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.
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. :)