I was a little anxious about starting Bones in High Places (2010), it having been a number of years since I read the previous three books in the series: A Load of Old Bones (2007), Bones in the Belfry (2008) and Bone Idle (2009). However, the opening chapters allayed these fears as I quickly got to grips with the series again and its central characters. For those new to the books it takes place in the 1950s and the general premise of the series is that Rev. Francis Oughterard murders an overly amorous parishioner called Mrs Fotherington. Through the help of Maurice and Bouncer, a cat and dog who he ends up having to take care of he manages to avoid arrest. However, the subsequent books in the series are adventures fuelled by the consequences of this initial crime, with further illegal activities occurring, though not all by Oughterard. Morality in this series is a complex and murky subject with readers ironically feeling the most sympathy for Oughterard who spends a lot of his time being pushed around. This sympathy is also possible as he became almost an accidental murderer out of exasperation, as opposed to one who premeditates their crimes for gain. A key feature of this series is that the narrative is told by three characters: Oughterard, Maurice and Bouncer, though mostly by the former. Some readers may be anxious that narrating animals must mean this book is a “cosy” crime novel. However, this is not the case as the use of animal narrators is mainly used for comic effect and gives an alternative perspective on events and provides a different way of looking at humans and human behaviour from an “outsider’s” point of view. Maurice and Bouncer are also of interest in their own right being much comedy and laughter with their opposing personalities and pride in their own species.
This instalment of the Oughterard series sees the vicar being cajoled into visiting his murder victim’s French property, which much to his annoyance she left to him in her will. He is being forced into doing this by Nicholas Ingaza, who knows his criminal secret and who uses this knowledge to further his own less than honest enterprises. Nicholas is keen to check out Fotherington’s property as it is rumoured to have had Nazis gold buried there during German occupation in WW2. But from the outset Oughterard is nervous about the plan, namely because it seems his superior, Bishop Horace Clinkers, along with his wife and sister in law are going to the same area for their holiday, a situation which is potentially problematic considering Clinkers knows Nicholas and his nefarious ways.
Despite Oughterard’s reservations the planned trip goes ahead, with him and Nicholas also being joined by Primrose, Oughterard’s sister, an artist who is not above a spot of art forgery. Two unexpected members of the group are Maurice and Bouncer who manage to sneak their way across to France. This of course is a minor hiccup in the plan compared with what follows including two gentlemen who trail the treasure hunters and who seem to know a lot more about Oughterard than they ought to. What are their intentions? Avoiding Clinkers was always going to be an unlikely situation, but Clinkers seems to bring trouble in his wake as his host (a man obsessed with a religious hermit and his vegan practices) is soon found murdered. But who did it? Maurice and Bouncer based on past experiences wonder if Oughterard has had another “turn,” but the human characters turn their attentions to those closest the victim, not least the now very merry widow. Oughterard and his compatriots are keen to keep a low profile but will events find them out their old and new secrets? In keeping with the style of the novel (see below) justice is balanced against practical needs and personal cost, which corresponds with the alternative moral standards this series works upon.
In style I found this novel to share some elements with the picaresque novel, which originated in Spain, which usually involves ‘a first person narrative, relating the adventures of a rogue or lowborn adventurer’ (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2015). This novel is in the first person which corresponds with the first part of this definition, however, some reading this may think the similarities end with the second half. I admit the vicar is not your typical ‘rogue or lowborn adventurer,’ however like this character type, Oughterard does spend a lot of his time using his and others’ wits to avoid his criminal secret coming out. This gives the series an adventurist or ‘episodic’ (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2015) structure, another component of the picaresque novel, as the main characters tend to react to events or new crises, rather than do much pre-planning to prevent them happening in the first place. Furthermore, I think the disparity between the vicar and the archetypal rogue or adventurer is what gives the series some of its comedy. As suggested earlier this novel along with the others in the series has rather questionable morality, which also ties into the picaresque genre. The picaresque novel is also known for its ‘social satire’ (Manning, 1979: 182) and I think this is also found in Hill’s novels as Maurice and Bouncer to an extent make fun of and point out human foibles, but overall in the stories, particularly Bones in High Places, moral and social hypocrisy, in characters who should know better such as Clinkers, is also highlighted. Returning back to the idea of sympathising with Oughterard, I think this idea also shares common ground with the picaresque novel as the central character in such novels ‘struggles for existence in a hostile and chaotic world’ (Manning, 1979: 182). Oughterard may not be starving or in dire poverty but he does struggle against a lot and in fact his initial murderous act is rooted in his failure to cope with his social duties as a vicar and in his need for a peaceful and quiet life. Of course his act of murder prevents this desired life, not that this stops him from still trying to achieve it.
Overall I really enjoyed the narrative role Maurice and Bouncer had and their relationship with each other is enjoyable and amusing to read. However, I was disappointed that the animals had a much smaller role in this story in comparison to the first three novels. The comedy of the work is strong throughout and Hill has an engaging narrative style. My reason for a slightly lower rating was partially due to Maurice and Bouncer’s more observatory role in the book, but also because I felt the plot though dramatic in parts needed a more pervasive sense of suspense.
Manning, H. (1979). The Picaresque Novel: A Protean Form. College Literature. 6 (3), pp. 182-204.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2015). Picaresque Novel. Available: http://www.britannica.com/art/picaresque-novel. Last accessed 19/02/2016.