|Reverend Marcus Aurelius Hardcastle is the Rector of the church of St Mary the Virgin in St Mary on the Marsh in Kent on England's south east coast. It is 1796 when we first meet him and the country is at war with France. He had studied divinity at Cambridge and had once been said to have had "the finest mind in the Church of England". He had thought he was destined for great things, but believes arrogance had been his downfall, especially as years ago he had been involved in scandals involving women and had even fought three duels.
Now, however, he has taken to drink (although "he rarely drank more than two bottles of port a day" and "limited himself to nothing more than small beer before midday") and had become "an over weight middle aged man". He is 39 years old and explains that "time and port have dulled my ambitions." He doesn't mind that his regular congregation just adds up to five people as he was "rapt in the glory of the service and its musical words".
His drinking is accepted by the locals: "Everyone tolerated him; many respected him, and some actually quite liked him." But he still has "the habit of getting into trouble" and he makes a remarkably determined and shrewd detective.
He seems to be incorrectly addressed as "Reverend" by all and sundry, including the authors. Or was this more acceptable in those days?
A.J Mackenzie is the pen name used by Marilyn Livingstone and her husband Morgen Witzel. Although they have written more than 20 non fiction titles on such subjects as management, economic history and medieval warfare, The Body on the Doorstep is their first novel.
The Body on the Doorstep (2016)
It is a time of war with France and violent struggles between local smugglers and the Preventive men, and Hardcastle has connections with both sides, and wecomes little gifts of cognac from the smugglers. A young local painter, a certain Mr Turner (!) soon gets involved, as does Mrs Amelia Chaytor, a tall widow in her early thirties, who was to prove a staunch ally and fellow detective. "She did not attend church, but then neither did anyone else in the parish, so the rector bore her no particular animosity on that account."
Hardcastle's reputation for drunkenness comes in handy at the inquest when he is very much more on the ball than anyone supposes, and, despite being attacked and knocked out three times, becomes more and more determined to unravel the identity of the smuggler band called The Twelve Apostles. Could they be French spies? It makes an interesting story with a credible local background, although the final confrontation when Hardcastle gathers all his suspects, Poirot style, is not very convincing.
The Body in the Ice (2017)
Hardcastle, who has taken to drinking much less than he used to, is, as a consequence, less entertaining than in the previous book. Indeed his overbearing novel-writing sister Cornelia and her spoilt pet dog Rodolpho are more fun to read about. However, working with his trusted friend, the tenacious and elegant Amelia Chaytor, and new arrival Captain Edward Austen (you may not be surprised to learn that he had a little sister called Jane!), he sets to work to uncover the mystery surrounding New Hall. He even tells Amelia, "I have been self-indulgent, vain and foolish; even, at times, quite wicked. It is high time I begin to live my life so that I may be of benefit to other people, not just myself." It seems a very unlikely speech for him (or anyone else) to make.
The story is slow to develop, but with the arrival of the American Rossiter family torn apart by war and desperate to reclaim their ancestral home, and the coming of Foucarmont, the French spy returning to the scene of his crimes, things begin to get more interesting, although there seems no good reason to subject us to an over-long excerpt from Cornelia's dreadful novel. However, there follows an exciting account of Foucarmont's violent attack on three women. It is a good thing that Amelia turns out to be a crack shot, and one of the other women an expert knife thrower! Things build up to a highly unconvincing and even corny climax involving the heroic expoits of Rodolpho the dog (who gets shot but survives, of course), lots of gunpowder (there's even a slow fuse) and the total destruction of almost everything - except the leading characters who escape scot-free as "miraculously, none of them had been hit by falling debris as they fled the explosion." It is a weak ending to a book that is less successful than the first book in the series.
Even William Wyndham Grenville, Baron Grenville, Foreign Secretary of Great Britain, does not know better than to address Hardcastle as Reverend, as when he says, "Of course, Reverend, is there anything further you wish to say about this matter?" But then, not one of the characters in this unlikely story has discovered how correctly to address an Anglican clergyman (the word Reverend is an adjective not a noun).
|The cover is quite striking, even if there isn't a body on the doorstep.|