Murder Before Evensong by Richard Coles
As I have lived in Vicarages for decades and have enjoyed Richard Coles’ writing and speaking, I looked forward to reading the first in a series of “Canon Clement Mysteries”, and I can report I was not disappointed. It is an intriguing mystery set in a community with a limited number of suspects, which captures a lot of the necessary elements of a successful murder mystery. There is blood; this is no gentle and delicate killing, and the trauma of the relatives in one case is very well handled. This is a mystery with real depth, as the characters are well handled though their introductions can be a little tricky. I was a little confused as to why four of the significant characters shared the same initial which meant I sometimes had to work out who I was reading about, which is a little technical detail which slowed the narrative for me. That said, this is a book written by someone who has a firm grasp and experience of how the politics of a fairly small parish can escalate into a problem, and provided real insight into village life (not usually beset with murder, but still…).
The decision to set it in the eighties was a very good one. It means that the police procedures are more straightforward, and that memories of the older residents are perhaps more eventful, certainly regarding the glory days of the big House, Champton, lived in by the Lord de Flores, “patron, landowner (and) employer” and family for centuries. Not that this is a house in full glory; there are Open Days on certain occasions when the public are admitted to set against the onerous death duties that beset many families at the time. The volunteers who steward and guide at the event in the novel are drawn from the village which allows for dramatic possibilities as characters are seen in a different setting. This is before the age of the smartphone when communication of events is more face to face, which gives a certain impact to gatherings in the village shop or elsewhere. News about the events in the village arrive in newspapers rather than on screens which affects how it is received, even though rumour and gossip has already spread many details. For those interested in church matters, it also means that Daniel Clement is Rector of only Champton St Mary, rather than a group of parishes.
Daniel is the main protagonist of the novel and most events are seen from his point of view, and he works with one police officer throughout although more senior constabulary are threatened. He is not a straightforward character; there are hints that he has a more worldly wise view than perhaps fictional clergy are usually given, and that he can be a bit abrupt even with his family who admittedly could try the patience of a saint with their interruptions and attempts to find out more than they should. Daniel has a mother, Audrey, who lives with him and cooks and provides food ranging from his favourite meals to a carefully measured series of refreshments to the many visitors to the rectory. She is keen to be involved in every way and is a definite addition to the cast of the novel, able to sort out situations that Daniel may struggle with in her own inimitable way. Theo is the celebrity actor brother who on this occasion wants to observe Daniel closely as part of his research for a television role as a member of the clergy, at least until he gets bored. There are two other characters who defuse situations, make discoveries and generally break up potentially intense scenes – Cosmo and Hilda, a pair of discerning dachshunds. Their demand for walks gives Daniel a reason for touring his parish on foot and making discoveries
This is a novel that, unsurprisingly given its author, gets church “right” in every respect, and perhaps succeeds in challenging the assumption that parish churches in the past were always full with the faithful who observed the clergy’s will without question. It is a murder mystery than affects the community in a spectacular way, but is not brutal or an over written police procedural. This is an entertaining book which nevertheless maintains a sense of reality. It is very readable and essentially enjoyable, and I look forward to reading the further adventures of Canon Daniel Clement.