Ron and I are always questing after good British mysteries on DVD, so we were delighted to discover the Wycliffe series. Like the books upon which they are based, these films benefit greatly from their setting in Cornwall. Jack Shepherd is most appealing as the eponymous and somewhat enigmatic Detective Inspector. He possesses the craggy physiognomy of one who has seen it all – perhaps, too much so.
I’ve long been aware of W.J. Burley’s Wycliffe novels but had never actually read one. After viewing the films that comprise Season One, I decided to remedy the omission. The Howard County Library still owns six entries in this series. (There are twenty-two Wycliffe novels, with the last appearing in 2000.)
Despite having already seen the film version, I selected Wycliffe and the Tangled Web. I was rewarded with an immensely satisfying reading experience. Tangled Web has everything I look for and crave in a British mystery: solid plotting, an interesting cast of characters, atmosphere and a sense of place, and writing whose grace of expression allows for the occasional ironic aside.
Wycliffe is a compelling protagonist, always aware of life’s pitfalls and uncertainties and all too often plagued by feelings of vulnerability and inadequacy. Here he compares himself with the police physician:
‘The two men could hardly have been more different: Franks had an acceptance philosophy; he was at home in the world, and rather liked it, while Wycliffe had an uneasy feeling that he was picking his way, blindfold, across a tight-rope.
I was, however, happy to find that like Colin Dexter’s inimitable Inspector Morse, Wycliffe is an avid reader, even a closet intellectual. In this passage, he is seeking relief from the turmoil engendered by the case under investigation – one that thus far involves two murders:
‘The answer was a book before bed; biography is the best sedative, a dose of proxy living. Wycliffe hoarded his biographies, journals, diaries, and published letters as a hypochondriac hoards his pills–two whole shelves of the big bookcase in the living-room. He pondered his choice, from Shonagon’s Pillow Book to Liane de Pougy, from Trajan to Czar Nicholas II, he hesitated over Marie Bashkirtseff but decided that she was for emergencies only.
Whew! I don’t know about you, but I got lost around the back stretch of that catalog. It happens that on this particular occasion, Wycliffe ends up selecting the diaries of Samuel Pepys for his bedtime reading. (Here are links to Pillow Book, Liane de Pougy, and Marie Bashkirtseff.)
An exceptionally fine site is dedicated to the life and works of W.J. Burley. Be sure to read his son Alan’s moving tribute. There’s also an appreciation written by Martin Edwards, whose generosity toward his fellow writers always impresses me. (Currently I have Dance for the Hangman and The Serpent Pool by Martin Edwards on reserve at the library: The latter is the fourth entry in the excellent Lake District series.)
In Wycliife and the Tangled Web, I encountered my first word in Cornish: “emmet,” meaning “summer visitors.” Wikipedia has an extensive entry on the Cornish language.
This novel has several lovely vignettes like this one:
‘Wycliffe was looking out of the little window, trying to get the feel of the place. On the quay a couple of fishermen squatted, mending their nets, like James and John, the sons of Zebedee, two thousand years ago, except that their nets were orange and green nylon and there was little chance of Jesus happening along.
If not Jesus, then perhaps Joseph of Arimathea? “And did those feet in ancient times…”