|The Rev Septimus Treloar
(creator: Stephen Chance)
|The Rev Septimus Treloar had fought with the partisans in Yugoslavia during the war, then embarked on a 30-year-old police career, starting as a constable in the East End of London, and ending up as a Chief Inspector. It was only then that he got ordained. He is now the Rector of St Mary's, Danedyke, a historic old church in the Fens in the East of England. He looks a large, tough customer and his broken nose makes his face look "as if someone had tried to remodel it with a baseball bat". But he can be seen as a "gentle giant" by his parishioners. He is a celibate Anglo-Catholic, but has not entirely given up his old police habits. So he's quite ready to swear or tell untruths : "Parsons and coppers," he says, "They're the best liars. Only way to keep up with the great British Public". He was capable of switching into "his bumbling, vaguely benevolent, country parson act" as required, even if he still looked "the same big man in baggy tweed suit". There was a girl he had once loved, but he had never married. He's quite a character.
Stephen Chance was really The Rev Philip W Turner (1925 - 2006) who had served in the Fleet Air Arm during the Second World War, being commissioned at the age of 19, then working as an engineer at naval stations all over the country. He was ordained in 1951 and worked as a parish priest in Leeds, Crawley and Northampton,as well as in prisons and hospital administration before becoming Organiser of Religious Broadcasting for the Midland Region of the BBC (1966-1971). He left the BBC because he did not agree with its policy and went on to teach English and History, as well as becoming chaplain at Eton College, then Malvern College and other schools. He retired in 1990. He was married with two sons. He was always very conscious of his roots in the fen country of East Anglia where he used to stay as a child with his grandfather. It is there that his Septimus stories are set. He is probably better known, though, for his Darnley Mills novels written under his own name. He won the Carnegie Prize for children's literature for his novel The Grange at High Force in 1966.
Septimus and the Danedyke Mystery (1971)
Known to his old friend , Chief Inspector Burroughs as "the one and only beatified bobby", Septimus enlists his support on getting help with the analysis of some white powder that someone had tried to feed to Sir Handel, Septimus' ever faithful Great Dane, and with the identification of fingerprints that Septimus had managed to get a suspect to leave on a picture postcard. "Septimus, are you sure you don't need a copper?" his old friend asks him. Septimus insists on carrying on on his own - then he finds Sir Handel's dead body, with "a great blood-encrusted wound across one crumpled ear ....The laughter of the earlier part of the day seemed to belong to another century .... He was personally involved".
He enlisted the help of another friend, Dr Simmonds with his "elderly Bentley, large and red as a fire engine" known as Rosinante, in which they chase off to Oxford and discover that a certain "American professor" called Abraham Hakenbaum has been examining old illuminated manuscripts which turn out to contain clues as to the whereabouts of the Cup. But the crooks disable Rosinante by removing the rotor arm. Septimus reports this to a passing policeman: "There's a man driving a blue-grey Jaguar, registration number XBM 9949 C. He just interfered with Rosinante." "yes, sir," the policeman replied. "And who's Rosinante? A choirboy?". Septimus imagined what would happen if he told the policeman that the man had pinched Rosinante's rotor arm: "The constable would lick his pencil, and frown and push back his helmet. "And what part of the anatomy is that, sir?"
Septimus who doesn't hesitate to call himself Chief Inspector Treloar if he thinks it will help, has to call in the police when the Relics Chapel is badly damaged by the searching crooks, but even then "he really couldn't face Sergeant Johnson tramping around and detecting all over the place" so "he kept as much of the truth to himself as strict honesty would allow". He ends up being kidnapped, but outwits his foes nevertheless.
The author is described on the book's blurb as "a new writer of children's detective fiction", but the book's appeal is by no means confined just to children. Indeed some of the humour might escape them, as when Septimus and the master crook exchange meaningful ambiguous letters at the end of the book. But Septimus is able to persuade/blackmail him into paying for the restoration of the chapel. No wonder one of his churchwardens comments, "It's a great help in the Ministry, having been a copper once. Every clergyman ought to have the experience". Recommended.
Septimus and the Minster Ghost (1972)
Characters like Harry Tulloch (the head verger who "had been a pal of his; they had served together in the War") do not really come alive. He comes up with an "as the actress said to the bishop" remark almost every time we meet him: "Now then Major," he greets Septimus. "I'm at your disposal, as the actress said to the bishop". The joke soon gets tedious and it is no substitute for proper characterisation.
A better joke is when Septimus gets his old friend Chief Inspector Sam Burroughs to phone the Deanery with a phony excuse about an accident to an imaginary sister as a reason for calling Septimus away. The message that he gets passed on to him by the humourless Archdeacon is, "I fear your sister has been involved in a serious accident ... According to Mr Burroughs, Primrose drove the Rolls head on into a - ah - dustcart. She has damaged her epiglottis badly".
The close relationship between bachelor Septimus and the Dean's young son, Alisdair (they call each other Holmes and Watson), isn't at all convincing either. Indeed at times it even sounds slightly odd. They spend hours together on the beach or out shooting rabbits, and Septimus hugs him when he's scared and puts him to bed. Right at the end, as they drive off together, Septimus "grabbed Alisdair's floppy hair and shook it affectionately", then the book ends with the words: "They could both hear the gay bells of Minster St Peter". I think it's meant in all innocence. But it remains the least interesting book in the series.
Septimus and the Stones of Offering (1976)
The author's sense of humour enlivens the story-telling. The unmarried Septimus "hadn 't got any grandchildren - at least, not as far as he knew". When a soaking wet Septimus enters a very unwelcoming Welsh pub and asks if he can use the phone, he's told that there's a public box over the road, then a young man says something in Welsh, and the landlord explains, "You won't know the Welsh, mister. Dylan says the phone is wrecked and someone has written up, 'bugger the English'. The obvious reply to that was 'bugger the Welsh', but Septimus was a pacific man, and so opted for the ambiguous murmur, 'What an exhausting task.' "
It is a part of Wales threatened by possible flooding for the erection of a dam, but Septimus does not seem very impressed by the Welsh locals. "A musical nation, " he thinks to himself. "Much given to singing flat and talking at length". Also much given to speaking impenetrable Welsh when an English visitor arrives. "Is your father in?" Septimus asks the young man Dylan Wesley Jones. "Mae'n nhad allan."
Septimus' very life is in danger more than once, and he reflects that "he wasn't even sure that there was an after-life, though he laid his bets on the possibility. It seemed very likely that he would soon know. It had been a good life, a full life, not so far off the Biblical span". But in the end, even the huge, dangerous simpleton Sheep Shechem cannot get red of him. And Septimus is deeply impressed by Shechem's mother, an old "white witch" who tells him, "You are a good man, and it is good that you try to do."
Interestingly there is no more mention of him being a "children's detective" on the blurb. Instead it is imprinted "A book for new adults". In fact, it is suitable for any older reader, combining, as it does, some quite sophisticated dialogue with its simplistic but dramatic story. And Septimus is no plaster cast saint but, when necessary, a self-confessed "bloody liar". On one occasion, he even borrowed a dog collar, realising that "the dog collar would add an air of authenticity to the lies he was proposing to tell".
Septimus and the Spy Ring (1979)
It makes quite an exciting story, with plenty of action, danger, and real or threatened death, before he finally unmasks the traitor. Septimus himself is a lively, cheeky young man. On his return from a previous mission to Egypt, he had told the "totally humourless" old spinster secretary at head office, "I sent you a dirty postcard, and the Sphinx, cash on delivery. Hope you got them?" And. although not ordained, he has no hesitation in borrowing a clerical collar "and the black bib thing that goes underneath" to disguise himself. He gets into a fight with two aggressive hoodlums (Tweedledum and Tweedledee, he calls them), and kicks them into the oily water of the river. "I should have explained," he said. "I'm a Baptist minister, and I believe in total immersion".
He subsequently cuts up a curtain to cross the border to follow a suspect into neutral Eire, dressed as a Benedictine monk. He vaults lightly over some barbed wire. "Unfortunately the corner in which he landed happened to be a favourite meeting place for cattle so that his feet slid from under him and he sat down in a mixture of mud and cow dung". All this is good fun, but Septimus doesn't really like working in counter-espionage, and longs for "for the decencies of 'honest' crime".
Septimus is also very aware of his own apparent insignificance, as he gazes "up at a million stars and the majectic sweep of the Milky Way against the polished blue vault of outer space ... If not on this investigation, then on another, he would die ... and if the war didn't do for him, some criminal would (he'd been a C.I.D. Inspector before the war), or he would walk under a bus, and the world would go on in its own crazy way as if Septimus Treloar had never lived".
He has a remarkably innocent relationship with his WREN steward, although, right at the end, she arrives with her bag for a fortnight's leave. So he books her into the local pub. Surely, even in 1979, the "new adults" at whom, it says, the book is aimed would have expected rather more than this. But they are not getting it - not from this author.
|The first Septimus book was marketed as children's detective fiction, but there's more to it than that.|