Source: Review Copy (Allison and Busby)
In the last couple of weeks I have read a couple of novel’s from Hill’s Oughterard series, which is set in the 1950s called Bones in High Places (2010) and A Bedlam of Bones (2011), which looks at how a vicar copes with life after murdering a really annoying parishioner, aided by his loyal cat and dog, Maurice and Bouncer, who also narrate parts of the novels. The Primrose Pursuit (2016), can be viewed as an offshoot and as a continuation of this series, as it sees the return of Maurice and Bouncer, who are now being taken care of by Oughterard’s artist sister, Primrose, who although not a murderer is not above a spot of art forgery.
The action of the story takes place in Lewes in Sussex and the novel is comprised of letters and diary extracts making this like the Oughterard novels, an epistolary one, a form Hill is very adept at using. However, a key difference in the narration between the two series is that in the Oughterard novels the narration is carried out by the vicar and his two pets, whereas in The Primrose Pursuit, there are 5 different narrators and it is only really nearer the end that Primrose’s voice begins to dominate.
The novel commences with Primrose acting strangely, taking against the new Latin teacher, Hubert Topping at the local boarding school, primarily based on her guts telling her that he is a phoney and a fake. However, some earwigging at a party hosted by Topping seems to give her some grounds for her instinctive dislike of the man and Nicholas Ingaza’s (a small-time crook who roped Oughterard in the other novels into various dubious escapades due to knowing his criminal secret) previous acquaintance with Topper, makes his villainy a certainty in Primrose’s eyes.
Alongside this central mystery in the novel there is also the subplot of Maurice and Bouncer coming to terms with their new owner and home and the beginning of the novel is quite funny due to the misunderstandings between Primrose and her new pets. Moreover, Maurice and Bouncer’s interactions with the other animals they meet such as Primrose’s chinchillas (who are not big fans of Bouncer), play a much bigger part in the novel than in the Oughterard novels. Maurice and Bouncer are much more integral to the mystery plot in this book than in say Bones in High Places or A Bedlam of Bones, uncovering a crucial
element of the story albeit accidently far ahead of the human characters, and Maurice and Bouncer also in turn enlist the help of other animals around them. I enjoyed the much wider social world Hill puts into this book for Maurice and Bouncer and the way they express themselves reminded me of Aardman’s short comic animated film Creature Comforts. Furthermore their own friendship seems to soften in this novel with both exhibiting more vulnerability. At the start of the story Maurice predicts that their lives will be quieter at Primrose’s, but this hope is very short lived when Primrose stumbles across a body with its head severed at the local pond one night…
Despite initially thinking it was Topping, it soon turns out the victim was the maths teacher at the boarding school. Although concerned for her own safety Primrose decides against telling the police what she knows for a variety of reasons and instead tries to ferret out proof of Topping’s guilt, which initially seems a farfetched notion but soon becomes a much more likely idea. A missing flower, suspicious car rides and nocturnal cycling all point to Topping’s guilt. But who can Primrose really trust? Authority does not automatically equate to moral integrity in Hill’s novels and it seems Ingaza, crooked though he may be, is the only one she can turn to for help as she gets deeper and deeper into the mystery. But is this something she will live to regret? After all everything comes with a price with Ingaza. Although as the end of the novel approaches it seems living to regret something would be a fine thing indeed and it becomes a matter of whether like the proverbial cat, Primrose’s curiosity will have a detrimental effect to her own life.
As with some of the Oughterard novels, the denouement of The Primrose Pursuit holds an ironic twist, providing an unconventional form of justice which corresponds with the morally unorthodox world Hill creates in these novels. I really enjoyed this novel and I valued seeing Primrose from her own point of view, rather than just her brother’s and in fact I think as a consequence she is much less assured in this novel. The world of animals is well developed and expanded in this novel, without overwhelming the plot and from a characterisation and relationship stance this novel has surprising depths. I hope there will be further novels in this series.