Det Chief Inspector Robert Southwell
& Canon George Grindal

(creator: Barbara Whitehead)

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)
Playing God is set in York at the time of the Medieval Mystery Cycle when the old plays are re-created. Infamous rock star Poison Peters has surprisingly been cast as Christ, and the York establishment is outraged. Director Bruce Exelby is vilified by players and townspeople alike - some even accuse him of sacrilege! The part of God is played by British Telecom engineer, Tom Churchyard, who befriends newly arrived Detective Chief Inspector Bob Southwell, his new next-door neighbour. A series of dangerous mishaps on the set culminate in an apparently accidental death by electrocution, and Tom Churchyard, who holds a vital clue, finds himself helping Bob Southwell identify a murderer. It turns out that, quite literally, it had been devil who had been responsible.

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)
The Girl with the Red Suspenders describes how Detective Inspector Dave Smart of York CID is walking home, late coming off night duty, when a flash of colour amidst a pile of black rubbish bags catches his eye. It turns out to come from the red suspenders on an elegantly clad dead girl's legs. But how did she die? It becomes an obsession with Dave Smart to solve the murder of a girl he had never known, but with whom he could vividly imagine himself as having fallen in love. His personal commitment adds to the interest of the story which is told in a very realistic way. And characters like the dead girl's high-powered businessman father cdertainly come to life, although repeated short flashbacks to what had really happened on the night of her murder often only succeed in breaking up the flow of the narrative.

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.

The Dean It Was That Died (1991)
The Dean It Was That Died describes how the self-important and irascible Dean Henry Parsifal is killed in York Minster when a chunk of cathedral stone falls on him during the ceremonies of All Souls Day. Few of his colleagues seem all that sorry, as in the hours before his death, several of his acquaintances had been heard to swear that they would dearly like to murder him. However, the police insisted on regarding his death as accidental. But the inquisitive Canon George Grindal is not so sure - and his suspicions are confirmed when several more malign incidents occur: a young cathedral employee attempts to hang himself, a bullet is fired at Grindal's friend Canon Oglethorpe, and a cache of IRA arms turns up on consecrated ground.

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".
"You are just doing this to make me feel awful," said Lucy.
Her father looked at her kindly. "Not at all, my dear. I'm doing it because I want to find out the truth, and I can't exempt you from any enquiries I might make."

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?"
"Not with my leg, and with my shoe-lace flapping, I couldn't," replied Canon Oglethorpe. "Even if there were such a route." Behind Grindal's engaging sense of humour, there is a real determination to arrive at the truth.

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."
Dave Smart decided he had better humour the old man. "And this is what you told DCI Southwell?" he said.
"That is what I told him and I'm telling you now. The stonemasons are sure that the stone did not flake off naturally."
"It is better to leave the investigation to us, sir." And he refused Grindal's request for police protection for Oglethorpe.

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)
Sweet Death Come Softly tells how Pierre Fontaine, a small, spry Belgian confectioner, acknowledged international master of his trade, comes to York on New Year's Day to begin preparations for Recipe No. 179. Trials of the new brand of chocolate bar will cost Benn's of York millions, but its success could ensure their treasured independence. Four days into his product testing Fontaine disappears -- and almost all evidence of No. 179 with him. The Belgian was last seen inside the locked and guarded factory, but with, at first, no corpse to be found, initial fears of murder, or even suicide, turn to suspicion of large-scale industrial espionage.

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 Killings at Barley Hall starts with the discovery of the body of George Fellowes, a young archaeologist working on the site of Barley Hall, a mediaeval mansion under reconstruction in the centre of the ancient city of York. Was he pushed from the scaffolding by a violent colleague? And what was the significance of the pressure marks on the dead man's hand? The emergence of a hidden reliquary of immense value and the discovery of a previous murder at the great Hall in the time of Richard III become the salient factors in a murder hunt which is to keep Acting Detective Superintendent Robert Southwell on his toes.

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.
"From the coffer that stands in my master's parlour, where dost tha think? They're all out seeing the king and queen and Prince of Wales. It was easy."
"But what are thou going to do with them, Tom?"
"What dost tha think? I can get a horse and I'm going far enough so that no one will know either me or these jewels and there I will sell them. Then I'll come and fetch thee, sweetheart, and we'll go to live where nobody knows us." Now all this is meant to have been written by Sophie Beans, so perhaps it was meant to be stilted - but this does not make it any easier to read.

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)
Secrets of the Dead sees Bob Southwell surprisingly awaiting the arrival of his new boss (who had been described as arriving at the end of the previous book), so still acting as Detective Superintendent, although he, and indeed the whole of the police, only play a minimum part in this story.The dominant figure throughout is that of Chris Simmers who has just been released from twelve years in prison for the murder of his mother, a crime he cannot remember committing as it had allegedly happened when he was very drunk, having just celebrated his 21st birthday: "The neighbours," we are told, "wondered why he hadn't done it years before. The row of terraced houses was a short one, and they had all had the benefit of her raucous, vulgar voice, and shouted conversations, her opinions and have prying ways. They had had enough of it -- you couldn't call their lives their own -- and poor downtrodden Chris had obviously reached breaking point, had lashed out and put an end to it once and for all." Or had he? He comes out of prison determined to find out what had really happened.

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)
Death at the Dutch House is an oddity in so far as it goes right back to the time of the previous Detective Superintendent, so must have taken place before the events in the previous two books. Julia Bransby is appalled when Cherry Ducket-Penrose, the owner of the beautiful 17th-century Dutch House, decides to open her part of it to the public, but Julia and the other residents of the parts of it that has been converted into flats, eventually rally round and help tidy the place up. But then one of the Dutch House community is found brutally murdered, and a selection of her most valuable antiques is missing. Detective Chief Inspector Robert Southwell is assigned to the case. At first, he thinks the murderer must be someone from the outside, but he changes his mind as he discovers that not all is as it seems in the apparently respectable lives of the flat dwellers.

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."
"Please try," Adam said through his tears. "Please try to save him. Please try." It's all very sentimental - with hardly a thought for the dead woman.

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)
Dolls Don't Choose describes how Detective Chief Inspector Bob Southwell is far from pleased when his least favourite rival, Detective Supt Hallam, arrives as his new boss. His appointment only adds to the pressure Bob Southwell is under to solve the wave of attacks on women that are holding York in the grip of panic. When, after the first death, the attacks begin to centre on the University, Bob Southall has the crazy idea that Hallam may somehow be involved. Or is it so crazy? Meanwhile up at the university, beautiful,It is if enigmatic, blonde student Angela has become involved in the Women's Group, and the first murder acts as a focus for all her inner tension and insecurity, to the point in which is prepared to put herself in real danger.

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 author has her own very basic website (produced by her son) but there is liitle else about her on the web. Be careful not to confuse her with any other Barbara Whiteheads!

Please sign my GUEST BOOK. All comments, contributions (or corrections) welcomed!


Playing God cover
The first (above) and third (below) books in the series are those with the most clerical connections.
The Dean It Was That Died cover
Dolls Don't Choose cover
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.
Return to