10/25/19

Death After Evensong (1969) by Douglas Clark

Douglas Clark was an English author of twenty-seven traditional, puzzle-oriented detective novels of the typical, post-World War II police procedural variety and, reportedly, the plots often employed ingenious poisoning methods – a heritage from his days as an executive of a pharmaceutical company. Clark used to be a popular writer and his books were easy to come by.

The late Noah Stewart noted in a 2015 blog-post, "200 authors I would recommend (part 4)," that "you couldn't be in a used bookstore without finding a stack of them," but "now they seem to have disappeared." Curt Evans discussed Clark in 2016 and gave as a reason that the books "having been out-of-print now for over a quarter-century." Somehow, mystery writers from the second half of the 20th century, no matter how good or popular they were, seem to fall harder and faster into obscurity than their Golden Age counterparts. At least, that's how it looks to me.

Last year, Endeavour Media reissued a large chunk of Clark's Superintendent George Masters and Inspector Bill Green series, but, while certainly praise worthy, the editions from this publishers come with a drab, gloomy and generic style of cover-art – which they slap on all their crime-and detective novels. These uniform covers makes it very hard to differentiate between their classic reprints and the more contemporary stuff. Or mistake one of their classic reprints for a modern thriller. Just take a gander at the covers of their editions of John Russell Fearn, Roger Ormerod, Shelley Smith and Gerald Verner. So you have to know what exactly you're looking for when delving into their catalog, but enough complaining for one day.

I picked up the second title in the series, Death After Evensong (1969), because Robert Adey listed it in Locked Room Mysteries (1991) with an intriguing sounding impossible crime and seemed like an interesting follow up to my previous read, Christopher Bush's The Case of the Dead Shepherd (1934). Well, I wasn't wrong.

The setting of Death After Evensong is a bleak, desolate and isolated village, Rooksby-le-Soken in East Anglia, which (surprisingly!) turned out to be a Dutch enclave, who are the descendants of the Dutch that introduced land-reclamation methods to the English – only they have clung to the austere, Calvinistic Protestant traditions of their ancestors. A village of frugal, gloomy and often rude, but hard working, people with "an unenviable reputation for early, shot-gun marriages" and a deeply ingrained distrust of outsiders.

Herbert "Gobby" Parseloe was the devious-minded, universally unpopular and even hated vicar of Rooksby-le-Soken. A practically penniless clergy who "stooped to the meanest and dirtiest tricks to gain his own ends." Usually, Parsloe's schemes were related to money, or rather, how not spend a single dime. But the tradesmen of the village were simple, hard-headed people that "wouldn't wait for money from Father Peter himself." So there were more than enough people who could drink his blood.

The old Church School was closed down after Christmas and had moved to a new building, but the former school was let to a potato factory as a dispatch store. So there were local tradesmen busy with turning classrooms into offices and making a loading bay out of the school hall, but, when they return to work on Monday morning, they discover the body of the hated Parseloe in one of the classrooms with a gunshot wound to the chest – a single bullet had gone right through him. The wall behind the vicar was a mess of blood, tissue and bone, but "bore no sign of a bullet hole or pock mark of any kind." As if the bullet had vanished into thin air when leaving the body. A magic bullet!

So the local police immediately called Scotland Yard for assistance and they dispatched their two best men, Superintendent George Masters and Inspector Bill Green. However, they're a little different from most protagonists you find in these kind of post-WWII police procedural series.

Masters and Green have, what you might call, incompatible personalities and there's no love lost between them. It was their misfortune always "to be officially paired for murder enquiries."

Masters is a tall, intelligent and vain man who, as a bachelor, can afford to spend money on clothes as a way to fly "a personal flag among a group of conformists," which made Green feel inferior and awkward. So they were uncomfortable in each other's company and very few words were wasted between them. This is a good way to (slightly) alter the dynamics between the detective-characters without dragging their personal demons, kicking and screaming, into the story and their animosity has all the potential for them become rival detectives (of sorts) – something seldom used in Western detective stories. Something I referred to in my previous review.

However, the dislike for each other does not negatively affect the case and they diligently begin to sift through the evidence, suspects and a dozen motives. Not always a difficult task when you're the ultimate outsider in an isolated community.

Firstly, there's the small, but dysfunctional, household of the victim. Cora Parseloe is the youngest daughter of the vicar and generally considered not to be very bright, but the poor girl was used by her late mother and murdered father as a house slave. The eldest daughter, Pamela, works as a teacher in a nearby town, but, during his trips home, she acquired a reputation as a relationship wrecker. She's basically a chip of the old block. And then there are the various victim's of Parseloe's schemes and dirty tricks.

Dutch edition
Arn Beck used to be the church warden, but resigned in disgust over vicar's schemes to pocket as much money from the church as possible. Jim Baron was the headmaster of the old Church School, but Baron refused the vicar a highly unethical favor and Parseloe ensured Baron wasn't to continue as headmaster at the new school, which took a big chunk out of his income. Harry Pieters is simple carpenter who also got screwed out of his job and the ironmonger, Percy Jonker, had an order for an expensive, custom made gate canceled. And he had vowed vengeance as recently as Christmas. There are a number of other villagers, like the proprietors of the Goblin and the father-and-son doctor team, who all have a role to play in the tragedy. 
 
Masters and Green have to lay bare a lot of well-kept secrets and some painful motives to finally arrive at the truth and, purely as a whodunit, Clark stubbornly stuck to the traditions of a bygone era when most of the genre had moved into a different direction – which makes him perhaps the last true Golden Age writer to arrive on the scene. I've referred to Kip Chase as a next generation GAD writer, but Chase seriously attempted to resettle the classic detective story in a modern-day setting. Clark had no such pretensions and you can find precious little of the then modern world of 1969 in this story.

Death After Evensong is dressed up as a police procedural, but acts as an old-fashioned detective novel, reminiscent of Freeman Wills Crofts and Francis Vivian, with an excellent and genuinely original impossible crime. The explanation as to how a bullet can vanish in mid-air is one of the few modern intrusions upon the story, but what an intrusions (particularly on Parseloe)! Something John Rhode would have approved of.

So, all in all, I've practically nothing to complain or nitpick about. Personally, the bleak, desolate backdrop of a Dutch enclave, frozen in time, fascinating and appreciated that not all of the Dutch names were butchered. A pesky habit of Americans. The who-and why of the murder were satisfyingly worked out, but the solution to the problem of the magic bullet is what makes Death After Evensong truly noteworthy as a detective story. Highly recommended!

Well, I have been on a hot streak these past two months when it comes to picking mystery novels and short detective stories. There were one or two duds, but overall, the last months have been golden! Hopefully, I haven't jinxed my next read with this acknowledgment. :)

10 comments:

  1. I agree with you 100%. This is a truly great series. There were altogether 27 books in the series which lasted from 1969 to 1990. These are assuredly Golden Age style mysteries, but I don't find that surprising because Clark's dates are 1919 to 1993; therefore he started writing Masters and Green when he was fifty with his tastes fully formed based on the earlier period.
    Clark is the living proof that you can still write a good mystery in the modern world; the real question is whether you can get it published in an era of multinational corporate ownership of publishing firms dedicated only to making a maximum profit.
    It used to be that the two hardest books to get in this series were Sweet Poison (which apparently had only one small printing in England) and The Libertines. I was looking for Sweet poison for decades until it was finally reprinted a few months ago. The Libertines (I got lucky with this one)still seems to be very hard to find in hard copy, although it is available in Kindle. About 10 of the series seem to have been recently reprinted in soft cover.
    I found the series to be uniformly excellent. I also thought that Clark was successful in integrating more modern themes in his books; see, for instance, Performance (1985). Although he writes as a Golden Ager, I would never have mistaken him for one in his style. It is a rare book in this series where you don't learn something new. He has always allied himself in my mind with R. Austin Freeman.
    As the series progressed, the relation between Masters and Green became much more friendly.

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    1. Interestingly that Sweet Poison and The Libertines used to be the rarities of the series, because they're two of the titles I've been eyeing. The Libertines, in particularly, sounds promising with a mathematical and physical impossible murders. Do you have any other recommendations? The Gimmel Flask also sounds fascinating with a murder committed with a now unobtainable substance.

      "These are assuredly Golden Age style mysteries, but I don't find that surprising because Clark's dates are 1919 to 1993; therefore he started writing Masters and Green when he was fifty with his tastes fully formed based on the earlier period."

      This was my impression of Herbert Resnicow. Another writer who came to the game very late in life and likely read GAD during the actual Golden Age. Something that's hard to miss, even with the modern setting and themes, when reading his locked room mysteries. A second point Clark and Resnicow have in common is that they brought their professional background to the detective story.

      So you can bet I'll be enjoying my exploration of this series!

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    2. Two of my favorites were Premedicated Murder (1975) and The Longest Pleasure (1981). Premedicated Murder was the first one I read, and I was amazed how close in tone it was to Freeman Wills Crofts; it had that same total command of plot structure. The Longest Pleasure was about a mass outbreak of botulism. The whole series maintained a high level of competence over the years. The Libertines was not a particular favorite with me; it had stuff about cricket.

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    3. The Gimmel Flask used croton oil for the poison. Internet research seems to indicate that it is still available for use for various purposes, at least in the U.S. The only two authors I can think of who would use croton oil are John Rhode and Douglas Clark.

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    4. Hm. Premedicated Murder is one of the three titles, along with Poacher's Bag and Roast Egg, which has not yet been reprinted by Endeavour. The Longest Pleasure has an unusual premise, for a classically-styled mystery, but there's no doubt a clever trick behind those poisoned tins. I don't mind highly specialized backgrounds as long as the plot is good. So The Libertines is still in the race for my next stop in the series, but picking one is starting to become a luxury problem.

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  2. So I think you are really correct when you gave Clark the title of the last true Golden Age writer (at least here in the West).

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  3. I love this series and have most of them. I do think that later in the series that Masters and Green start to appreciate each other.

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    1. Thanks, Gram! I find these positive comments on a series littered with impossible crimes and how-was-it-done-like plots to be very encouraging.

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  4. Thank you for pointing me towards this excellent series! I've started with the first one "Nobody's Perfect" and I am planning to read them in order.

    It seems to me that Clark is that rare writer who manages to combine the more technical approach of the Golden Age Mystery with the psychological aspects of modern thriller writing.

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    1. The pleasure of helping you feed your mystery addiction was entirely mine, I assure you.

      Clark shows what could have been, if plots had remained the engine of the contemporary crime-and police novel. And hope you'll enjoy Death After Evensong as it is the second title in the series. Let us know what you think of the bullet-trick.

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