Murder Before Evensong by Richard Coles

The Blurb On The Back:

Canon Daniel Clement is Rector of Champton.  He has been there for eight years, living at the rectory alongside his widowed mother – opinionated, fearless, occasionally annoying Audrey – and his two dachshunds, Cosmo and Hilda.

When Daniel announces a plan to install a lavatory in the church, the parish is suddenly (and unexpectedly) divided: as lines are drawn, long-buried secrets come dangerously close to destroying the apparent calm of the village.

And then Anthony Bowness – cousin to Bernard de Flores, patron of Champton – is found dead at the back of the church, stabbed in the neck with a pair of secateurs.

As the police move in and the bodies start piling up, Daniel is the only one who can try and keep his fractured community together … and catch a killer. 

You can order MURDER BEFORE EVENSONG by Richard Coles from Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

It’s spring 1988.

Canon Daniel Clement has been Rector of Champton in the West Midlands for 8 years, having moved there from a parish in London.  He is happy in Champton.  His church is well attended and he enjoys walking in the countryside with his dachshunds Cosmo and Hilda.  His widowed mother, Audrey, moved in with him a few years ago and while she can be challenging, she generally directs her combative tendencies to the parish council meetings.  Daniel gets on with Lord Bernard de Flores, the patron of Daniel’s church and who lives nearby in Champton House, occasionally visited by his daughter Honoria and younger son Alex (his older son and heir, Hugh, having moved to Canada to be a farmer). 

But Daniel is unprepared for the strength of feeling that comes out in opposition to his proposal for some pews at the back of the church to be removed to allow for the creation of a toilet.  The church’s florists – led by Anne Dollinger and Stella Harper (who runs a local shop specialising in higher end women’s clothing) are concerned that it would mean destroying medieval pews (although not so concerned that they haven’t drawn up their own plans to use the proposed site as a serving area for tea and coffee and selling flowers).  Fortunately Daniel has the support of both Bernard and Bernard’s cousin, Anthony Bowness who serves as archivist to the Champton Estate and agrees to look into whether the pews are medieval or Victorian copies.

What seems to be a petty congregational rebellion  escalates into something much more sinister when Anthony is found dead in the church, a pair of secateurs plunged into his neck.  With Champton in shock and the press descending on the village looking for dirt thanks to Anthony’s connection to the de Flores family, Daniel knows that to bring peace to the village the killer must be found quickly and he forms an understanding with Detective Sergeant Neil Vanloo who is heading up the investigation, providing what information he can on the villagers because much as Daniel doesn’t want to think that one of his parishioners is capable of murder, it is clear that one of them is …

Richard Coles’s debut crime novel (the first in a series) is more interested in the impact of a murder on a close-knit community and in the main character’s thoughts on murder and evil than in actually investigating whodunnit.  At the same time, it is not immediately clear when this book is set and there are inconsistencies in the time line but if you can get past that, I think Coles has something interesting to offer and I would read the sequel.

I picked this up because I am a fan of Coles’s broadcasting work and while I am a hardened atheist, I think he has a lot of interesting and compassionate things to say about faith and the role of faith in society.  As a crime fiction junkie, I was therefore interesting to see what he brought to the genre.

As a starting point, I don’t think that the marketing for this book does it any favours.  The publisher seems keen to plug into the success of Richard Osman whose THURSDAY MURDER CLUB SERIES I am a big fan of.  If you go into this book expecting that, then you are going to be disappointed.  Although there are flashes of Coles’s understated, wry humour, this does not have the laugh out loud moments of Osman’s books and nor is it plotted as an investigation.  

Daniel Clement does zero investigating in this book.  He doesn’t ask probing questions of parishioners and he doesn’t delve into possible motives.  In fact, his role is to provide information to DS Neil Vanloo (who provides information to him in return), meditate on what has happened and what he knows of his parishioners and then, at the end, have everything slot into place so he can identify the culprit.  This is not going to work for everyone and I have to admit that I have mixed feelings about it because I am normally someone who likes seeing the main character delve into everything and everyone so I can see the clues coming together and then see if I can beat the detective to the answer.  I couldn’t do that with this book firstly because there are so many characters and so much history to the village that it was difficult to keep track at times of who was who and where they each fitted into the story.  But I equally don’t think that this is a bad thing.  

Coles is keen to link the importance of Daniel’s role as Canon to the pulse of the community and I think that it works in this setting, in part because of the period when this book is set (of which I have more to say below) but also because of the rural setting.  He is also keen to put religion at the heart of the book and certainly faith is the cornerstone of Daniel’s character – the book is littered with biblical and theological references, some of which I got, many of which I did not but all of which add to the authenticity of his character.  I believed in him as Canon of the parish and I believed in the concern he has for his community and how he has to navigate the politics of being in a parish with a civilian patron (Lord de Flores) and a clever bishop with plans for the diocese (the expansion of which would be a good move for the series by allowing for different demographics and adding a political element).

Also well drawn is the relationship between Daniel and his mother, Audrey.  There is a lot of mileage in Audrey, who refuses to turn the other cheek and will face down anyone who threatens her son’s (or her own) plans.  Quite snobbish and nosey, the scenes between her and Daniel and her and younger son Theo are well played.  Equally, the relationship between Theo (whose desire to research his parts makes him blind to the effects of that research on others) is well drawn and given Theo’s latest role, there’s much potential here as the series goes on.

Where the book falls down a little is that it fails to make clear what period it is set in up front.  This is a bit of a personal bugbear for me.  I like to know where I am and when I am in a book so I know then what I’m being asked to buy into.  Coles does not do that in this book.  Instead you are given a breadcrumb trail of hints as to when this book is until you get a few concrete references to events that allow you to pinpoint the dates.  I found that infuriating because it meant that every time there was a reference to a TV show or a particular store that no longer trades, I found my mind drifting off trying to date it, which in turn pulled me from the story.  However even once I did have a time period, there are certain points in the book where there’s a reference that doesn’t seem to work with the time frame and which threw me out again (e.g. Daniel references something happening in the Silver Jubilee but that took place before he took over the parish).  It’s not a big deal, but it was enough to annoy me.

Pacing wise, it’s quite leisurely.  The murder doesn’t happen until over 100 pages in and there’s a lot of time spent at social events or walking in the countryside.  Again, if you’re looking for a fast-paced read then this may not work for you but I enjoyed the sense of set-up.  Sticking with this sense of set-up, there are a lot of names in this book from the start to the point where I found it difficult to keep track of who was who.  This was a particular issue when the time came to unveil who the killer is and why because I felt that it got lost in the background of everyone else.  For future books a character list might be useful.  That said, if you think of this as the beginning of a series, here is scope to develop this out further and settle everyone in and get used to them – especially given the way the book ends.

All in all, I don’t think this is a bad book.  There is a lot of potential here for a really interesting, gentle series with a brain to it and Daniel is an interesting enough character for me to want to see where Coles takes him.  On that basis, although I don’t think this will be for everyone, I will definitely check out the sequel.  

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