Last week I reviewed the 4th book in Suzette Hill’s Reverend Oughterard series, Bones in High Places (2010) and this week I have read the 5th and final novel in the series, A Bedlam of Bones (2011). This comic crime series, which is set in the 1950s, is unusual for its anti-hero point of view narrative, as Oughterard in the first book of the series murders one of his overly amorous parishioners and the subsequent novels look at him coming to terms with what he has done, whilst also trying to avoid the subsequent problems this action brings him. The worry of finally being found out is forever present in his mind. Alternative points of view are also brought into these adventures through Oughterard’s cat and dog, Maurice and Bouncer, who are characterised beautifully. They share a love/hate relationship with each other and Hill has put a lot of thought into how they narrate certain events and perceive them. Maurice is typified by his more elaborate language, using words such as ‘braggadocio,’ whilst Bouncer is more down to earth employing more basic but not necessarily less intelligent language.
A Bedlam of Bones opens with Oughterard having qualms over his sister Primrose, an artist who is not above a spot of art forgery, doing a deal with someone they are fairly sure was the unmasked murderer from the previous book. This anxiety is only increased when Maud Tubbly Pole, a crime writer who wrote a novel based on the murder Oughterard committed, reveals worryingly disreputable prior knowledge of this person and their school teacher, Freddie Felter. Although it seems there are more problems on the horizon. Bishop Horace Clinker (Oughterard’s superior) and Nicholas Ingaza (a small time crook, who was kicked out of the same seminary Oughterard went to and who has subsequently been involving Oughterard in his crooked schemes due to knowing about his criminal secret), are both being blackmailed for a joint past indiscretion which in the 1950s would have been an indictable offence. This blackmailer is particularly malicious in his letter writing and signs them Donald Duck.
Being a vicar who is also a murderer, puts Oughterard in a unique position, he knows what is right and wrong, but due to his own acts he cannot hold the moral high ground. Both Clinker and Ingaza do not treat Oughterard that well, but nevertheless, Oughterard does not want to see them hounded by a blackmailer or publically stigmatised. Moreover, he has a growing concern that this blackmailer may ultimately turn on him. But who is the blackmailer? There are a number of options from both old and new characters to the series and as the story progresses, the tension and strain of the situation is increased. Yet the situation becomes more problematic when one of the potential candidates ends up murdered on Clinker’s doorstep. Who did it? Why did they do it? Has this death solved all their problems? Or will it add new problems, as Ingaza and Oughterard attempt to deal with the body?
When reading this story I thought I had figured out all of the mystery and was enjoying how Oughterard and his friends dealt with each new crisis. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find out I had some of it wrong. Moreover, as the novel was coming to a close I thought it was anticlimactic. But that was until I turned the next page…. Hill ends this series well and ironically, in keeping with the black comedy which pervades the series. Hill’s novels can be seen as light entertainment or as enjoyable quick one sitting reads. However, looking at the series as a whole I think that there are number of moments or points where the narrative gives you pause for thought and makes you think about morality and ethics, due to the moral or perhaps I should say immoral framework which underpins the series.
With this in mind I look forward to soon reading her new novel, The Primrose Pursuit, which came out this month and is an offshoot of the Oughterard series.