|David Middleton-Brown is 40 years old when we first meet him. His mother had died only a couple of months before. “She was a terrible old harridan." But she was all he had. "Now he's got nothing, no one." He works as a "humble country solicitor" and had lived most of his life in the historic little old market town of Wymondham in Norfolk.
He has become an expert on ecclesiastical buildings, furnishings, vestments and silver, even though he has no formal qualifications in church architecture. Although he "made an excellent solicitor. the Church was still his first love". His faith “was inextricably bound up with his interest in the church buildings themselves and his response to them. His God was a God of beauty; it was inconceivable to him that God could be worshipped in an ugly building."
He was "quite ordinary-looking .... of an average height, and had brown hair, dusted with grey at the temples, and pleasant hazel eyes.“ But “it was a nice face .... above all a kind face.“
His only real love affair had been with another man, and that had been when he had been 28. He admits, "I've never loved anyone else". That is, until he meets Lucy Kingsley and becomes her lover. He hates holidays and believes that “the only thing worse than staying at home from holiday is going away", but he has the gift of getting on with all sorts of people and making “them say things they wouldn't ordinarily say.“ This helps to explain his success as an amateur detective.
Lucy Kingsley is an independent-minded artist, daughter of Canon John Kingsley of Marlbury Cathedral. She is good at winning people over and strong on questioning skills, and the ability to put two and two together, and proves an excellent partner in solving mysteries with her lover David Middleton-Brown, but she is very reluctant to marry him, remembering her past experience of a disastrous short-lived early marriage. She plays an increasingly important part as the series progresses.
Kate Charles is the pen name used by Carol Fosher Chase (1950- ). She was brought up in Bloomington, Illinois, where she graduated from Illinois State University, then went on to earn an MA from Indiana University. She moved to England in 1985, where she came to serve as parish administrator for her local church. Her first crime novel was in the series reviewed below, featuring the solicitor David Middleton-Brown and clergyman's daughter Lucy Kingsley . These first books were very well received in the UK, but were felt to be "too English" by American publishers. After open-heart surgery in 1996, she changed direction, and began writing one-off suspense novels. Her first book featuring the clerical detective, The Rev Callie Anson, appeared in 2005.
Kate Charles says that her favourite hobby is visiting churches and she is an enthusiastic supporter of WATCH (Women in the Church). She lectures on crime stories with clerical backgrounds, and lived for twenty years, with her husband and dogs, in Bedford in East Anglia, before moving on to Ludlow in Shropshire, near the Welsh border. Both she and her husband are now UK citizens.
A Drink of Deadly Wine (1991)
A Drink of Deadly Wine describes how (Anglican) Father Gabriel Neville has everything going for him: intellectual prowess, physical beauty, a wife who adores him and twin children. He is vicar of the prestigious St Anne's Church in Kensington Gardens, London, with the prospect of promotion to Archdeacon. But his perfect world is shattered when he receives an anonymous letter threatening to expose a secret from his past something that could destroy his career and his marriage. The only person Gabriel feels that he can turn to is David Middleton-Brown, a man whom he has not seen for ten years but who had once been his lover. David's discreet enquiries bring to light a host of suspects, ranging from the old server Percy Beard, known to all as 'Venerable', who “was possessed of strongly held opinions about everything, and never hesitated to share them", to the charming artist Lucy Kingsley, with whom David begins to wonder if he could be in love. But then one of the suspects is found dead, hanging in the sacristy. Is it suicide or murder?
The interesting, if eccentric, cast includes the dotty Beryl Ball, an alarming lady with thick spectacle and aggressive false teeth, who is convinced that “every Vicar who has been here has wanted me, but I've kept myself pure." There also seem a remarkable number of church-connected homosexuals or ex-homosexuals, including both the leading players. But the story holds the interest right from the start and the author proves to be a strong storyteller, although you can't always believe all that she is telling you.
She writes with a real understanding of the Anglican Church, even if the real church may not be quite as queer as she chooses to describe it, and the "Angel Gabriel" with his "haunted look" and disregard of some of the common courtesies expected of a vicar, is not entirely convincing. But David Middleton-Brown turns out to be a determined investigator even if he eventually has to admit, “I've been so frightfully stupid about this whole business. I've been wrong about everything, all along the way. I've looked at it all the wrong way up. But now now I understand everything. Or nearly everything." And so he does. When he goes on to get a letter from the blackmailer confessing all, it turns out to be from just the person he expected - however unlikely it seems to the reader. But it will be interesting to follow David Middleton-Brown's subsequent adventures in the Anglican church.
The Snares of Death (1992)
The Snares of Death tells the story of Bob Dexter, a prominent and aggressive Evangelical clergyman, who has a great deal of personal charisma, and an unshakable faith in his own righteousness, with a remarkable talent for rubbing people up the wrong way. He always refers to himself in the third person as when he tells his wife, "God has sent Bob Dexter". When he makes the unlikely move to a small Norfolk parish, traditionally Anglo-Catholic, and begins remoulding it in his own image, he manages to upset just about everybody.
His distraught parishioners are not the only ones with good reason to want to remove him, as he had also fallen foul of BARC (British Animal Rights Coalition) , a group of ardent animal rights activists, and his heavy-handed efforts to take over the leadership of an Evangelical protest movement have made him very unpopular with its founder. And there are undercurrents in his seemingly tranquil home life: both his downtrodden wife Elayne and his adored daughter Becca have secrets that Dexter does not even begin to suspect - until the fateful and eventful day of his death, although this does not occur until two thirds of the way through the book.
Solicitor David Middleton-Brown and his artist-friend Lucy Kingsley step in to investigate. As they fall more and more in love, they prove, as she puts it, "a pretty good team", as people who won't talk to David will often talk to her. She is even allowed to stay and overhear the most intimate conversations between Dexter's wife and daughter. The author's explanation that they “had both accepted Lucy's presence as somehow natural" is not entirely convincing. And there are some characters like the charming but hypocritical young priest, ready to take advantage of any innocent young woman, who seem rather novelettish.
It all culminates at the annual National Pilgrimage to Walsingham, where Anglo-Catholic pomp clashes with heated Evangelical protest and feelings run perilously high. It makes quite an interesting story even if the descriptions of Anglo-Catholic rituals and evangelical fervour seem just a bit exaggerated - and the way that Bob Dexter is able to clear his new church so quickly of nearly all its statutory and ceremony sounds too simple. He is determined to mount MISSION:Walsingham to persuade pilgrims of the error of their ways. In fact, even David objects to Walsingham: “It's so tasteless. The architecture of the Anglican Shrine Church is so nasty, and the whole place is over-commercialized, and full of such earnest people. I just can't describe how horrid it is." And Lucy later gives us a full description of its horrors. There is no doubt where the author's sympathies do not lie.
The ending, including the suicide of one of the characters that is dismissed in just a couple of lines, is not too satisfactory. However, the appeal of the book does not rely on its rather unlikely storyline, but on its often comic portrayal of life in the Anglican church.
Appointed to Die (1993)
Appointed to Die describes how when Stuart Latimer arrives as the new Dean of Malbury Cathedral, his naked ambition and ruthless behaviour alienate everyone in the Chapter: the Canons, gentle John Kingsley, vague Rupert Greenwood, pompous Philip Thetford, and especially Subdean Arthur Brydges-ffrench, a traditionalist who seems to live for creme de menthe Turkish Delight and who resists change most strongly of all. It is not until near the end of the book that one of these characters is found poisoned - and it's a credit to the author that it's not the one you might expect.
Lucy Kingsley, daughter of one of the canons, and the main character in the story, has to decide whether or not she wants to fend off the advances of architect Jeremy Bartlett in favour of David Middleton-Brown, the solicitor now moving to London, whom she has known for about a year and whom she loves but has so far refused to marry, as her first short-lived marriage had been such a disaster. It is David, who much resents the presence of Jeremy, who is eventually called in to defend the supposed murderer. In an unlikely development, David even gets the local police inspector to pass on confidential information about "who has an alibi and who doesn't". And in the end it is he who realises the significance of the Turkish Delight and "put two and two together and came up with four".
It all proceeds at a leisurely pace and is (it is to be hoped) distinctly dated, but, at a gossipy sort of level, it makes an entertaining read, even if a number of the characters, such as Victor and Bert, the perky gay couple who run the cathedral shop and are affectionately known as Victoria and Albert, are little more than caricatures - but they are amusing ones. And the nasty new Dean (together with his equally nasty wife) certainly hold the attention.
A Dead Man Out of Mind (1994)
A Dead Man Out of Mind describes how the curate at St Margaret's, a declining High Anglican church in Pimlico, is found dead, and a silver chalice is found to be missing. When the new curate turns out to be a woman, Rachel Nightingale, St Margaret's becomes a nasty nest of anti-feminist politics. Rachel is an interesting character, with her daily visits to her husband Colin, in persistent vegetative state in hospital, who does not even recognise her.
There are two more killings before amateur sleuths Lucy Kingsley and solicitor David Middleton-Brown (whom she has not yet agreed to marry but who is having to to put up with Lucy's objectionable and priggish 14-year-old niece, Ruth, who has been inflicted on him for work experience that she finds "dead boring") step in to solve the mystery, helped (and hindered) by the ever-interfering Ruth (who was appalled to find that David and Lucy were living together).
At first, David suspects and confronts the wrong person but eventually all is revealed, although the way that the melodramatic finale in which the murderer, imagining that he has the whip hand, happily confesses to everything sounds distinctly corny.
Although it has a distinctly dated feel to it, it makes a gossipy but amusing story (one of the characters even rejoices in the name of Justin Thymme), is strong on Anglican rivalries and in-fighting, with the author's usual generous quota of gay characters, and has no lack of of human interest, even if it is not always entirely convincing.
Evil Angels Among Them (1995)
Evil Angels Among Them is set around fifteenth-century church of St Michael and All Angels in the tiny Norfolk village of Walston, where the Rector's new bride, Becca Thorncroft, is receiving highly unpleasant suggestive anonymous phone calls, and the newest residents of Walston, Gillian English (who is divorced and has a little girl) and her partner, Lou Sutherland, are not exactly welcomed with open arms when Lou (as you might guess) turns out to be a woman. This leads to their nosy neighbour, "interfering old bitch" Enid Bletsoe, secretly questioning little Bryony: "Do mummy and Lou sleep in the same bed, Bryony?" as she tries to build up evidence of child neglect. There are convincing descriptions too of various eccentric characters immersed in village rivalries, and the in-fighting that goes on when a new church warden has to be appointed.
Then a sudden, gruesome death occurs, and the little girl goes missing, but fortunately for Father Stephen Thorncroft, his friends Lucy Kingsley and David Middleton-Brown are on hand to sort it all out. At first, parts of the story seem rather slow-moving although there are lively descriptions of the aggressive church wardens, including old Harry Gaze who explains, "It's always difficult to break in a new rector .... I reckon Father Thorneycroft will be all right once we've knocked the corners off him. These young fellows always have wholly grand ideas - takes them a while to learn the facts of life", but a battle royal ensues when they insist on on a black altar frontal for a funeral and the vicar twice swaps it for white. So it all holds attention, if at a gossipy sort of level, but then, once it becomes clear that the murder victim has been poisoned, interest mounts. It's another easy read, if with a less interesting plot than the previous books, providing an amusing portrayal of church life as it (perhaps) once was.
Reviews of the other books in the series to follow.
The author has her own attractively designed but not over-informative website. Apart from this, there is hardly anything about her on the web.
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