Top critical review
A rather under-powered detective story
on 24 April 2013
This is the first book by W.J. Burley, who died in 2002 at the age of 88, that I have read and see that it is the 21st book in the series featuring Detective Superintendent Wycliffe of Cornwall CID; the author only began writing the series at the age of 52 after he had retired as a schoolteacher.
This story centres on Simon Meagor, an antiquarian bookseller, who some years before was a crucial witness in a killing which resulted in George Barker being convicted. Shortly after his release Barker commits suicide and, not long after that, his wife dies. The children, Morwenna, the red-head of the title, and petty criminal Nicky, both blame Meagor for what has happened to their family.
Morwenna answers an advert for an assistant that Meagor has placed and, somewhat surprisingly, he takes her on. Although he understands that she is probably scheming against him he is strangely passive until, one weekend, she disappears. When Morwenna is found dead in her characteristic yellow mini in a flooded quarry, and Wycliffe doubts that neither accident nor suicide are involved, Meagor becomes an obvious suspect. Wycliffe's team, including DS Lucy Lane, DI Doug Kersey and Dr. Franks, the pathologist, join him in the investigation, which eventually ends us with the killer identified and the motive revealed.
Amongst characters introduced in the second half of the novel is an amateur insect collector, which perhaps harks back to the author's own study of zoology. Throughout the novel Wycliffe comes across as a not-terribly exciting family man who takes walks to mull over key aspects of the case. I suspect that underwhelming response was, in part, due to the fact that I had recently read two of Donna Leon's novels featuring Commissario Brunetti and his colleagues in Venice and, in these, the character of the policeman at the heart of the novel is very much more engaging.
I have read that the Burley was very critical of his work saying that he "never felt very happy with his books - they seemed rather too derivative, following too closely an established pattern". Having just read the one novel I am not in a position to judge whether this book is typical of Burley's oeuvre or whether, by the time that this book was written, he had settled into a rather formulaic procedure which was greatly appreciated by his readers as is shown by the other reviewers.
I will try another book, perhaps written earlier, before making any final decision.