Let us now praise Peter Turnbull (again)

January 16, 2011 at 6:22 pm (Book review, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

I thoroughly enjoyed Deliver Us From Evil, as I knew I would. Peter Turnbull’s Hennessey and Yellich novels occupy a special place in my personal mystery pantheon. They are set primarily in York – a place of magic, of medieval  snickets and walls and alleyways. of a shopping district called the Shambles, of  a tiny byway called Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate, of ancient Roman relics, and above all – literally – the  perpendicular  Gothic masterpiece that is York Minster.

York Minster, as seen from the Shambles

Turnbull often mentions, in an almost off hand way, that a character is passing within sight of “the Minster.” The fact is, you can see this towering edifice from virtually anywhere in the city. Its appearance does alter, though, depending on climatic conditions:

He stepped out into a mist-laden street and strolled along Stonegate to the Minster where he saw the tops of all three tower were hidden from view, and the building itself seemed, in the diminishing light, to have taken on an eerie and foreboding presence.

(Stonegate may be the oldest street in York, its name appearing in records dating back to 1118.)


As the novel begins, a woman’s body, oddly propped in a sitting position,  is discovered on a canal towpath. It is winter, and she has died of exposure to the elements. Further examination proves that she sustained certain injuries before being left as she was. But one question remains stubbornly hard to answer: Who is she?

As with all the books in this series, the plot unfolds gradually and organically, with the investigation taking many unexpected and often baffling twists. This particular case takes Yellich and Thomson Ventnor, another member of Hennessey’s team, all the way to Canada in their search for the truth of what happened to this murder victim and why.

Turnbull continues his quaint custom of providing chapter headings that are somewhat Dickensian in their locution:

Wednesday March twenty-fifth…in which more is learned of the deceased and Mr. and Mrs. Yellich are at home to the gracious reader.

Thursday March twenty-sixth…in which a trail is followed, a revelation made, and Reginald Webster and Thomson Ventnor are separately at home to the kind reader.

I once read a review of one of the books in this series in which the writer complained about Turnbull’s habit of recounting the circumstances of each of the main characters in every novel. The reviewer felt that this was repetitious and tedious. I, on the other hand, find it oddly soothing. In the St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers, Ian A. Bell avers that “The crime novels of Peter Turnbull are reassuringly familiar in form, with satisfying surprises and twists in their plotting, and an interesting cast of characters.” I agree with him.

Sure enough, in Deliver Us From Evil we read yet again of the tragedy by which George Hennessey was widowed:

Upon entering Easingwold and finding the town quiet, he stopped his car on Long Street where the houses and shops were joined, each with the other, to form a continuous roofline along the length of the road. He walked with a heavy heart to where she had fallen, all those years ago, a young woman in the very prime of her life, just three months after the birth of her first child, the first of a planned three for her and her husband George….

The reader is likewise reminded that Somerled (pronounced “Sorley”)Yellich and his wife Sarah are the parents of a developmentally disabled boy, aged twelve, to whom they are both fiercely devoted. And that Reginald Webster’s beautiful wife was blinded in an accident. And so forth, for the rest of the team. (And toward the end of each novel, Turnbull reveals the identity of George Hennessey’s secret lover. But Your Faithful Blogger will leave it to you the Potential Reader to secure that piece of information for yourself!)

The Canadian interlude in this novel is quite entertaining. Linguistic differences make a big impression on the visiting officers, to wit: “McLeer pronounced ‘either’ in the American way of ‘ee-thuer’ which grated on the ears of Yellich and Ventnor who both pronounced ‘either’ and ‘neither’ as ‘I-ther’ and ‘ni-ther’ as thy had been taught and and as they believed was the right and proper pronunciation.” In point of fact, Thomson Ventnor is more than merely entertained in the course of this sojourn: formerly a freewheeling bachelor, he falls unexpectedly and rapturously in love.

The first books I read by Turnbull form part of an older series about the “P” Division, out of Glasgow, Scotland. The first entry, Deep and Crisp and Even, was a finalist for the New Blood Dagger Award in 1981. Click here for a complete list of Turnbull’s oeuvre.

Turnbull has stated his goal as an author as follows: “I would like my books to be an accurate historical record of UK society at the cusp of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.” He feels that his most important novel is Embracing Skeletons, a non series work from 1996: “I felt I fulfilled a destiny by writing that book.”   I knew what would happen when I searched for this title: not only does the library not own it, there’s no listing for it in the interlibrary loan network, and it is not in print – at least, not in this country. But there are quite a  few entries on AbeBooks.com, almost exclusively for UK bookshops.


  1. Elizabeth said,

    Thanks for the reviews, Roberta! I have never read any of Turnbull’s books but I just put “Fear of Drowning” on hold at my library. I think both my mom and I will enjoy his books.


  2. Yvette said,

    I’ve never heard of these books, Roberta! Wow. You make them sound so intriguing.
    I’ll have to see what my library has. These sound right up my alley. How could I have missed them all these years?

  3. Yvette said,

    Meant to add, I visited York many years ago. A wonderful city and the Minster is awe-inspiring! Such good memories.

  4. Kerrie said,

    Many thanks for this Roberta – another writer I have never heard of – groan! Sounds right up my alley though.
    BTW have you caught up with the fact that I am running Crime Fiction Alphabet again?

  5. sedwith said,

    Having just found an old friend (We worked in Northaw together) I will try to make his ‘favourite’ -Embracing Skeletons’, my first Turnbull novel. Thankyou!

  6. Ninian Carter said,

    I picked up his “Denial of Murder” and found it well plotted and interestingly set in Wimbledon, where I once lived. But the ending was a little predictable, and he did wander into the ghastly thickets of sexual perversions. His saving grace was that he, unlike most modern Grub Streeters, American and British, avoided insulting his readers by peppering his pages with blasphemies. As a Glaswegian, I will read some of his that are set in “The Dear Green Place,” and discover if he gets that city’s atmospherics and characters right, and perhaps informs me about certain details hitherto unknown to me about that warm-hearted city, which some have compared with Chicago, both in its muscularity and the violence of some of its inhabitants.

  7. David said,

    I love the Hennessey and Yellich series and wish I could find similar authors for when I run out of them.

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