Man, I’m conflicted on this one. For sheer giddy authorial overlapping of people and events, Villainy at Vespers (1949) by Joan Cockin is an absolute delight, giving us all manner of coming and going in a slightly down-at-heel Cornish village as plenty of people find themselves with plenty to hide in the wake of an unknown man being found naked and apparently ritually slaughtered on the altar of the local church. Cockin, nom de plume of Edith Macintosh, is clearly a woman with a superb wit and a keen eye for detail, but what she really needs is a hard-as-nails editor to bring her events into sharper focus, because there’s a huge amount of charm here but it takes some getting to.
Where this really excels is in capturing pen portraits of both people and place with the incisive wit of Edmund Crispin (whose academic sleuth Gervase Fen gets passing mention) and an unstudied erudition that many luminaries of the Golden Age would have been well-advised to replicate.
Inspector Cam of Little Biggling had the round, bland cheerfulness of a well-nourished two-year-old, but there was a watchful sparkle in his deep-set blue eyes which marked him as experienced in the ways of sin.
On holiday with his wife and young children in the village of Trevelly — “a holiday resort where hermits felt at home” — Cam is co-opted by local Inspector Honeywether into investigating the sudden appearance of the aforementioned corpse, and finds himself contending with brass-rubbing enthusiasts, American tourists, a holidaying schoolmistress, a wannabe Lothario, and countless other unusual types as the patterns surrounding the church get more and more muddied by the sheer number of people apparently in its vicinity when the deed were done.
In this regard, Villainy at Vespers is an excellent village mystery, having both an excellent village and an arresting crime at its core. And Cam, “never happier than living on the edge of mystery”, is a pleasingly relatable sleuth to have unpicking the mess: cavilling Honeywether for repeatedly calling on a man who is supposed to be putting his feet up, yet willingly tracing down witnesses, suspects, and all the usual flotsam and jetsam that finds its way into such a situation, and becoming more and more interested in the outcome as he goes. It must be said that his investigative method — wandering up to someone, having a long chat, then wandering away — doesn’t always make for the most compelling reading, but there’s something calm and avuncular about the man that makes it very difficult to object to the time spent in his company.
And, when she doesn’t get too caught up in her descriptions, with the effect of diluting striking images or ideas down with too much context, Cockin is a quite fabulous writer:
In common with all beautiful or renowned buildings, the whole of [the church] porch was engraved with dates, initials and amorous phrases — the desperate attempt of small people to leave some record for history.
As things progress, it becomes clear that this tendency to dilute will extend to the central crime itself which, possessed of enough interesting features to support a novel on its own — the difficulty in getting the victim in unseen, the need for the seemingly contradictory aspects of the murder, the apparent lack of blood, the identity of the victim — becomes a background concern as more and more malfeasance is piled in, including smuggling, theft, possible insurance fraud, and more besides. The book feels, in truth, about a hundred pages too long, and, while it’s difficult to begrudge Cockin the time spent with these very engaging people (hell, the dynamic of the Rector, his wife, and the blood-and-thunder Verger who despises him is entertaining enough to fill at least four seasons of a sitcom), the need for authors to kill their darlings has, perhaps, never felt more apposite than here.
And, oh, lord, the regional dialects. Sweet, merciful Jesus deliver me from apostrophes and phonetically-spelled words that I’m supposed to be able to attach some sort of accent to (one Cornish old man came across as distinctly Scottish; it was verra dis’ractin’).
Cockin has, though, a good eye for the function of the crime novel…
“The work of a police officer in a case like this is to discover and to explain the abnormal. … But naturally one cannot discover the abnormal without knowing what is normal…I have to try and put together the pre-murder picture from seeing people under conditions of post-murder strain and suspicion.”
…and clearly had a whale of a time in the extended summary which rounds everything off, blending together her overlapping shifty characters and their various motivations, sweeping that flotsam and jetsam along in a canny — if somewhat intuited-rather-than-detected — explanation. But those of you who, like me, cling to the clear lines of a story to carry you through are going to come a little unstuck at times; Cockin might well show her mixing abilities at high power, but she struggles to describe action in a way that makes what’s happening clear (the final few paragraphs of chapter VIII, for one, are astonishingly hard to follow), so that the few events which leaven all the talking don’t offer the succour they otherwise might.
And so, as I said up top, I leave this book somewhat conflicted. This was Cockin’s second of three novels, and I’m curious to see if her earlier work — where she might have been less ambitious — has a tighter focus and her later one — where she had more experience — is better structured. Galileo Publishers, who reprinted this recently and very kindly provided me with my copy, will hopefully follow this with her other two books so that we have the opportunity to find out. In the meantime, come to this for its wonderful village and excellent characters, stay for the clever reasoning which ties it all up, but prepare for the middle to drag a little, knowing that the time is spent in charmingly arresting company.
8 thoughts on “#1025: Villainy at Vespers (1949) by Joan Cockin”
It’s funny: I was walking down the street today, and the fact that Book Club is this weekend struck me, along with the fact that our book this month is Villainy at Vespers, and . . . . and I couldn’t remember a damn thing about a book I had finished a month ago AND written a review for!! Eventually, things came back to me, and your review helps, as I had a similar experience.
I love Inspector Cam. And as I’ve been steeping myself in charming village mysteries featuring a certain spinster lady and a bunch of charming villages, I have to say that Trevelly was refreshingly seedy and the history of it, both ancient and during WWII, was fascinating. A lot of the characters were great: I’ve been having a marvelous time with a variety of vicars, their wives and employees all year! But, man, did things drag on, and the solution, for me, went pffffttttt!! Still, I’m looking forward to the conversation.
By the way, I’ve gotten started on next month’s book, and so far it is freaking MARVELOUS!! And how often do we get to say THAT?!?
I understand that Cam featured in Cockin’s two other novels, and I hope Galileo reissue those so that we can get an overview of his career, however brief. He’s a good man, and it would be lovely to have him in something a little more focussed and, yes, memorable.
And, if nothing else, Cocking will doubtless give us another memorable setting, be it a seedy village, an ominous city centre, or some sinister boondocks. So, yeah, fingers crossed for more JC!
Shame about the mixed results. I think at the time the need to get novels to the necessary length (80,000 I think) ensured this sort of thing happened a lot … but I’ve not read her, maybe all her books are like this?
This feels a long way over the standard novel length, however, so could well be edited down to a more compelling and faster book. We’ll never know, of course, but it’s fascinating to reflect at the excellent book that’s lurking in the excess of this one — the plot really does warrant reading, and it’s a shame not to be able to recommend it on stronger terms because there’s much here that many people will enjoy.
I was wondering how you would react to this one and I am glad you liked it more than I thought you would. I agree it needed cutting down a bit. The writing style is one of its strength but when it runs on too much, also sometimes a weakness. As you say it would be interesting to see if in her other books she wrote a tighter plot.
Macintosh is clearly a very erudite woman with a fabulous command of the English language, so let’s hope that a) more are on their way and b) she just had a lot of time on her hands when she was writing this one 🙂
Great review as always, but you didn’t need me to tell you that! Though your final impressions were lukewarm, it sounds like a decent novel to pick up and read sooner than later… Thanks for sharing!
I do recommend it, if only because there’s so little in these days which is easily accessible and from an obscure source. Dive in and enjoy, just prepare for a fair amount of treading water!