The Rev Jabal Jarrett

(creator: Freda Bream)

Freda Bream
Freda Bream's photo appeared on the cover of her early but entertaining autobigraphical book Whistles for the Postie (1972). Freda Bream (real name: Patricia Freda Whale, 1918-1996) was born in Christchurch, New Zealand, and was at one time a Fellow of the University of New Zealand. She began as an arts graduate who did a year's teacher training that left her "with a fixed resolve that teaching was not for me". Instead she served in the army and also worked as a charwoman, factory hand, waitress, cook and postwoman. She also got married and had two sons.

Then, almost by accident, she returned to teaching after a 20 year gap. She described her teaching experiences in a "blackboard jungle" city secondary school in Chalk, Dust and Chewing Gum (1970). She ended up as Senior Mistress at Morrinsvale College. She also wrote over a dozen detective stories, when she was in her sixties and seventies, most of them featuring The Rev Jabal Jarrett.

She ended her days in a retirement village where she missed contact with other age groups and found that the reality of mixing with those in the village was constant exposure and reminders of the health changes in ageing. "I find myself soaking in a pool of unhappiness. Life becomes increasingly sad as you age.” (New Zealand Herald, 1991). It sounds a sad ending for a woman called Whale who had the wit to use the pseudonym Bream, and whose sense of humour enlivened her books.

The Rev Jabal Jarrett, when we first meet him, is the apparently eccentric Anglican vicar on an island 13 miles north-east of the city of Auckland in New Zealand. "Its two thousand inhabitants have fled the noisy stress of the cities to seek a simpler way of life" and holiday cottages dot the island.

Jabal has the reputation of being "sort of vicarish", meaning he keeps quoting unlikely passages from the Bible. As he tells a newcomer: "You are most welcome to attend our church if you wish. Who so is of a willing heart, he shall enter the temple. But I don't conscript my congregation." Yet at times he can speak "like an ordinary rational man" and leave out the tiresome quotations.

He explains that he likes quoting the Bible because it is "a very beautiful work of art", and also it's a habit he got into as a student in days when "more emphasis was placed on accurate knowledge of both Old and NewTestaments|". And, he adds, "Being labelled as an eccentric has its advantages. It's quite a help in my desire to assist those around me ... Its useful to be an eccentric who 'doesn't matter' and to whom one can therefore talk freely." Wiser islanders agree that "He's not barmy. Just unusual," and regard him as a gentle kindly man who means well. But "there was nothing natural about the precise, stiff way he talked" and, as he tells a friend, "I'm regarded as an oddity, perhaps, as they tell me my speech is pedantic, and I encourage that because it promotes confidence".

He seems to spend most of his time visiting not just his own flock but any newcomer to the island. As one of the islanders comments, "Gets around, that fellow". He is not easily shocked. "Indeed, if there is one class of person it is almost impossible to shock, it is a Church of England vicar. Not only does his contact with his fellow men and their problems provide him with a wide variety of crimes and miusfortunes to observe, but his study, in his training years, of the Old Testament , has presented to him more tales of lust, violence, perversion, deceit and evil than would ever be found in the most lurid R21 film."

He was tall and energetic (he had once been inter-University middleweight boxing champion of his year, had won the hundred yards sprint at University, and remains a keen golfer), and, in the first book, was a well-built man in his late fifties, with "clear dark grey eyes ... bushy black brows and a thick crop of iron grey hair". He had been on the island for two years, and had been a widower for about five, having two sons and a daughter, now all married. He had taken a degree in psychology before going into the Church, and, underneath his off-putting manner, turns out to be a shrewd judge of character - and an effective solver of crimes.

After the first book, he goes on to become vicar of St Barnabas Church in Auckland.

Island of Fear (1982)
Island of Fear takes place on the island described above. A new arrival, Judy Marling, has been lent a cottage there in the hope that the leisurely atmosphere will help her convalescence from an at first unexplained illness. She lives in fear that she will be pursued to the island by her ex boy friend who was involved in heroin smuggling.

Then another woman, Helen Stokes, unexpectedly arrives to share the cottage with her. Nevertheless at first all is peaceful and relaxing. The neighbours are friendly, the sun shines, and the eccentric vicar drops in for a chat and a sherry. But Judy has a strange feeling that she has met him before. Then things begin to go dreadfully wrong: mysterious deaths and attacks occur, and before long Judy is fearing for her life.The islanders realise there must be a killer in their midst.

There are some good descriptions of the island and its senior residents, such as old Mr Pearce. the market gardener, with "huge white bushy beard and whiskers which covered half his face". It is he who tells Judy, "I fled here seven years ago, when I escaped"
"Escaped? From where?" Judy didn't think he looked like a jail bird.
"You may have read of a certain community where the elderly natives who could no longer contribute to the welfare of the tribe used to be taken to market by their young relatives and sold as meat to the cannibals ... Our so-called civilisation forbids such a practice, so it adopts other means of disposal. These days, when you show signs of advancing years, when you become a little creaky in the joints, and forget to put the milk bottles out and press the wrong button in the lift, your family deports you to Howick or Titirangi, as considerately as a kind farmer puts an old horse out to grass. They mean no harm." But a community of old folk was not for him and he sold up and moved to the island before his family even knew what he was doing. "They were furious." he remembers. Yet, ironically enough, whether or not the author realised it at the time, this was the fate that seems to have awaited her.

Judy could "understood his love of the island. From the porch of the cottage she could look down to the little bay, with its glimpse of honey-coloured sand, and could just see the top of the huge gnarled pohutakawa tree which clung to the cliff. On fine days the sea would be dotted with yachts from the mainland. In duller weather she would watch the water changing colour from emerald to olive-green, grey and silver, and the gulls, sweeping, screaming, swirling, in graceful patterns against tyhe leaden sky."

The machinations of the plot, though, are not so well handled and seem too contrived, with The Rev Jabal Jarrett himself becoming a main suspect on the grounds that he "behaves too much like a clergyman straight from the pages of Punch. Quoting verses and so on." "He's like the caricature of a curate." "I don't trust him, either. Even his name's phoney, Jabal! Parents aren't so cruel." So one of Judy's friends offers to check him out at the Church of England office in Auckland - and reports back that he had once spent three years in a mental hospital. Helen recklessly goes off by herself to confront him: "She looked him directly in the eyes and they seemed to pierce through her. What had once appeared to her as honest, earnest eyes, now she saw as cruel, merciless, cunning. Oh what an idiot I've been, she thought." Well, yes. It all sounds a bit corny, too.

There are further big surprises, but the final denoument is not all that convincing. You are left feeling that the author has been trying to trick you. It will be interesting to see how farThe Rev Jabal Jarrett comes to life in later books.

The Vicar Done It (1983)
The Vicar Done It tells how The Rev Jabal Jarrett (who has now moved to a busy suburban parish in Auckland so as "to be nearer my sons and their families. I'm a grandfather now") is persuaded by a Chief Detective-Inspector friend to spend part of his annual vacation walking New Zealand's celebrated Milford Trail. His mission is to identify a criminal sought by the British police and known to be in the group of tourists.

Jabal quite enjoys himself going undercover, using the name Joseph Jameson, and mixing with the other tourists, watching out all the while for anyone who gives himself away. He observes, questions and listens, and discovers that the group of 40 includes not only a party of 28 Chinese on a trades mission from Peking, only one of whom speaks good English, but a policeman, a confidence trickster, two "dangerous old lunatics" wanted by the police and an old lag, Alf, who turns out to become a good friend and even saves his life. Admittedly he did so under the mistaken impression that Jabal was the nototious Gelignite Joe! But, as the book's title suggests, we are not meant to take the plot too seriously.

Jabal is quite glad to get away from his parish of St Barnabas because he had been finding his new young curate, Eric Bailey, distinctly irritating, as when he asked to borrow Jabal's car "on the grounds that It was reported in the Herald that the City Council loses 30 cents for each passenger who travels on its buses. I thought that, rather than aggravate the position, I should use the car." Jabal wondered if this was "idiocy , which should be pitied. Or cunning, which he deplored. or the burgeoning of an unexpected and rather welcome streak of flippancy" But it did not seem to be the latter. "With age, thought Jabal, "I'm becoming intolerant, tetchy and neurotic."

Jabal had been reminded by his detective friend not to behave too much like a vicar: "Don't sing grace at the meal table or baptise your fellow travellers in the tarns. And don't spout the Bible at all and sundry. Try to suppress that deplorable habit. Just watch and listen, find out what you can and enjoy the trip while you're doing it."
Jabel grinned, "He that passeth by and meddleth with strife belonging not to him, is like one that taketh a dog by the ears."
"Oh, belt up!" said Inspector Chambers.

The famous walk, which the author obviously must have known about about from first hand experience, is described in detail. It was quite demanding. The walkers slept in dormitories: "a bare-floored room with double-tier bunks round the three walls" although "these are good beds" as Jabel pointed out. The main hardship is caused by the "bloody sandflies".The participants are warned not to wander off the trail in case anyone gets lost - and the one person who does this ends up dead. As a manager tells them, "His body was found on the river-bed below the swing bridge .... It's assumed he had a dizzy spell and lost his balance ... It brings home the fact that ... it is most unwise to go off alone."

Although Jabal has largely given up his Biblical quotes, he still thinks of them, so unfortunately still inflicts them on us. Even when he is pushed off a cliff and "was so dizzy and weak that he doubted his ability to stand up" we are told, "The whole head is sick and the whole heart faint." And he occasionally forgets himself as when he says, "Right, I'm ready. Open the door and flee and tarry not."
"You got a funny way o' putting things sometimes, Joe," says his new friend, ex-criminal Alf. And that's the under-statement of the year.

The story is told with gentle hunour as when Alf tries to thank one of the Chinese for letting him have a lower bunk. "Bed.Up," he explained slowly. "Velly nice. Velly kind. Me old. Him old." He gestured towards Jabal. "You velly kind." He bowed from the waist.
"Not at all," said Mr Wong Lu."Would you care to see what our black box contains? It's not true Chinese lacquer, but a very good imitation .... It is my responsibility to carry it, and the blame will be mine if it is broken or at any time mislaid. We are going to the dining room now. The walk makes one thirsty, and I am told that more tea is being made." He turned back to Alf and added gravely, "Velly hot. Velly good."

Alf and the other characters are not always all that convincing, nor is some of their dialogue"
"Gawd, look at that forest!" exclaimed Alf. "Sorta gets you, eh?"
"It's perfectly marvellous!" agreed one of the ladies.
"Much denser than our Australian bush," observed another.
"Totara, rimu and mountain beech mainly," one of the men informed them.
"Good few acres of millable timber there," said another.

But it's all quite amusing, and the walk is well described.

The Vicar Investigates (1983)
The Vicar Investigates sees The Rev Jabal Jarrett going off on leave again. This time he has been asked by Eric Bailey, his over-earnest curate, to help out his aunt who runs a private hotel in Rotorua, where one of the guests had drowned in the hotel's mineral bath. Eric's aunt is convinced that he had been drowned by one of the other guests - but which one? Jabal is enticed to to go there as her guest, encouraged by the presence, not so much of the thermal springs, as of the four golf courses: "For into Jabal's eyes had come that glazed, trance-like stare which is peculiar to the incurable addict when the vision of his desire floates before him". And "he was tired .... he had been working long hours recently .... He should not have put off his an annual holidays so long". It is April now, so we are left wondering how long it is since he went on the Milford walk described in the previous book.

The most lively and entertaining of his fellow guests turns out to be young and irrepressible Tracey Latimore, an English girl who had won a trip to Rotorua as second prize in a competition for answering questions on New Zealand cheeses. "Gerald - that's my boyfriend - knows someone wrapped up in the dairy industry, so he found out all the answers". Tracey's prize was "a tour for one to what they said was a world-famous thermal wonderland. And here I am, in a funny little boarding-house in an ugly town smelling of rotten eggs, for three whole weeks .... Oh well, I guess the smell of boiled cabbage will be a welcome change from this rotten egg stink,"she tells Jabal.
Jabal grins at her. "The sulphur? That's supposed to be invigorating. Haven't you been to Rotorua before?"
"I haven't been to New Zealand before." She shudders. "Have you?"
"I've lived in it for over sixty years."
"You poor man." Tracey "was filled with sympathy and also a little cheered, as one inevitably is on meeting a fellow-being wirth troubles greater than one's own. No wonder he looked tired. She supposed his forbears were convicts sent out from England and forbidden to rerturn. Or was that Australia? Anyway, some cruel fate had landed him here and he had embraced the Church for comfort and the strength to bear his burden." He reminded her of her Uncle Edward, also a clergyman: "Dear old codger - she'd been very fond of him".

She and Jabal form a rather unlikely partnership and work together to compare notes and investigate the strange death. He explains that, "You could ask personal questions which would seem unusual if they came from me. From you, it would merely appear to be the impertinence of youth".
But she warns him, "I never go to church, do you mind? I had too much of it with Uncle Edward."
"I don't think attending church is a prequisite for identifying murderers. But I may upbraid you in public for the omission. It will help my image."
"Of a sort of pious, pompous, pig-headed old dear like my Uncle Edward?"
"I'm sure you malign poor Uncle Edward. But yes. I think that's the idea. Sanctimonious and harmless and rather a bore. I have a deplorable habit - at least my family consider it deplorable - of quoting the Scriptures. I'll be able to indulge it here with effect."
"Oh, do! And shall I utter horrible swear words so you can tell me I'm on my way to perdition and offer to save me?"
"No, thank you. Just be yourself. But remember, I will keep my mouth with a bridle, while the wicked is before me. Psalm 39."
"Oh, you are like Uncle Edward!"

Luckily, though, there are not too many such quotes and Jabal appears much less of a caricature than before. One of the other characters, Bert, seems rather similar to Alf in the previous book, although without his record of crime: "Bert was a type, a type in many ways to be admired. Their simplicity is only of attitude, not of intellect. They leave school early and have no desire for further education, for their native shrewdness tells them that thought brings only discomfort and care - so who wants to be trained towards further thought? Better to turn one's mind to practical matters, studying form in the racebooks, gaining a few quid at poker and helping in the pub to solve the country's problems of inflation, overseas debt and unemployment. There are hundreds of Berts in New Zealand, and if not exactly the backbone of the nation they make up a good few of its vertebrae." This seems to be written with real feeling. Was the author remembering some of the boys she had taught ?

it makes an entertaining story, as when we are told how some Maori families cater to the tourists in the Whakarewarewa thermal area where they "live in houses just within the gates on show for sightseers. They obligingly half cook their potatoes by lowering them into boiling springs, then take them inside to finish them off on their electric stoves. Some earn their living as guides, donning grass skirts for the occasion. They have been well briefed in the history of the region and conduct parties around with infectious good-humour."

When there are other deaths, the police are baffled. Jabal reflects that it is one thing to use his powers of observation and deduction to deduce, as he had done, which of 13 choirboys was most likely to have placed flour on the lips of the pipe organ, but quite another matter to identify the murderer among the hotel guests. "Who was the most likely to have done the job? He could only decide that by observing and listening, listening to them all talking, and revealing, as men do in their talk, their ambitions, fears, sorrows, tastes." Tracey too does sterling work "being the Bright Young Thing, asking questions of all".

Tracey even persuades Jabal to help her write out a list of suspects and give them all marks out of five in different catergories such as motive, opportunity, alibi, access to weapon, daring etc. Unfortunately, though, the "murderer" that they identify turns out to be the next person to be killed. And Tracey's life is threatened before Jabal finally comes up with the answer, although you don't really have to take It all too seriously. But it makes an entertaining read - and can be recommended as the best of the books so far.

Sealed and Despatched (1984)
Sealed and Despatched tells how, when the senior partner of a law firm is found stabbed to death, it is thought that the crime must have been committed by some hooligan who wandered into the building. But when an accounts clerk is killed by having a notary seal dropped on his head, no outsider can be blamed. The Rev Jabal Jarrett is persuaded to take the clerk's place so that he can carry out investigations of his own.

The story gets off to an original and entertaining, if macabre, start when members of the firm show a marked lack of concern over the discovery of the first body. Miss Pearson, a senior secretary, finds the body but is no more than slightly perturbed: "She was breathing a little more heavily than usual and the left side of her hair was slightly ruffled, as if her hand had been run through it." She tells another of the partners, "You'd better go to Mr Flaver's room, Mr Long. He's dead."
"Are you sure? He was all right yesterday." But "he followed her down to the senior partner's room, where she pointed to the figure in the chair and repeated, "Dead."
"So he is .... There's a knife in his neck. We'd better inform the police."
Lionel Smithers, another partner,comes into the room. Long "stood aside and pointed to the late Sebastian Flaver."
"What's up?" Lionel Smithers drew nearer, then clapped a hand to his forehead. "Oh, God." he turned to the secretary. "Was this really necessary, Miss Pearson?"
"I did not do it, Mr Smithson, I found him a few minutes ago." She glared at him coldly.
"Oh." Lionel looked more closely. "Well, someone did," he observed helpfully."
They phone the police. and Miss Pearson is soon back sorting the mail, "having apparently recovered from her minor shock and settled down for a normal day's routine."

It is another partner, Terry Walton, who, during a game of golf, asks Jabal to have a word with Smithers as he suspects blackmail may have been involved, but he warns him, "You'd better lay off the Bible with Smithy. You can talk quite sensibly when you want to." Jabal decides he'd better put on his "instant parson" kit, so "he pulled from his pocket the small, soft and rather crumpled white collar and black front".
"You carry that round with you?" asked Terry in surprise. "Good heavens, what for? In case you come across a dead body in one of the bunkers?"
Jabal sighed as he fastened the collar round his neck, "We do have a few duties other than chanting last rites. Remind me to convert you some time."

But Smithson has little to say to him, and Jabal was soon too busy with his church work to give Smithers more than an occasional passing thought. But with after a second death, Terry urges him to become more closely involved: "Jabal, can you come round tomorrow? Talk to the staff and find out who did it?"
"Of course I can't. It would be gross interference .... I can't come round to your office, talk briefly to your staff and then say, 'There's your man'. No one could .... It is necessary to discover the personality, worries, desires and background of each, a slow, painstaking, time-consuming process .... The police are well-equipped both in training and resources. Why aren't you content to leave the job to the experts?"

But it is Jabal's old friend, Chief Detective-Inspector Trevor Chambers, who goes on to beg for his help: "You have a peculiar gift for sorting out the truth in cases like this." So, as "he could seldom resist a challenging puzzle", he agrees to help, being not unhappy to leave his over-zealous and sanctimonious curate to look after most of his parish work.

He listens very carefully to all that the various members of the firm have to tell him "for by their speech all persons in time betray their inner selves". And he learns too from their body movements: "A sudden tightening of the lips, a tensing of the hands or spine, a lowering of the eyelids - small movements of which they are unaware, but which Jabal had learnt to watch for and interpret."

But all this observation does not make for very exciting reading, and the pages of conjecture about who might or might not have been responsible get rather tiresome. The basic plot is not exactly gripping. And when Miss Pearson goes round telling everyone that she knows who the killer is, you can guess at once what's going to happen to her.

"So we've really got nowhere?" Terry asks Jobal, right near the end.
" 'We wait for light but behold obscurity; for brightness but we walk in darkness,' " says Jobal.
"Now, don't start that," said Terrry. "You've been very good and restrained at the office and not given a single quote. Keep it up." What a hope! But Jabal does chase off in his car ("It has been said that the chief argument for the existence of a benevolent God is the manner in which his clergy sometimes drive") and he arrives just in time to save another victim's life. He remains an interesting character - unlike others involved in this slightly disappointing story.

With Murder in Mind
(1985)
With Murder in Mind tells how 28-year-old Pamela Martin answers an advert that appeared in an English paper: "A New Zealand family wish to employ a well-spoken young English woman as companion to two children, for a period of three months. Driving licence desirable. Good speech essential. Fare to and from Auckland will be paid. Salary negotiable ..." After a bizarre interview in London during which she is judged only by her voice, and not given any further information about salary or anything else, she is told she has got the job, and so sets off to New Zealand!

At first everything seems delightful. She gets a warm welcome and likes the well-off family, although she soon finds there is very little for her to do except spend some time with fifteen-year-old Charis and thirteen-year-old Diella. The idea, she was told by her employer, Mr Bronson, was to help the girls develop a better way of speech. As his sister Vera tells Pamela, with some amusement. "You're the young lady Maxwell has brought twelve thousand miles to teach my nieces not to say 'Hiya'." It seems odd to Pamela too, because, as she tells Charis, "Your Aunt Vera has no trace of a New Zealand accent. I feel I'm here under false pretences. I can't really understand why your father wanted to employ an English person at all."

A mysterious white powder (heroin?) is discovered in Pamela's luggage, and her world begins to fall apart. The police get involved. Unexplained accidents and a mysterious stranger keep threatening her, and she does not know what to make of Mr Bronson's brother, Wesley, a mentally damaged young man who always seems at hand when the accidents occur. "There's no harm in him," Mr Bronson had told her, "but he's just ... not ... quote ... oh, you'll see." Pamela gets understandably worried about all the odd things that are happening, and consults the local vicar (guess who? He is described by Charis as "a barmy old guy in some ways but he's interesting". He is, of course, The Rev Jabal Jarrett). But it is nearly half-way through the book before he appears.

To Pamela, Jabal seems "a big-built fellow with grey hair, getting old. At least sixty, I thought. But there was nothing senile about him ....His sermon was short and contained none of those silly funny little stories that some of them will drag in to win the attention of their audience. He didn't joke at all. He spoke persuasively, vigorously and simply, giving you something meaty to think about without seeming to talk down to lower intelligences. I was quite impressed." So she tells him her story, but does not like his advice - which is to fly home at once. But she soon wishes she had done so.

This book is unlike the previous ones and is a welcome experiment, as it is all told in the first person by Pamela herself. Unfortunately, though, The Rev Jabal Jarrett does not actually do very much until towards the end. However, the plot is more coherent than in previous books, and holds the interest, even if Pamela seems altogether too naïve and it all eventually lapses into melodrama. However, the final outcome is interestingly left open: Will Pamela be murdered or rescued by Jabal in the nick of time? We are not told, but knowing these books, and remembering who is telling the story, there doesn't seem any need to get too worried about it.

The Corpse on the Cruise (1985)
The Corpse on the Cruise starts with a loud scream from passenger Annabel Dent. Another passenger, Mrs Myrtle Whitecorn, observed to her husband, "Cedric, a woman screamed."
"They do," affirmed her husband.
"It was awfully loud. No consideration for people who are trying to have a little peace and quiet."
But it turns out that Annabel has just discovered a dead body in her cabin. It is (or was) Edward Morrow - and he has been poisoned with cyanide. He was one of the seven people with whom she shared a table in the dining room.

Another passenger is "an elderly clergyman" who was "relishing the warmth, the relaxation, and above all the absence of that sanctimonious, pin-pricking, stiff-necked, sniffing, infuriating young man who was his curate at St Bernard's Church in Auckland, New Zealand." This passenger, of course, is The Rev Jabal Jarrett who is off on an exchange visit to England (we are never told what happens there. There is no mention of it in later books). One of the ship's officers knows of his reputation, and it is not long before he is sent for by the captain. After an amusing misunderstanding during which Jabal thinks he is being asked to conduct a burial service at sea, he agrees to help track down the poisoner and, mercifully, he does it without mouthing a whole string of Biblical quotes - even if he still thinks them to himself, so we are not spared them. But it seems a lot more realistic this way!

The book does not present a very happy picture of cruising: "Most of the passengers were over 60 and several nearer 90. Only at that age could some of them afford the fare .... They didn't look happy .... In the lounges ... sat, lounged, lay, bored men and women too fat for the games area, too mentally tired for bridge, too nervous to gamble. They stared glumly at the sea, at their cocktail glass or at the outside cover of a library book, with an occasional glance at their watch to see how long it was to morning tea. There were few smiling faces among them."

Five of them had already died from a viral infection, but there was one person pleased about that: the ship's doctor who charged his patients "twenty dollars for a visit to his surgery, another ten if he had to walk to their cabin, a minimum of ten for any medicament prescribed ... yes, it was all mounting up and there was every prospect that it would continue to do so ... Epidemics were profitable."

It turns out that only the seven people who shared the same table would have had the chance of adding poison to the victim's food, and they make quite an interesting list of suspects, including the greedy Myrtle (always out to grab the best food for herself and her husband), a jovial ex-seaman who is missing a finger and seems to tell everyone a different story as to how this came about, and the elderly Miss Green who "is terribly prim and strait-laced". As Annabel tells Jabal (who has enlisted her help but not admitted to being a clergyman), "I saw her (Miss Green) reading a Bible the other morning so she must be a bit round the bend." And it is Miss Green , who, arguing for the death penalty, pronounces, "Evil should be removed from civilised society, as a tree is pruned of its rotten branches. Don't you agree with me, Mr Jarrett?"
"There might be no one left," said Jarrett. "There's evil in all of us...."
"Are you at all acquainted with the Bible, Mr Jarrett?"
"Well - er- I attend church services regularly."
And she goes on to quote the Bible at him: "Evil doers shall be cut down like the grass and wither as the green herb. The Holy Writ tells us so." Serve Jaral right! It's an in-joke that we can all enjoy, as when Annabel explains, "I mistrust her because she doesn't seem like a real person to me. She's more like a corny character out of one of the books she sells." The author of this book has produced some corny characters in her time too.

But Annabel, who has told everyone she cannot swim, gets pushed into the swimming pool, and another passenger gets murdered - strangled, this time. Jabal is almost sure he has identified the murderer. He tells the captain, "The killer has made a couple of slips during conversation at the meal table", but "I'd prefer not to name anyone now." But when he does, and the guilty party jeers, "You just go ahead and prove it", there is a surprise (indeed very surprising) attack on the the guilty person that brings the story to a totally unexpected (if very unlikely) conclusion. But it all makes an interesting and entertaining read. Recommended as one of the better books in the series.

The Problem at Piha (1986)
The Problem at Piha is set in a small beach settlement, twenty-six miles from Auckland. Some go there to fish, swim or sunbathe, others to plant cannabis seedlings or to follow "alternative lifestyles". In this peaceful setting nobody seems likely to be pushed over the side of the main tourist attraction, the huge Lion Rock, or to be stabbed with a fishing knife. But when The Rev Jabal Jarrett is there (on a golfing holiday with two other elderly clergymen) it is perhaps more to be expected.

At first, the three old clergymen make an amusing team, as when they discuss the sad case of a colleague: "It's distressing to witness his gradual retrogression. Poor soul. But what can one do?"
"I've remonstrated with him. I've pointed out his failings, but to no avail."
"No one is beyond hope .... You know the chap best, Jabal. Perhaps a word or two from you?"
"I've tried. But he would have none of my counsel. He despised my reproof."
I
t turns out eventually that what they are talking about is the way the man plays golf!

Summoned to an "accident" involving a dying man with a knife sticking out of his chest, two of the clergy immediately start to pray, but Jabal asks the practical question, "Who did this to you?"
The answer comes: "It was Mad's brother - I mean B ..." His "lower jaw dropped and his eyes closed. He spoke no more."
Could Mad be Madelaine and could B be one of her brothers, all local residents?

Jabal is pleased to find that the police officer in charge is his old friend Detective-Inspector Trevor Chambers. Chambers asks how it is that the three clergyman know each other. Jabal, true to form, explains, "We took sweet counsel together and walked unto the house of God in company. Or, if you prefer it, we attended the same theological college as students."

Chambers, as usual, asks Jabal for help as he says it is an inside job with just three main suspects. Jabal is reluctant to help, for, as he explains to his friends,"the simplest explanation of a problem is nearly always the correct one, and the person most likely to have committed a crime is usually the one who did." But he agrees to talk to the three suspects and "have a guess. That's all I can do, and that's all I undertake to do. I'm not the detective that Trevor makes me out to be. I have no special talents in that direction. But every person reveals himself as he talks."

Before the end, Jabal has to do much more than listen and gets involved in rescuing a boy (one of the three suspects) whom he finds hanging from the Lion Rock. When Chambers congratulates him on this, he tells him, "It must have been a frightening experience.
"It was." said Jabal. "Fear came upon me and trembling, which made all my bones to shake. It was the boy's skill and knowledge of the Lion that saved us both. My feet were almost gone, my steps had well nigh slipped."
"Hm," said Alan (one of his fellow clergy). "He's recovered."
"Obviously," agreed Inspector Chambers. "He's back to abnormal."
But, amusing though this is, it is a pity that Jabal has gone back to lacing so much that he says with all those Biblical quotes. It is a joke that, by now, has worn pretty thin.

The plot is not one of the more interesting ones, and you get to feel we've heard much of it before, even down to the lady who announces that she knows who the killer is but "that is something I am not prepared to say." As Jabal points out, "In a murder enquiry, three-quarters of those involved think they know. It's unwise to say so."

There is much (too much) talk when the clergy swap views about which of the suspects is likely to be the guilty one. Then, right at the end, when the killer is finally revealed, and all is explained, Jabal's dictum that "the simplest explanation of a problem is nearly always the correct one" proves as wrong as usual. Not in Freda Bream novels anyway!

The setting and characters too are less appealing than before. You wonder if the author was running short of ideas. Perhaps this was why there was an eight year gap before the next book appeared.

Coffin to Let (1994)
Coffin to Let tells how, when Hubert Clegg, the unpopular aggressive manager of Fairway Flats in Auckland, is found murdered, one of the tenants, old Mrs Dibbett, finds it necessary to call on the local vicar (The Rev Jabal Jarrett) to let him know that she wasn't the murderer. "At seventy-eight years of age one tends to be realistic, and Mrs Emily Dibbett recognised the fact that her future was limited .... Mrs Dibbett did not fear death. She seldom thought about it, except for occasional curiosity as to what form her own would take" She was worried, though, that in her life "nothing outstanding had been accomplished .... She was leaving no lasting gift to posterity .... For some time now she had been considering how she could rectify this omission and had finally reached the conclusion that the most public-spirited action she could take would be to remove from the midst of his suffering fellow citizens, one Hubert Edward Clegg." But someone else had got there first, and stabbed him to death.

More deaths follow in the Flats, and Jabal, who has once again been urged by the police to help, tries to get to know all the residents. They turn out to be an odd bunch, ranging from an eccentric, sometimes violent, potter to a man who seems to spend all his time organising protests.
"What sort of protests?" asks Jabal."Oh, any sort," Mrs Dibbett tells him. "I don't think he really minds what they're about. Just a Cause, you know."

A prostitute lives there too. "You wouldn't like her," Mrs Dibbett tells Jabal, "because of what she does and because of never going to church either." But in this "she was wrong. In the course of his duties over the years Jabal had met, and liked, several thieves, prostitutes and embezzlers. His priority scale of virtues had simple kindness at the top, chastity was well down the ladder, and since attendance at church is merely a manifestation of some other quality, not always a desirable one, it was not even on the list."

Jabal remains an interesting character, as does the unlikely Mrs Dibbett - much more so than the other residents. But interest drags during long sections when neither of them is present, although Jabal himself mercifully now only reverts to Biblical quotes when they are really relevant and/or amusing. And, for once, when assuring Inspector Chambers that evil times are no new thing and quoting St Paul's long list of all those who are "filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness", etc etc, he admits "All right, I can't remember the rest. But I assure you he covered the field. Observant chap, Paul, So you see people have not changed since his day." But there is little exciting action and altogether too much talk before Jabal eventually works out what must have happened.

However, there's a nice twist at the end when the old Mrs Dibbett, who really had hoped to poison Clagg, quotes the example of Moses to Jabal: "Moses thought it right that bad men should be put to death." Jabal "sighed and not for the first time wondered why the complete version of the Old Testament was made available to all and sundry. There was so much in it that was excellent, but all tangled up with tales of lust, cruelty and revenge, approved or ordered by blood-thirsty gods. How could the man in the street be expected to sort out the mess?"

In the end Mrs Dibbett agrees to go off to a home, after realising that the unpleasantly demanding matron who was in charge there, would not live for ever - especially as there were (poisonous) oleander shrubs growing in the garden! At the thought "the old lady's face cleared and to her tired old eyes came a gleam of happy anticipation. She smiled demurely and said, 'Very well, vicar. Thank you for all your trouble. I'll be happy to accept the vacancy.' " She was 78 - and one wonders how far the 76 year-old author, herself not at all happy to be living in a retirement village, was identifying with her!

The Nasty Affair on Norfolk (1995)
The Nasty Affair on Norfolk is the second book in this series to be related in the first person by one of the characters involved, in this case 58-year-old Duncan Mantell, who regularly has to visit Norfolk Island (to the east of Australia) as an Australian government clerk. Previously, he tells us, he had
been a successful defence lawyer but had served a prison sentence of three years for swindling the law firm for which he worked.

On this visit he is approached by a man called Jack Ward, who supposedly knows him, although Duncan cannot place either his name or face. Jack tells him that his second cousin, Ross Childs, is in fear of his life after two "accidents", and he asks Duncan for his help. Ross; it turns out, was "a direct descendant of Major Childs, one of the most vicious and brutal governors of the second convict settlement" on the island. It had been intended as "a place of the severest punishment short of death". And another character, a local painter, had an ancestor who had been executed by him some 140 years before. Could there be some sort of motive here?

When Ross fails to return from a coach trip, Duncan investigates his disappearance with the help of fellow hotel guest, Jabal Jarrett, who is there on (yet another?) annual holiday. Duncan has enlisted Jabal's help because he is convinced that Jabal is a detective disguised as a clergyman.
Also staying in the hotel is another guest, "a woman called Milly Lantern, spinster, retired matron of a large hospital in Melbourne", who did not hesitate to ask Jabal what sort of work he did. As he was on holiday, he just replied, "Clerical".
"That could be anything," she persisted. "Tell us more. What firm do you work for? What do you do?"
He hesitated and then admitted, "I'm a priest."
She too had heard rumours about him being a private eye, so she doesn't believe him but comes up with what she thinks is a really conclusive question: "Since you're a priest," she remarked with pretended nonchalance, "I suppose you know the Bible off by heart?"
"That would be difficult," he told her, "as it contains more than seven hundred and seventy-seven thousand words."
"How do you know that it does?"
"I don't know. That is an estimate made by Gideon International and I take their word for it. Seven hundred and seventy-seven thousand, one hundred and thirty-three is the exact figure if I remember correctly."
The narrator is impressed by Jabal's glibness, but writes,"I thought Jarrett knew we weren't taken in by his story" but felt "he'd be a worthy adversary, an interesting fellow to liven up meal times. Ostensibly I'd go along with him, help him keep up the fiction before others. We grinned at each other and I sensed some mutual understanding". It is not until the very last page that he gets round to wondering, "Could he ... could he .... actually be ... a real vicar?"

The three of them work together to discover what has happened to the missing man, but it turns out to be an unfortunately long and tedious process, and the basic plot is not strong enough to hold the interest throughout. Many of the characters, including that of the narrator, are not all that interesting either. An exception to this is Jabal himself, but it proves a handicap to see him only through the eyes of this particular narrator, especially as the preliminary joke about him not being thought a real priest is stretched on and on. As is the way that everything that happens seems to remind Milly of some patient she had known in hospital so that she keeps rushing in with all the gory details. At first this is amusing, but eventually it gets overdone. Mercifully Jabal goes in for fewer Biblical quotes than at one time, but it seems characteristic of the author that she does not realise that you can have too much of a good thing.

It all leads up to the discovery of a murder, as well as an attempted murder of a small boy who had noticed something odd but refused to tell anyone what it was, because, he had said, "detectives don't reveal anything, even to their trusted friends. They explain it all at the last minute." In these stories, this is always a reckess thing to do!

At one point the narrator admits that "I was talking for the sake of talking," trying to calm down an upset man. He is not the only one who seems to talk too much: at the end we are given three different explanations of what may have happened, one from Milly, one from the narrator and one from Jabal. You can guess which is the right one - but by the time you have read therm all, there is a danger that you may be beyond caring.

Murder at the Microphone (1995)
Murder at the Microphone gets off to an entertaining start when The Rev Jabal Jarrett is invited to contribute a short talk to his local radio station's Faith for Today series. He rejects his curate's offer to take over the task because he knew that "what Eric considered the word of the Lord was similar to the whispered instructions the evil kings of the Old Testament laid clain to have been personally given. Not so bloodthirsty, of course. Eric would not dream of razing a city to the ground, or chopping a South Islander into little bits, but he conveyed the same arrogant belief that as a privileged being who was permitted to wear his collar back to front, he was a confidant, deputy and at times trusted adviser, of the Almighty. His standards of behaviour towards others were harsh and puritan." Jabal felt that, if he gave the talk "Eric might strike unnecessary fear and gloom into the good hearts of Aucklanders ... He should have lived three thousand years ago. Jabal suppressed the fleeting wish that he had."

It is while Jabal is in Broadcasting House, Auckland, that during a regional news broadcast the announcer, LanceTemple, live on air, suddenly gasps out that he is dying and has been murdered. His body is found slumped over the controls with a knife in his back. The police are sent for, and Chief-Inspector Trevor Chambers arrives to investigate. When he discovers that Jabal had been in another studio recording his talk, he enlists his help for, as he tells Dirk Weston, the radio station's district manager, "he is one of the shrewdest men I know when it comes to identifying the person responsible for murder". So far so good.

But when Jabal interviews the staff he soon realises "they were all lying" so he tries to involve them in the business of tracking down the murderer. This involves a great deal of talk but not that much action, not helped by the fact that at first they jointly identify the wrong person as the criminal. And there is page after page of gossip, as when Jabal is told: "Lance was trying to do a line with Fleur in Reception and that made Max Farrell mad because he fancies her - at least he's always trying to get her in a corner - and Holly and Ed are a bit thick and people say things, but I think myself it's only that Holly's trying to cheer him up, she's like that and after all, she's nearly sixty, and you know what it's like when you're on the rebound - no, of course you wouldn't - but Roy doesn't like it, not that he's interested in Holly himself, tnough Gilda says he is, just disapproves I think, because his own wife's having an affair with the chap she works with ..." And so it goes on. I wonder how many readers can even remember who some of these nondescript characters are.

A particularly unconvincing character is Ed, an apparent madman but with strange sane intervals. Could it just be "mischievous madness"? He seems convinced that he has murdered his wife: "If they (the police) don't find her in the garden," said Ed gloomily, "they'll start taking up the floorboards. Perhaps I put her there." The comic effect seems unintentional - although you can never be absolutely sure with this author.

It passes belief how little interest is shown by journalists or public about that dramatic death on-air. You would have thought it would have made a sensational story, but, we are told, "the press is co-operating" so press reports have been kept to a minimum and "to the public, it was just another murder". But when a second journalist is murdered, the police arrive in force and Jabal is hard pressed to identify the murderer. But, by the end of the book, you are left wishing he had been quicker off the mark.

Anyone Can Murder (1997)
Anyone Can Murder was published a year after the author's death. It tells how Hubert C
arson, the editorial manager of the Herald newspaper, is found dead in his office. The autopsy reveals that it was a blow on the head that killed him, a mild heart attack probably causing him to fall. Carson's fellow employees are not so sure. They knew that the unpopular chief reporter, Clive Yarwood, had never made a secret of the fact that he wanted Carson's job. But did he want it badly enough to kill for it?

This is a much more interesting story than its immediate predecessors, as there is very much more action in it, although Jabal himself does not appear very often. But it is he, of course, who finally sorts out the villain. The other characters come to life too, particularly Luke Nagle, the editor, affectionally known as "The Bull" whose "frame was that of an all-in wrestler" but whose bark was worse than his bite. He "had been persuaded by his father to take a degree in English and then enter St Johns Theological College", where he had met Jabal. He had only lasted a year there before turning to journalism. He was now a well-liked boss with a genuine interest in the welfare of his staff.

The chief suspect, Clive Yarwood, is "a man whom Luke had for three years disliked and mistrusted", but whom he discovers his deputy had appointed to take the place of the murdered man. It turns out that "no-one else wanted the job". His secretary describes him as "smarmy and leering in his attitude to me" - and she ends up unconscious, with a bookcase crashed over her. It turns out that someone had hit her over the head with an old typewriter. Luke is convinced that the thoroughly unpleasant Clive must be the attacker, but Jabal advises him, "If there has been more than one crime of a similar nature, make out a list. Who had access to the victim on each occasion? Who would find it physically possible to carry out the deed? Tall enough? Strong enough? Who had a motive? Who could lay hands on a suitable weapon? Put on your list every person, however unlikely, who could have done it, even if you think he was morally incapable of such a crime. That is important. Be absolutely impersonal and omit no one. No one at all. Sometimes that is all one needs to do. You identify the culprit by simple elimination of all the others."

After one of the security men gets stabbed, and another secretary is attacked, Luke makes out his list, but finds only one name emerging: that of his secretary, the much appreciated and very capable Fiona. But. as Jabal tells him, "Life is not a tidy busines. Only in cheap fiction do events fit in with one another to make a single, neat picture." And he points out where Luke's deductions went wrong. So Luke turns his attentions back to Clive. He has no evidence to convict him, but he knows he is a menace that "must be removed". How can he do this? Luckily, Jabal is at hand and finds away of pressurising Clive to resign from his job. "I fear." he tells Luke, "I bent the tongue like a bow. My lips uttered perversement. I deceived with vain words. The result was satisfactory."

The newspaper background is handled convincingly, plenty happens and the story moves along at a good pace. I am left wondering whether this really was the last book that the author wrote or whether, as I suspect, it may have been an older manuscript that had emerged. Recommended.


There is very little about the author on the net. I would welcome more information about her.

Used copies of her books are available but they are nearly all large print editions.


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Island of Fear cover
This was the first book in the Jarrett series. Unfortunately, most of the books are only available in large print editions (as below).
The Vicar Done It cover
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