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.
- Anon., 2012. Mark Lawson to examine European crime fiction on Radio 4. http://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/latestnews/2012/foreign-bodies.html. Accessed 4/11/12
- Kent, A., 2003. Screening Kernow: Authenticity. Heritage and the Representation of Cornwall in Film and Television, 1913-2003. In: Payton, P., Cornish Studies: Eleven. University of Exeter Press, Exeter pp. 110-141.
- Keating, H.R., 1977. The Corpse on the Dike. The Times. London.