A Death in the Parish by The Reverend Richard Coles

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Review by Julie Barham

I often seek out what can be called “cosy crime” or at least crime novels that are not too brutal or police procedural. Richard Coles is a writer with several non fiction books to his name, and now he has launched into writing novels where murder is only one aspect of the story. This is the second Canon Clement mystery, and while you can read it as a standalone novel, you would be missing out on the introduction to the world of Daniel Clement, Rector of Champton in the late 1980s. This novel has a much more straightforward plot than the previous book; one gets the sense of an author getting into his stride and relaxing into to the writing of a mystery novel in which a relatively large number of bodies is not required to maintain the reader’s interest. The characters in this book are also much better developed (and do not all have names beginning with the same letter, thank goodness) which is perhaps natural when the most significant people were introduced in the previous novel. The atmosphere is well created and maintained; a world of Our Price record shops, no social media, and village shops as the centre of gossip rather than merely a speedy convenience. 

It is the well-handled world of parish churches that I particularly enjoy about Coles’ books, of a parish priest trying to keep the peace in a community between very different people, of the daily round of services and the special events like Harvest festival; essentially the recognition that clergy are human with the same questions about daily life as everyone else, as well as the spiritual concerns for those especially in need. There are some ecclesiastical in-jokes to enjoy, such as the Confraternity of St Hubert, which appealed to me as a long-term resident of a Vicarage. My favourite character, Audrey, Daniel’s mother, and ruler of the Rectory, also plays a significant role in this story which is a good thing in my opinion; she cuts through some of the nonsense to get to the heart of the problem on occasion, though she does go a little rogue in some ways. 

This story begins with a rather stormy lunch party. The church powers-that-be have decided to add some parishes to Champton, and this is not greeted with universal joy. Indeed, a new clergy person in the form of Chris Biddle has taken over the parishes of Upper and Lower Badsaddle, and he is diametrically opposite to Daniel in many ways. His wife, Sally, is an able deacon caught up in the current debate about women priests, the couple’s evangelical and low church tendencies conflicting with the movement to ordain women equally with men. Their teenage twins, Lydia and Joshua, are aspiring Goths, attracted to an alternative lifestyle that promises protest. Daniel can see that a working relationship with this Associate Priest is going to be tricky, as even breakfast becomes a challenge. Meanwhile a local woman, Mrs Hawkins, is desperately ill, and it seems that a couple, notorious for taking advantage of the sick, are on the scene, much to the concern of everyone who knows of them. Chris’ first visit to the house is a disaster, and Daniel must tread carefully as theological and practical difficulties come to the fore. The family at the Big House are also experiencing some challenges, and even one of the dogs, Hilda, is behaving strangely. Daniel is also tentatively exploring a friendship with Neil, a police officer, and so is very busy with a myriad of concerns when murder once again shatters the peace. While the brutality of the death reverberates around, can Daniel deal with a full list of concerns which seem dangerously near to home?

This book is in some ways dominated by the brutal killing of a character which I found shocking. It is a murder mystery, so at least one death is to be expected, and to his credit the author has dealt well with the way that life must go on in the community, especially as natural death is an ever-present issue for clergy. This is a novel that I found totally engaging, one which I read very quickly as I was enthralled not only by the murder mystery but also the other storylines which are deftly handled alongside. I found this an entertaining novel in so many ways, the gentle and accurate humour, the insights into people’s lives, the clever use of details to established time and place. I am certainly looking forward to the next instalment of Daniel’s adventures in Champton, and I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys an atmospheric murder mystery and a novel set in the apparent rural peace of Britain in the late 1980s.      

Julie blogs at Northern Reader.

Richard Coles, A Death in the Parish (W&N, 2023). 978-1474612678, 401pp., hardback.

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