|Det Chief Inspector Robert Southwell
& Canon George Grindal
(creator: Barbara Whitehead)
|Robert (Bob) Southwell (pronounced Suthell) is, at the start of the first book, in his late 30s and has just moved to York, following his promotion to the post of Detective Chief Inspector. He is happily married to Linda, with two young children, Susan and Paul. He wears glasses, and "looked bright, alert, perceptive", with a "wide rounded forehead and thin lower face .... He was a tall thin man, almost bony" and had a "keen light-grey gaze which seemed to see through trivia". He proves himself to be quite a fighter when need arises. He claims to be a Christian, although he doesn't seem to go to church, but, since he befriends his new next-door neighbour, the actor playing the part of God in the York mystery plays, he can certainly claim to be a friend of God - and it is on this slim excuse that I have included him in this series of clerical detectives!
Canon George Grindal is a Canon Residentiary at York Minster, an amiable, benevolent old widower who, with his grown-up daughter Lucy, often appears in the stories, but who really comes into his own as a detective in The Dean It Was that Died. He has an "ugly, squashed-looking face" but a fine "voice which seemed to sound in chords, and not in single notes .... There were people (in addition to his daughter) who thought George Grindal was next door to a saint. There were others who considered him an interfering busybody. Grindal had interests and experiences much wider than the cathedral close. He was involved in crusades from time to time which took him among the hidden strata of society, among the homeless, the down-and-outs, the mental patients thrown out of closing mental hospitals, the drug addicts, the criminals, and the underworld in general.... He was used to investigating, tracing people." It is who befriends Poison Peters in the first book. In The Dean It Was that Died, he turns out to make a very effective detective.
He seems to have a kind word for everyone and "was convinced that everyone could be helped in life by reading Luke and often recommended it, although sometimes Job might seem more appropriate."
Barbara Whitehead (1930- ) was born in Sheffield in the UK and educated at High Storrs Grammar School in Sheffield and at Sheffield College of Arts and Crafts. She has worked as a librarian, civil servant, shopkeeper, genealogist and teacher. She has a particular affection for York (where the books described below are all set). As well as these eight crime novels, she has also written several historical novels, and a biography about Charlotte Brontë . She is a widow with three sons and lives in Thornton, the Brontë birthplace, near Bradford.
Playing God (1988)
It makes a lively, interesting and easy to read story, but its great strength lies in its description of the staging of the old plays in the York setting. As Torn explains to Bob Southwell, "There are several different cities in one. There's the tourists' York; the one you know already, the one everybody sees before they come to live here. Then there's the incomers' York; that's the one you and I belong to. Most of the societies in the city are full of ex-pats .... Then there's the native York; people who were born here of York families; you don't get many of them in the societies. Their view of the place is quite different. Most of the time they aren't interested in the antiquities and think it would be just as useful if the Minister were pulled down to make more parking space. They see a side of the place I never see at all. It is as if separate worlds exist in parallel."
Poison Peters turns out to be so different from his public persona that it is not always easy to except that this could be so, and parts, as when the Archbishop solemnly asks him, "Tell me, Mister Peters, what has given you this spiritual power which you are exerting so well?", do not sound altogether convincing. But the behind-the-scenes descriptions of what goes on during the production of the plays hold the interest throughout.
The Girl with the Red Suspenders (1990)
Bob Southwell is his superior officer but plays a much smaller part in this story. He still "enjoyed this post, but there were times when he cursed his administrative work and the time he spent at his desk and wished that he could work more often shoulder to shoulder with Dave on actually doing the nitty-gritty of enquiries". However he joins Dave in an exciting assault on a riverboat when he even gets involved in hand-to-hand fighting, although they are never able to track down the real criminal: the man who ordered the murder.
Dave regretted that he had never managed to avenge the dead girl's death - but instead he found a live lover, Jenny Wren, a young policewoman: "All week he'd wanted cake. But if you couldn't have cake, home-made bread was very good. It was something you never got tired of, something that would go on and on for the rest of your life." Not over romantic perhaps, but, like the whole book, very down to earth, even if it lacks the intriguing mystery play background of the first book.
Despite the violent episodes, it all presents a very convincing portrayal of life in and around the cathedral and the interaction of the cathedral staff with each other. The book starts, "On the day he was to die the Dean of the cathedral woke well before eight o'clock," so we are kept in suspense as we follow him through his activities that day, wondering just what is going to happen to him.
Both Canon Grindal and his daughter Lucy come alive as interesting people. But it is when he gets appointed as Acting Dean, that he sets about making his own list of suspects, putting Lucy herself at the very top of the list with the comment, "Whereabouts not proven".
Then he goes on to question his friend Canon Samuel Oglethorpe. "Is there no secret door through which you could have gained access to a stair, run up, pushed a stone over, and come back down very quickly?"
It is Grindal who works out that Oglethorpe himself might have been the murderer's intended target - although he still cannot persuade Detective Inspector Smart that "the Dean's death was not accident but murder. It was only accidental in that the stone was intended for someone else."
it is Grenfell and Oglethorpe, not the police, who discover mysterious figures lurking round the Minster at night, then a suitcase full of guns. As Bob Southwell eventually tells Dave Smart, "I think we ought to ask Canons Grindal and Oglethorpe to join the force and resign ourselves." Dave Smart daren't say a word.
It makes a strong and effective story in which only the IRA involvement strikes a less than assured note. It and Playing God are the stories with the strongest religious backgrounds, and they are also the most interesting.
Sweet Death Come Softly (1992)
This makes a really interesting story with the chocolate factory providing an intriguing background, and characters like the friendly tea ladies really come to life. It is one of them who says, "There are two sure ways of insulting a man and getting him going, be rude about his driving, and if that fails, belittle his performance in bed."
The super-efficient Swedish girl Lena (pronounced Lay-na as she is quick to tell everybody) is rather less plausible in the way that she talks herself into the job of owner Hannah Benn's secretary, but Hannah herself emerges as a very real person.
Bob Southwell's boss is having to take early retirement for health reasons so Bob "was applying as a matter of course" to become the new Detective Superintendent, but unfortunately for him he knew that the post would be open to applicants from all over the country. Meanwhile he is free to (almost) get himself murdered before making a dramatic arrest. Then Lena gets involved in a melodramatic scene with a gun-toting tea lady, after which Bob's boss has a heart attack and leaves him in control.
The violent scenes, including an earlier one in which an enraged driver drove so fast that his terrified passenger "saw that his eyes seemed to be glowing red and mad as she (the passenger) thought the eyes of a bull must look when it was about to charge," are the least convincing. The author, as always, is very much at her best when describing the characters that she likes, and bringing the York background to life.
The Killings at Barley Hall (1995)
The dead archaeologist's girlfriend, Sophie Beans, begins writing a firsthand imaginary account of what happened to a soldier in the Yorkist army in 1461 when they are about to go into battle against the Lancastrians. This is based on her own historical researches but is not really very interesting, and gets distinctly tedious when we return to it on numerous later occasions. There is a connection with the current murder hunt, but this proves a very long-winded way of revealing it, especially as it is written in a rather plodding style: "My wife and I had travelled from Sheriff Hutton to the city and settled ourselves in Lendel at the Austin Friars, where Richard liked best to stay, and both of us had been right busy preparing for the arrival, the same as everyone else. You could tell King Richard the third, as he was now, was as pleased as anything ...."
And some of the "medieval"conversation sounds distinctly stilted: "Where did thee get those (gold objects) from?" Margaret asked (her lover) in fear.
Bob Southwell learns that he has got on the shortlist for the hoped for promotion but then has to to leave the investigation to go off on a two-day assessment during which a decision will be made. But he is not too hopeful - and the book ends with the arrival of a new Detective Superintendent.
Unfortunately, the basic plot is less interesting than before, and even the discovery of the reliquary is not all that exciting.
Secrets of the Dead (1996)
When he returns to his shattered, and decaying house, he renews his friendship with his neighbour Anne, whom he always used to call Annie and until now has always regarded as a younger sister. But a whole series of deadly "accidents" soon persuade him that someone is out to kill him. But why, and for what? With Anne's loving help he sets about uncovering the surprising truth about who he really is and what had actually happened.
Chris is sympathetically portrayed, as is Canon George Grindle who, fortified by brandy, offers him support and encouragement, and the strong plot holds the interest throughout, even if it is a little hard to believe that any probation officer could spend so much time with his client is this one does, or that quite so many unsuccessful attempts could be made on Chris's life. Even his cat gets poisoned! Towards the end, when one gunman suddenly recognises him as an old pal and decides he can't shoot him, and another old friend tries to murder him, it does all rather descend to melodrama. And it is almost comic when Anne, finding that Chris has just shot his attacker dead, and is still lying across his prone body, suggests, "Look, we must get the police. And your probation officer."
But you still feel really involved with Chris and his determination to get at the truth.
Death at the Dutch House (1997)
The flat inhabitants are not all particularly interesting, but there is an intriguing, if slightly sinister, antique dealer on the prowl, and a developing romance between bachelor Tom Churchyard (Southwell's friend who had played God in the first book) and Julia, to which Julia's teenage son Adam is much opposed.
When Julia finds the resident's dead body, Adam is violently upset, not by the woman's corpse, but by her badly injured dog and insists on bringing in a vet who reassures him, "If he was bleeding badly inside, he wouldn't have lasted this long. it looks to me as though he went for his mistress's attacker and was kicked away. The injuries are all at his front end. That's in his favour."
Bob Southwell eventually finds a teaspoon on a deserted runway and realises it is part of the stolen silver. Routine police work soon reveals various people's guilty secrets, and Bob finds he can identifiy the guilty party. But it is not one of the more interesting books in the series.
Dolls Don't Choose (1998)
The tension between Southwell and Hallam is most effectively built up in a way that holds the interest throughout, even if the way in which Southwell's young daughter Susan is suddenly left for him to look after at the police station seems contrived to help the plot along. And although dolls do play a minor part in the story, it is not very clear why the author chose the title she did - and it seems absurd to use the two old dolls as a cover illustration. You are left wondering if the artist had ever read the book.
But Bob Southwell, his increasingly awkward relations with his new boss, and the arguments he finds himself having with his wife, are really brought to life, which is more than can be said for the murderer whose thoughts appear every now and then in the text: "Nothing and nobody can stop me, because I am god, all powerful." And the final ending is nothing if not unpredictable. But it remains one of the best told tales in the series.
Right at the end, it seems that Southwell and his wife may be leaving York. It was the city itself that was the key element that held the stories together. And it is the author's affection for it that gives her York Cycle of Mysteries much of their appeal.
|The first (above) and third (below) books in the series are those with the most clerical connections.|
|The other books, such as this last one with its not very relevant cover, are still interesting, even if they cannot really be described as clerical mysteries.