The Rev Dr Simon Bede
(creators: Barbara Ninde Byfield & Frank Tedeschi)

Barbara Ninde Byfield

The Rev Dr Simon Bede, special aide to the Archbishop of Canterbury, seems very English, but is actually half English/half American. An Episcopalian high churchman, he is known as Father Bede, and is a widower with a grown-up son. He is above all an efficient administrator, but does not seem to have much spiritual life of his own. When we first meet him, he is 51 ("a serviceable time, middle age"), and looking, as one of the women characters describes him, "a divine Englishman ... a dark broody type with hidden motives". He is very much a quietly confident, reasonably handsome, strong male character - but no saint.

Barbara Ninde Byfield (1930-1988) was the writer and illustrator of children's fantasy/horror books, as well as of the humorous The Eating-in-Bed Cookbook. She lived in New York with her two daughters. She wrote four detective stories including Simon Bede, but he only really plays the lead in the first book, the main part in the subsequent books usually being taken by his girl friend, photographer Nancy Bullock.

Solemn High Murder (1975)
Solemn High Murder was the first book in the series, co-written with Frank Tedeschi, who was Publications Director of the Church Hymnal Group (which later became the Church Publishing Group). This probably explains the detailed knowledge of Episocopal Church church affairs that makes the background so convincing.

Simon Bede is sent to the church of St Jude the Martyr in New York to offer the vicar, the Rev Dunstan T Owsley, an important appointment in England - but within 24 hours of Bede's arrival, Owsley is "quite, quite dead". Bede is helped by photographer Helen Bullock to discover a strange connection with a sensational semi-pornographic new novel, Black Mass. Bede (who admits to being "openly fascinated" with sex magazines) had bought his own copy of the book and found it "absolutely fascinating drivel ... I must say, if I were a censor I'd suppress it. ... I'd censor it bacause it wasn't dirty enough. Dammit the back jacket copy promised untold delights ..."

The church background is very well handled. On arrival at St Jude's, Bede "felt immediately at home. The unmistakable smells of damp stone, votive candles, incense-cured wood, and what he always swore was pure prayer were as comfortable and familiar as the cracked wooden handle of the shaving brush he had used for twenty-five years." The internal church rivalries of traditionalists v Pentecostalists ("If they didn't just smile all the time," complains a nun) sound right too.

The police are hardly involved in the story which ends happily with Bede sleeping with Helen, and then the two go off together. At one stage, he sits in church "utterly unable to pray" and thinking of Helen. But he's not usually troubled by too many moral scruples: "He felt sorry for young people today, under such intense pressure to fill every available moment with sex. Damned tiring, if nothing else. Well, in my day we were damned if we did, and now you're damned if you don't. Hope it levels off someday into something healthier than either one." Then he says that, after a funeral, it's only sensible for mourners to get "quite healthily drunk".

It's all makes a good story, although Bede himself is not a particularly engaging character. But he appreciates his food: After tasting "the definitive oyster stew", he declares, "There has be a God". Then when a waitress giggles at the ash still left on his forehead from the Ash Wednesday service, he says, "Ah, I forgot, the day of the dirty foreheads".The author's sympathies seem to lie more with Helen who "had known since she was fifteen that her face was merely pleasant but her legs were sensational" and perched herself accordingly. She's an altogether more feisty character.

This is the only one of the author's books that I would really recommend.

Forever Wilt Thou Die (1976)
Forever Wilt Thou Die is a not too interesting story about a Fourth of July Shipwreck Party where old friends at an up-market summer lake community in Upper Michigan gather to remember a similar party 30 years before. One of the guests drowns, and even Helen Bullock's own life is threatened. Simon Bede doesn't appear at all, although Helen thinks fondly of him from time to time. It seems he is to take early retirement, as he writes from London that he's not impressed with the new order at Lambeth: "Fine as this one is, I have no place in it, or perhaps no longer wish one". Apart from him, the author does not seem too fond of her male characters: "Potbellies and varicose veins and on top of it not a thought in their heads beyond yesterday's stock market quotations and tomorrow's golf scores". And she allows one of the women to positively gloat over the fate of a particularly overbearing murderous man who has ended up as a quadriplegic. Not much fun here.

A Harder Thing than Triumph (1977)
A Harder Thing than Triumph is another of those incomprehensible titles favored by the author. It's set at Beemeadows Farm, "a variety of early retirement community set up in the Berkshires". Simon and Helen are among the guests. Simon's aunt had asked him, "Are you sure that you're not doing yourself and the Church a great disservice, touring about the country with this Miss Bullock? What will your bishop think? "

"My bishop," Simon replies, "is so absorbed - and rightly so - in his own divorce I doubt if he'd have much interest in my holiday plans right now".

Helen breaks a bone in her foot after falling into "a vicious damp stinking hole the little bastard (an obnoxious 9 year old called Webby) had dug in the mucky ground". She is very aware that "Simon's had twenty-five hot and heavy years of Anglican politics, and I think he's waiting just now to see if he really is retired, or just on a long, long sabbatical. We're a bit in the same boat, me with Globe folding up and Simon with a new order at Lambeth. Maybe it's time to shift gears and find new directions, I don't know".

When the founder of the community dies of a broken neck, and his wife disappears, it is Simon who eventually works out what happened. But he has now retired from his post of aide to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and little mention is made of his religious background. Indeed it comes as quite a surprise to find him taking a burial srvice at the end of the book. Otherwise his priestly vocation seems utterly irrelevant. A pity, because the other characters and plot aren't really all that interesting.

A Parcel of Their Fortunes (1979)
A Parcel of Their Fortunes starts with Helen complaining (with reason) about life on her own in damp "Crumbles", Simon Bede's old thatched weekend place in Kent, but then she's off to Marrakech in Morocco to visit an old friend who is recovering from jaundice and hepatitis. She meets up with young film-maker Fergus, who is Simon Bede's son, but Simon himself only appears in the last few pages. There are some entertaining glimpses of life among the ex-pats there (I particularly liked unscrupulous Frauliein Elfrieda and her run-down hotel where she charged a supplement for just about everything), but otherwise the story is not really all that interesting. There's one sudden death near the end of the book, but very little detection.
It's hardly a surprise that the first (and only) edition of this book ended up being remaindered.

There is little about the author on the web beyond a short article in Wikipedia.

The books are all out of print, but a limited number of used copies can be found.



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Solemn High Murder jacket
The arresting first English edition cover. The books never made it to paperback.
Forever Wilt Thou Die cover
This American 1st edition used a cover illustration by the author.
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