off. Policemen should act as policemen. Sadly M J Burley is at it again in "Wycliffe and The Pea Green Boat", book 6 in the series and another reasonably good book was ruined for me by the poor ending. That is a pity because up the the ending I was quite enjoying the story.

The story is told in two parts. Part one is back in 1953, and we are in a little fishing village in the West Country. We meet Morley Tremain, a quiet lad, a bit of a mother' boy, who lives with his mother in the flat attached to their newsagents. Alice Weeks starts work as a shop assistant in the newsagents, Morely asks Alice for a date, and soon they are going together. We next meet Harry Tremain, Morely's uncle, who has many businesses in the area, and is reasonably wealthy. Harry's son Cedric is the opposite to Morley, a scoundrel, bad tempered, a cheat, but very successful with girls. To cut a long story short, Morley catches Alice having sex with Cedric, is heartbroken, and drops Alice as his girlfriend. Later Alice is found raped and murdered in a spot where Morley had been seen walking - there are lots of other indications that Morley did the murder, he is charged, and sentenced to be hanged. Morley didn't help his case by giving several false signed statements to the police - so when he eventually says that he saw Cedric running away he is not believed. And so this is part one - an innocent man convicted and the rogue Cedric escapes justice. I liked it that the whole story was told from start to end, no mixing of later events with earlier flashbacks. I also didn't mind that there was no Wycliffe in the story.

Part two brings us up to then current times, some 21 years later. Harry Tremain has retired but still keeps active doing some lobster fishing from his "Pea Green Boat". There is an explosion, and Harry is killed - it looks as if his son Cedric stands to inherit some money, and has solved his financial worries and debts. DCI Gill is in charge of the murder investigation, builds a strong case against Cedric, and prosecution is to proceed. However Gill has a nagging doubt. Wycliffe is on holiday / sickness leave in the area. Charles and Helen's daughter Ruth has a steady boyfriend and this holiday is a chance for both sets of parents to get to know each other. Wycliffe is not keen, and when Gill asks him to cast his eye over the Cedric case, he is delighted to escape and do what he loves best - delve into other peoples lives in a murder investigation. And so quite a good tale unfolds. It turns out that Morley was not hanged, but served a life sentence, was out after 14 year sentence, but apparently died in a bad motor crash some three years later. Several "standard" plot themes recur in crime fiction, and one is used here. The manager at the local camp site has a badly disfigured, fire damaged face. If you read a lot of crime fiction you know what this can mean.

Overall, a very readable, enjoyable, simple story well told. Lots of Burley's readers will work out where the story is going. And then sadly, the non ending. I'll read on and hope the next book has a better ending.

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