Villainy at Vespers (1949) by Joan Cockin

Today’s read is January’s choice for the book group I am a part of and yes it was another suggestion I made. Given how well my last suggestion went (it did not go well readers), I was a bit worried about this one, as Joan Cockin was a new author to all of us, so she was a bit of an unknown quantity. However, my anxieties quietened a little before I started reading it, due to John Norris’ glowing review for the title. Moreover, having now read the book and very much enjoyed it myself, I can at least conclude that one person in book group loved it! It is a sign of a good book that despite being longer than my usual reads, I flew through it in two days.

Moonstone Press edition of Villainy at Vespers by Joan Cockin. Church window shape is used as the border. Inside the shape are trees and a sinister looking tower by moonlight. This image is in black and white.
Villainy at Vespers by Joan Cockin

Whilst the reprint edition by Galileo Publishing does not have an introduction, the back cover provides some useful biographical details concerning the author:‘Joan Cockin (in reality Edith Joan Burbidge Macintosh, PhD, CBE) was one of the very first women to be a British diplomat. Brought up in America, educated at Oxford, and married in India – her career cut short, as was then the rule for women, by marriage there to a Scottish banker. She was part of the UK delegation at the founding of both NATO and the Council of Europe. Joan went on to have a second career as a trail-blazing consumer champion, co-founding the National Consumer Council and the Scottish Consumer Council, acting as Legal Ombudsman for Scotland, founding and chairing the Insurance Ombudsman service, and serving on a Royal Commission.’In the similar vein to writers such as Joan Coggin and Harriet Rutland, who wrote less than a handful of mysteries each, Cockin only published two more: Curiosity Killed the Cat (1947) and Deadly Earnest (1952), which I am pleased are being reprinted this Autumn by Galileo Publishers.

Synopsis

‘The lost art of brass rubbing, crooked antiques dealers, and smuggling all figure in this tale of an unidentified man found naked and ritually murdered on the altar in a Cornish church. Inspector Cam, on vacation with his family, is asked to help out the local police in this superbly plotted and literary mystery novel. Joan Cockin has created a perfect microcosm of the Cornish village in Villainy at Vespers (1949) and delights in populating the town of Trevelley with all manner of eccentric locals and oddball tourists. Apart from gregarious and engaging Betsey Rowan and her entertaining gang of students, there is a cast of lively and eccentric characters. These include: spinsterish Miss Cornthwaite who is nearly done in by the ruthless villains in an astonishing sequence along a cliff side; Red Cowdrey, a cantankerous old man with a reputation for smuggling and other unscrupulous business; John Briarley, a visiting historian and antiquarian, obsessed with getting the best possible rubbing from the Pollpen brass and many others. Leading the investigation is a nearly incompetent and irascible local policeman named Honeywether who enlists the help of Cam, though it is mostly the promise of free beer that decides the vacationing copper to join the investigation. Together Cam and Honeywether uncover the identity of the naked corpse, connect a spate of thefts of artwork and artifacts from local churches to the murder, and unravel a web of deceit and cover-ups…’

Overall Thoughts

After my less than great previous read the exposition of this mystery was very reassuring in its quality. Cockin does a great job at drawing you into the story and she does this in several ways. To begin with there is the unexpected first sentence: ‘Human Sacrifice – primitive physical sacrifice – has long been out of favour in England.’ I found this quite an arresting opening sentence, as it delivers a modicum of understatement, and it is just a more abstract and left field approach to kicking off the story. If you open a classic crime novel, written in the traditional form, then this is not the sort of the sentence you expect the narrative to commence with – and in this case it is not a bad thing, since it makes you want to read on.

Although written in the late 1940s the author captures a lightness of touch which we find in Golden Age Detective fiction at its peak in the 1930s. Moving on from the opening sentence Cockin provides a summary of the primary crime to be investigated from the get-go. There is no hanging around and the way she sums it up adds intrigue to the reading experience:

‘A considerable stir was, therefore, created when the body of a man – naked and with his throat cut – was discovered upon the altar of St. Poltruan’s Church in the village of Trevelley. Murder – and from the beginning it was assumed that not even the most theatrically-minded suicide would make his way without clothes into church, lie upon the altar and cut his throat with a pruning knife – murder, then, is at least a diversion from the grim perplexities of the daily news.’

Although I should say that despite the death being of a grisly nature this aspect is not over emphasised in the book, so I wouldn’t worry about that if you are not keen on gruesome murders.

The writer then further engages us in the story by the way she depicts (tongue in cheek I expect) the less admirable ways humans consume negative news events and given how people can ghoulishly respond today I don’t think the modern reader can sit in judgement:

‘Anything which happens in Cornwall is news and this promised to be a good family murder – instructive for the children, since the British press on this first day was already plying its readers with learned reports on the historical and social significance of sacrilege and sacrifice, and yet entertaining for less seriously minded adults.’

The changing position of the church in British society is a minor background theme to the story and it makes an early appearance in Cockin’s exploration of how the public perceive the murders in light of their ecclesiastical location:

‘Not that the average Briton was unmoved. The combination of brutal violence with sacrilege made the crime excitingly repellent. Non-church goers were particularly aroused. On suburban trains they said to each other that if this was what the Church of England was coming to it was just as well that they had given up regular attendance.’

The story then moves from the general to the specific as we see a guest at the inn in Trevelley respond to the event as reported in the newspaper. Yet even this scene is not bereft of amusing social details, as we see a British holidaymaker’s annoyance at someone jumping the breakfast queue (a serious crime indeed!). The guest we focus on is John Briarley who is a demobbed soldier and a brass rubbing fanatic. It is through him that we make the acquaintance of the holidaying policeman, Inspector Cam. Although it is these two characters who kick off the story, I would say Briarley recedes into the background at times, as we spend more time with Cam and the local policeman named Honeyweather who is in charge of the case and is keen to turn Cam’s family vacation into a busman’s holiday. Whilst I was surprised by Briarley’s reduced role in the book, I don’t think this was a bad decision, as he is used quite effectively later in the plot. Villainy at Vespers by no means has a small cast of characters, yet Cockin does an excellent job of making it easy to follow who is who. I think perhaps this is because the introductions are spaced out and because as Inspector Cam moves in and out of the crime scene and interacts with various locals and holidaymakers, in a relaxed manner, people seem to be drawn to giving him their background and life stories. However, I don’t think this aspect is overdone or slows down the plot.

When not talking to suspects or witnesses, Cam also spends quite a bit of time with Honeyweather and I found their conversations to be very effective in engagingly telling us a lot about the timings of the crime and who relevant suspects might be. Moreover, as new information is brought out, their further conversations help to shape readers’ ideas of what might be going on. There are some initial difficulties in identifying the victim and the source of the answer to this conundrum is unexpected. Once the identify is uncovered, the answer opens up interesting avenues of investigation and raises a lot of questions about how the victim may tie up with other things going on in the area. The crime scene itself is not straight forward either, such as where the blood stains are and where they are absent. This adds to the puzzle of the mystery, as do subsequent deaths and near deaths. One of these is delightfully foreshadowed in a ghoulish way at the close of chapter 1: ‘And so the little man wandered off towards his personal disaster.’

One of the biggest pluses of this read was Cockin’s writing style, which I found was one very much to be savoured. It reminded me of both Dorothy L. Sayers’ 1930s novels and Margaret Kennedy The Feast (1950), which I read at Christmas and very much enjoyed. Hobbies such as brass rubbing and themes such as smuggling are involved in the novel, but I was relieved that information on this is kept to a minimum and does not get in the way of the plot. In that sense this book is not like Sayers’ The Nine Tailors (1934), for instance. The Bookseller wrote of Cockin’s book that ‘the detail is brilliant’ and I would agree this is one of its strengths. Like Kennedy and Sayers, Cockin is able to enthral you with the everyday details of people’s lives as well as tell the mystery plot.

Whilst one character likens Inspector Cam to Gervase Fen, the humour in this mystery is more low key and gentle. For example, here is part of a conversation between Cam and his children:

“And I have no intention of showing you gruesome sights when you ought to be down by the seashore building sand-castles. This is no way to spend a holiday. Bothering your heads about death and murder when you ought to be out in the fresh air and sunshine.”

“We can do both at the same time,” reasoned one, but Cam made a threatening gesture.

“I don’t want any lawyers in my family,” he exclaimed.

The life-like nature of Cockin’s characters is interestingly juxtaposed with this passage in which Cam muses upon the suspects he has been dealing with:

‘He had been conscious for some time of a tendency on his part to treat the case as thought it were a stage plot with all the traditional cast types. There was the old Rector, just as narrow and self-centred as every stage Rector must be (unless he is soft, silly and absent-minded). There was the self-sacrificing Rector’s wife; the handsome, aimless curate; the maladjusted ex-serviceman; the pretty ingenue American; the wicked old smuggler; the Covent Garden shopkeeper (a humorous part that); the fanatical Verger (who might get a humorous part in the last Act); the local bad girl and all the rest of the tried, true and rather tired character parts. Maybe they were really like this, Cam bullied himself, but had he bothered to find out? Hadn’t he just taken it for granted that the Rector was a rector and a curate a curate and a smuggler a smuggler, and allowed all his perceptions and prejudices to form his idea of what the individuals concerned were actually like?’

It was interesting looking back at this section once I had finished the story, as not all of Cam’s initial stereotyped predictions came true, as some of the suspects/witnesses go on to operate outside of the confines their positions usually hold in fiction, and I think this novel overall shows how well you can deploy character types without them being paper thin.

The denouement is unusual in that we have a series of scenes, each of which make you think that this is the finale, but it is not – instead each scene adds another piece of the jigsaw puzzle. This way of structuring the ending reminded me of this passage from 1 Kings 19 verses 11-12:

“Go out and stand before me on the mountain,” the Lord told him. And as Elijah stood there, the Lord passed by, and a mighty windstorm hit the mountain. It was such a terrible blast that the rocks were torn loose, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire there was the sound of a gentle whisper.’ (NLT Translation)

The reader during the ending of this book might find that the most drama is to be had from the smaller incidences, rather than the louder or more outwardly showy ones.

The final solution is quite complicated, as it involves the actions of a lot of characters, some of which are unintentional and non-criminal and cause the real culprits to change their plans. I am in two minds about the solution. Part of me wonders if I would have preferred more of a one man band sort of murder. This is a solution which requires a bit too much explaining and this is a key reason why the story did not get a full 5/5 from me. However, I had so much fun reading and pleasure reading this book that I am keenly looking forward to the next reprints in the autumn.

Rating: 4.5/5

7 comments

  1. Thank you for such a carefully-considered assessment. I too very much enjoyed it, although I found it a bit difficult to get into to it, despite the fun opening. It was one of my top three reads in 2022.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. So glad you enjoyed this,Kate. You even quoted the same passage that I found uproariously funny – the bit where Cam is negotiating with his children and they say “we can do both at once” and he says “I don’t want any lawyers in the family.” We really are of like minds. I wonder how the rest of your book club responded to this book? You say “At least one person” enjoyed the book which makes me think that it was not popular with the rest of your group. True?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sorry the past tense in that sentence is misleading, I should have put at least one person will have enjoyed it, as we haven’t actually had book group yet. The sentence was based more on past experience where I have been keen on a book but no one else has.

      Like

  3. I purchased this recently in electronic form but unlike yourself, I am savoring it, reading slowly but enjoying, reading over again, and enjoying over again. A lightness of touch, a sort of unspoken recognition that one is playing “The Great Game” as JDC called it, is, when combined with a genuine puzzle, the ne plus ultra of mystery writing. But I can’t rate it because I have not finished it.

    Liked by 1 person

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