Julius Falconer Vicar of Sherburn

(creator: Julius Falconer)

The Vicar of Sherburn in the West Riding of Yorkshire in the 1720s (we are never told his name!) is, according to the author, "unassuming, a man of the soil, a good husband and father, honest with the reader and conscientious in his duties. He is to some extent based on the author's four-greats-grandfather, who was a country parson and whose diary, covering mainly the years 1726-1739, has been published." He is 42 years old when we meet him and has a "lively mind" but is "more comfortable with action than with rumination". He is the narrator throughout.

He is married to the ever-vigilant Jane (he sees no need to tell her about everything), and they have had eleven children, three of whom had died in infancy and six of whom are still living at home. He "takes his duties as a preacher very seriously" although his archdeacon refers to him as "a witless vacuous clodhopper" - but then he never had a good word to say about any of his clergy. He has no time for speculation about evil powers for "the devil and his angels are entities conjured up by the unschooled and the superstitious." He is "not at all mystical" and does not "expect to be carried aloft on angelic hands to see God face to face in an ecstatic blaze of light." He believes in prayer and duty to God, not in luck.

Juiius Falconer went to school in Leicestershire, studied in Italy and finally, after working as a translator, qualified as a teacher in Leeds. He then taught Religious Education and philosophy at schools in Cornwall and Perthshire. Now that he is retired he is able to divide his time between Yorkshire and rural France. His wife died many years ago but he has a married daughter. He began writing a long series of detective novels in 2009 using the cost-sharing publishing services of Pneuma Springs. The Bite of a Mad Dog (reviewed below) is one of them.

The Bite of a Mad Dog (2013)
The Bite of a Mad Dog is set in the summer of 1728 in the village of Sherburn in Yorkshire, with its handsome All Saints church, below which lies the site of the palace of the kings of Elmete. An apparent conspiracy to re-establish the sixth-century Ancient British kingdom of Elmete has worrying consequences for the hapless vicar, especially as commissioner of the peace Squire Hawley and magistrate Sir Ralph Gascoigne (whose malapropisms as when he refers to "smun-guggling villains" start to get tedious), are only too happy to leave all investigations to him and he ends up accused of gun-smuggling. Then he finds himself having to preside over a coronation for a new King of Elmete who never actually turns up. What is going on?

It's all written in a deliberately quirky style, but the plot involving the substitution of twelve muskets for a dead body in its coffin and the subsequent appearances and disappearances of both the muskets and the corpse seem too repititive, and the rather stilted dialogue also strains credibility as the vicar explains to the dead man's brother, "Listen to me, John. We shall never catch the perpetrators by shooting our mouths off around the village – if you'll pardon the phrase in the circumstances. We've got to proceed with the funeral as if it were your dear brother we were consigning to his last resting place. We then mount a watch on his supposed grave, and, when the villains who have desecrated his coffin with weapons of war return for their spoil, we shall have 'em. What do you say?"
"But my brother: what about my brother? All you seem to be concerned about – with all respect to your reverence – is catching twelve musketeers."
"Don't you see, they're the only ones who can lead us to Thomas' body. In the meantime, I take your point. I shall prosecute discreet enquiries to find out where the coffin stood from the moment the gentlewomen had washed the body and placed it in the coffin. Somewhere along the line, as sure as pullets is pullets, there's been a deal of funny business, and we shall penetrate it, or I'm not the vicar of Sherburn."

The historical background is not entirely convincing either as anachronisms do not seem to trouble the author, as when there is a reference to "a mole, an insider, an informer", not a term usually associated with the 1720s. However, there is a lively description of two of the vicar's young sons being "bled" - and for them at least the treatment seemed to work. There is some clumsy repitition as on p.102 (when we are given an unnecessary summary of that we have already read) that would have benefiited from the attention of an editor who might also have queried how it came about that the vicar's wife had no idea where her husband kept the church keys. And was the idea of giving us several different contemporary recipes for curing the bite of a mad dog really all that entertaining? Yet there is a verve and quiet humour in the narrative that, despite the absurdities, still manages to hold the interest.

Death by Aloe-Seed: A Country Parson's Singular Tale (2013)
Death by Aloe-Seed describes how, still in 1728, the 42-year-old (but still unnamed) hapless vicar of Sherburn in Elmete (parson and part-time farmer) again finds himself embroiled in a murder investigation, this time starting with the theft of some possibly cursed aloe-seeds, the pride and joy of the local draper. The vicar wanders off in pursuit of a one-eared footpad, a scarred man and an elusive pedlar, is arrested and tried for theft, thwarts a plot to murder the local miller and confronts a villainous highwayman, until by concentrating on rational solutions to the mystery, he finally succeeds in identifying the murderer.

It is not the world's most exciting plot and is beset with irrelevancies, such as a whole page devoted to a "delicate legal point" involving executors' entitlement to payment in an entirely different case, a detailed list of the payments the vicar makes to his creditors, and even a list of some of the books on his shelves! It is told with some gentle humour, as when he added references to his own "learning, meekness, polish, wide accomplishments and pastoral assiduity" in the hope that "If I repeat it often enough, it might become true." But the main joke in which the vicar repeatedly calls the highwayman One-Eared John instead of remembering his real name, One-Eared Dick, is repeated so often (every time they meet, in fact) that it soon fails to be funny and gets distinctly tedious.

The vicar is nothing if not down to earth. He knows all too well that his parishioners require practical help rather than heavenly adminitions: "Talk to them about death and resurrection, the Glorious Beyond, the need for repentance and restraint, and people just lose interest." The same is true of the book's final pages in which the author provides an annoying repitition of all that has happened so far as well as pages of possible explanations. But when something really dramatic occurs (the murderer is arrested), there is no description of this but we jump immediately to being told that he "was tried at the next asssizes in York, found guilty and hanged." And that's all. This is a real let-down. It illustrates one of the hazards of self-publishing.

It all ends with the highly improbable reformation of not one but two highwaymen: "God's grace had worked a miracle - two miracles - and the guileless and honey-mouthed vicar of Sherburn had yet again stared down the forces of evil that seek to engulf this fragile civilisation we call Christian Britain." But the plot needs more than gentle irony and some amusing sketches of 18th century village life to keep it going.

The author has his own website.

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


The Bite of a Mad Dog cover
The cover looks very cluttered.
Return to