BOOK CLUB TURNS IMPIOUS: Villainy at Vespers

I’ve only just finished re-reading The Murder at the Vicarage, and – wouldn’t you know it? – now I want every village to be just like St. Mary Mead. But that’s not what we get in Trevelley, the not-so-bucolic den of iniquity nestled on the coast of Cornwall, in Joan Cockin’s Villainy at Vespers (1949). This is the second of three mysteries that Cockin wrote, and while a lot of us tend to focus on the Queens of Crime, a wealth of their contemporary women dashed off three to six mysteries and then called it a day (Harriet Rutland, et al) or turned to other literary matters (Eilis Dillon, etc., etc.). I’m still furious at Christianna Brand for stopping at ten!

I’m afraid I don’t spend enough time calling your attention to these writers; that tends to fall under the purview of friends like Kate over at Cross Examining Crime. In fact, it was Kate herself who recommended this title to our Book Club, which has its ups and downs when it comes to book selection, and which looked at Kate askance after her most recent suggestion!! Oh, Kate, Kate, my Katie-O! Have you redeemed yourself in the eyes of this besotted group of picky picky readers?

Cockin’s first mystery, Curiosity Killed the Cat (1947) set introduced us to her series sleuth, Bill Cam, Inspector in the Cotswolds village of Little Biggling. He turns out to be as engaging a policeman as you could hope to find. Perhaps my Book Club buddy JJ will be upset with Bill’s tendency to eschew the tactics of Joseph French and Superintendent Battle: “If there are three things in this world I abominate they are charts and analyses and time-tables.” No, what Inspector Cam likes to do, on duty or off, is to get among the people, engage them in conversation, and see what he discovers. In fact, he’s more akin to Miss Marple, as a friend tells him:

Perhaps we should have stopped to gossip. You’re a regular old woman, Cam – poking your nose into everyone’s business.”

In Villainy at Vespers, Cam has taken his wife and kids on a trip to the Cornwall town of Trevelley, “the smallest, quietest, least advertised seaside village” in England and a place of “historic wickedness.” As a boy, Bill spent many a summer visiting his aunt in Trevelley and running along the dangerous cliffs that jutted out above the shore. But a lot has changed since his aunt died, much of that due to the vicissitudes of World War II. And if you thought post-war villages were dangerous in Little Paddocks (A Murder Is Announced), you haven’t been to Trevelley! 

There is nothing prosaic and “St. Mary Mead-ish” about this coastal town, brimming as it is with ancient histories of smuggling and piracy and other, darker matters. With the war, towns like Trevelley became strategic military posts, serving as a submarine and invasion base and bringing in a ton of soldiers from all over England and other allied lands. The effect on Trevelley of this influx of “lots of strange types of all nationalities” was immediate and dramatic. Many local girls got “in trouble” and ended up with babies who didn’t look like traditional English stock. (“About twenty local girls married G.I.s and as many more should have!”) And the rise in crime and other dirty affairs was dramatic, according to Inspector Honeywether of the Trevelley police:

“. . . every sort of trouble I had. Everything from shoplifting to witchcraft. Now we’re settling down again, thank God. But you can’t expect a village this size to play host to three thousand professional daredevils and foreigners without losing some of its equilibrium.

And now, a particularly brutal murder has occurred: the naked body of a man has been slaughtered, possibly ritualistically, and left on the altar of St. Poltruan’s church. Cam has no desire to turn this family vacation into a busman’s holiday, but his nose for people is acting up, and his old friend Honeywether keeps begging Bill to lend a hand into this confounding, ugly business. 

As Cam uses his wiles to get people to open up, it’s clear that everyone is full of troubles and/or secrets that might or might not have something to do with either the murder or with a rash of thefts that have plagued churches throughout the region. Still, Cam has his work cut out for him as the insular villagers dislike visitors, even the tourist trade upon which the village depends, those who come to stay and dine on the terrible breakfasts served at The Three Fishers Inn. There’s also a dislike for some of the new settlers, including Robert Copperman, a former Canon of Manchester, too poor to retire despite his advanced years, who settles down with his wife as the new church rector of St. Poltruan’s and promptly rubs every congregant, employee and churchwarden the wrong way. 

Speaking of rubbing, the ancient art of brass rubbing, where a person takes paper and wax implements to the fine brass artwork embedded in the floors of old churches, rubbing against them to create a drawing, is an important feature of this novel. (I googled it – and it’s beautiful!)

One character, a recently discharged soldier named John Briarley, is vacationing in Trevelley before he takes up a civilian job and hopes to work on his brass rubbing hobby a lot – and perhaps strike the interest of another tourist, the lovely but slightly mysterious American, Betsey Rowan, who has brought a group of young U.S. students to town in order to camp on the cliffs and essentially bear witness to all the mysterious comings and goings as a second death follows the first. 

It’s a long, complicated story with a large and lively set of characters, all seemingly in conflict. Besides Briarly and Miss Rowan and her campers, the tourist trade includes a heavyset London jeweller named Potts who seems awfully interested in the area’s history of smuggling, and Roland Magnuson, an unpleasant young man who flirts indiscriminately and badly with all the women and noses about the local murder – with disastrous results. As for the townsfolk: the Coppermans suffer the animosity of the townsfolk and the presence of Mr. Yardley, the fanatical Verger, whose half-witted son discovered the body, and Giles Allen the young curate, who cheerfully engages Cam in awfully good theories about the church robberies – maybe too good. There’s Miss Jane Cornthwaite, the headmistress of a school for delinquent girls, who walks miles along the cliffs each day, her nose sniffing for fresh air and information, and learns how dangerous that can be. 

The village is missing a lovely Great House with a stuffy peer and his attractive, snobby family. Instead, we get the Cowdray’s, a family of ruffians led by Red Cowdray, the ancient fisherman who has befriended the camping set. During the war, it was the Cowdrays who re-ignited the cult of witchcraft that plagued the area, led possibly by Red’s daughter, Jessica, the town strumpet, who seemed overly friendly with all the soldiers (she is described as having “two kids and ten dads!”) Now she has married an American named Vic Luigi (I always love British names for American characters!) who seems to fit right in with this set of low-lifes. 

With all these characters running around working hard to make themselves look suspicious, the plot sometimes takes on a thrillerish tone, which tends to make things drag for this reader. (I also read this on my Kindle, and the number of spelling errors was staggering, slowing things down for me as well.) Fortunately, Cockin frequently injects humor in her descriptions, such as when she calls one tourist “an urban blot against the greenery” or describes the rector’s virtuous wife on a shopping trip: “In the musical comedy atmosphere of sunshine and color she moved like a grey shadow.” But most of the best humor rests in asides by Cam, like “. . . this holiday is beginning to take on the appearance of a wake. Next year I’m going to one of those spas where all the visitors are too old even to die.” 

The pace picks up toward the end, with a confrontation in the church tower followed by a dangerous fire. It all leads to a climactic reveal at the murder scene. Unfortunately, that’s when the novel leans into its thrillerish roots. The solution is complicated but utterly unsurprising, and when Cam spends twenty pages of Epilogue laying it all out, he offers little evidence to explain how he could elucidate it all so clearly. 

In the end, I enjoyed this book for its charming sleuth and its humor, as well as for the way it offers a different picture of an English village from what Golden Age authors gave us. I liked how certain effects of war set Trevelley up for this rash of crimes, even if the final settling up may not have been my cup of tea. Sadly, it’s no Jumping Jenny or Swan Song, but I predict that we will have a gayer time at Book Club this weekend than at some of our recent gatherings.

A brass rubbing of my Book Club

2 thoughts on “BOOK CLUB TURNS IMPIOUS: Villainy at Vespers

    • Sadly, Vic only appears in one scene in the book, but he is distinctly American. He never says “I reckon” – I think that’s from an earlier time – but he comes up with the following:
      “Hey, Dad”
      “I guess” (rather than “I reckon”)
      “one-horse town”
      “Are you kidding?”
      “What a dump!” (Bette Davis fan?!?)

      One of the hardest things to deal with while reading this are the various British accents that Cockin spells out. Reading Vic was a breeze compared to his father-in-law and the verger!!


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