The Rev Harry Westerham

(Creator: Victor L Whitechurch)

Victor L Whitechurch
The Crime at Diana's Pool cover
The Rev Harry Westerham (usually just called Westerham. No-one seems to call him Harry except his father-in-law to be) was about 30 years old and was the Vicar of Coppleswick, a village 6 miles from the town of Sydbury that was some 40 miles from London. He owed his promotion to his assiduous work as a young curate in a large town parish where he had made a name for himself. His Bishop had recommended him as "capable, a gentleman, and possessed of a stock of good all round common sense - which is more than all my clergy have". He had been in Coppleswick for a little over a year. He was "not very tall, squarely built, clean shaven, with a good-humoured, pleasant face - dark brown eyes with an occasional twinkle in them". He seems quite well-off, as he offers to make someone a loan of £500, a lot of money in those days.

He was "an energetic, capable parish priest, a good organiser, and a plain, sensible preacher" and "a particularly shrewd and capable man. And it was no idle boast of his that he had made a habit of observation - many of his parishioners little guessed how closely and clearly he had summed them up by observing those ordinary idiosyncracies which escape the notice of most people. He was also a man who could be deeply interested in many things quite apart from his professional calling, and chiefly in problems which concerned humanity." So he was very ready to help the police in probing mysteries affecting those around him.

As his girl friend (playing the part of a fortune teller at his church fete) told him: "He had a strong will, a logical mind ... was possessed of a strict regard for the truth, had a keen sense of humour ... was a most observant person, and had a habit of doggedly getting to the root of things and overcoming obstacles". Atogether he makes a quite engaging character.

Victor L(orenzo) Whitechurch (1868-1933) trained to be a priest at Chichester Theological College. He became vicar at St Michael's, Blewbury in Oxfordshire, and was subsequently Chaplain to the Bishop of Oxford and an honorary canon of Christ Church, before becoming Rural Dean of Aylesbury in 1918. He was the author of over 26 books, (including an autobiography and several detective novels) and many short stories, many of them featuring railways. He may be largely forgotten today, but he did create one memorable detective clergyman, the young vicar Westerham in The Crime at Diana's Pool, as described below. Unfortunately, he never took the opportunity of developing the character in later books, but used instead a variety of other more unlikely clerics who are of little interest today.

The Crime at Diana's Pool (1926)
The Crime at Diana's Pool is set in the little village of Coppleswick where the Vicar, Mr Westerham, and Major Challow, the Chief Constable, are among those attending a garden party hosted by a newcomer, Francis Nayland. The rain is pouring down, so the Vicar and Major take a short cut when departing, and come across a body in the pool. At first they think the man must have pitched headlong into the water. Then they see the handle of a knife in his back. Although strangely wearing the green uniform of a visiting bandsman, it turns out to be the body of their host. It leads the police to a long and complicated investigation, with sinister connections to past events in the little State of San Miguel in South America, but with Vicar Westerham's tactful help, the wrongly self-confident Detective Sergeant Ringwood is finally able to sort out what happened. "You ought to have been one of us, sir," he thanks him.

It is a rather dated story with the Major adjusting his monacle and saying things like, "Jove,though, one of 'ems a foreigner, apparently, even if he isn't a pink-eyed white rabbit". Or ''It's deuced hot - what!' By the end, you're almost convinced that some people really spoke like that.

Then there's a Spaniard who at first speaks like this: "I onderstand ze Eenglish, but I spik 'im not well. Pardon!" But a few pages later he can explain: "It is all very strange. Of one thing I am certain. Manoel Garcia did not kill Señor Nayland, but I know no more. Señor Westerham, excuse me, but I rerturn to London." It seems odd too that it is a Superintendent of Police, no less, who himself takes down a suspect's statement in shorthand!

There are references to somewhere out East called Corea. Could this be the twenties name for Korea? And Diana, Westerham's girl-friend to be, is described as "four-and-twenty, essentially a type of the English country girl. She played a good game of golf and tennis, rode to hounds, drove a car, and was game for a ten-mile walk over the hills when the mood took her .... Also she was, if not brilliant, a well-informed girl, and had had the advantage of being educated at a school modelled on the lines of a public school, with nothing 'finicky' in its atmosphere." It is interesting how much such descriptions seem to tell us about the author, and the time in which he lived.

The author explains in a foreword: "To begin with I had no plot. When I had written the first chapter I did not know why the crime had been committed, who had done it or why it was done. Then, with an open mind, I picked up the clues which seemed to show thermselves, and found, as I went on, their bearing on the problem. In many respects the story seemed to work itself out to that inevitable conclusion about which, to begin with, I was in entire ignorance." He argues that this is more like real life because "in reality the solver of a problem in crimonology has to begin at the beginning, without knowing the end, working it out from clues concerning which he does not recognise the full bearing at first." The result here, though, is a rather creaking plot.

But nevertheless the story is interesting to read and the period atmosphere is entertaining. Vicar Westerham himself ("I'm not a crime expert .... but a man who always wants to get at the reasons of things") is an intriguing character, who makes a note of "every detail and incident that he had observed or remembered in connection with the crime". He is realistically drawn, and not at all the sort of person to "emulate those creations of fiction who prove themselves, generally, far superior to the police, and are in the habit of discovering clues which the professional consistently overlooks". Even so, Sergeant Ringwood won't always answer his questions: "I've been very glad of your help, and of some of your suggestions, but on certain matters, at this stage, we are bound to hold our tongue". In the end, though, Westerham reassures him, "Whatever I have discovered you shall have the credit of. That's only fair".

It is a great pity that the author did not bring back Westerham to reappear in later books. He could have become one of the major clerical detectives - much more interesting than many of those medieval nuns!

There is a brief article, mostly about his autobiography, here, and a list of his books with some brief information about him in the Wikipedia site.

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This was the 1986 reprint of a book originally published in 1926.
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