As I write this the clock is just about to strike midnight and it will be Christmas Eve meaning that I have run out of time for this year’s festive reads project. While I had big plans – I have a full stack of about a dozen titles I was hoping to read – I only actually managed to get around to reading three in full. Still, it’s quality not quantity that counts and I am happy to say that Murder at the Old Vicarage is a really excellent read if rather more Pogues than Slade in tone.
The book begins by introducing us to the Reverend George Wheeler, a vicar who is dealing with a crisis of faith (or perhaps midlife). While his wife Marian is comfortable living the life of a vicar’s wife, he only became a priest out of a sense of familial expectation rather than any great passion or sense of a calling and does not really believe in what he is doing.
He has two other, more immediate problems facing him. One is that he finds himself attracted to one of his parishioners whose child is a member of the local playgroup. The more pressing one is that his abusive son-in-law Graham has followed his daughter Joanna to their home and is seeking a reconciliation. By the end of Christmas Eve Graham is found dead in a bed in their home, apparently beaten to death with a poker.
The novel is the second title in Jill McGown’s Lloyd and Hill series though if, like me, you haven’t read the first you will have no problem catching up. Inspector Lloyd is having an affair with Judy Hill, his Detective Sergeant, who works with him on this case. He is divorced but she remains married, creating emotional complications in their working relationship. Rather than distracting from the story or acting as a plot filler, these interactions integrate well into the story and complement some of the themes and ideas raised and discussed in the case itself making for an even richer read.
While my description of the plot emphasizes issues within character relationships I do want to stress that this is really an excellent example of a puzzle mystery. Puzzle Doctor calls it a ‘proper mystery plot’ and I quite agree. It is all fair play and I felt McGown sets up the solution very cleverly, developing a really challenging crime scene. Certainly psychology is important to understand the case but I think that ultimately it is secondary to identifying and resolving some of the contradictions in the physical evidence.
Some of those problems with the evidence are directly flagged early in the investigation such as the question of why someone would hit a corpse after death had occurred, others are just implied. There are even a few problems that don’t occur to the detectives until very late in the case though the observant reader may pick up on them.
I have previously described how my ideal mystery is one in which all of the clues are there in plain sight and yet the solution still eludes me and this is a perfect example of that. It is a solution that feels completely clear and logical once it is given and I didn’t doubt any element of it.
My admiration for the puzzle is all the greater considering that McGown tells her story with a very small cast of characters, almost all of whom are suspects. Those characters are each given credible motivations to want Graham dead and it appears that each possessed the means and opportunity meaning that no one can really be eliminated from the investigation until close to the end of the novel.
McGown’s approach to developing her characters goes beyond simply supplying them with a motive as she explores aspects of their lives exposing the reasons behind the seemingly straightforward character behaviors. I appreciated the effort she puts in to exploring how they interact with and feel about each other. In nearly every case those relationships are more complex than they initially seem which made them seem more dimensional and realistic.
This empathic approach to characterization can also be seen in the novel’s handling of its domestic abuse plot thread. Though some aspects of the way this is addressed by other characters are clearly of their time, I was struck by the degree of thought McGown put in to depicting how this has affected character relationships and contributes to some tensions within the family, not to mention how it affects Joanna’s feelings towards the detectives who raise the issue with her with little sensitivity or understanding.
It is that attention to developing empathy for her characters and the situations they find themselves in here that made the novel feel a rich and rewarding read. Though some of the issues raised are upsetting I think the author handles them with appropriate empathy and a desire to understand what drives her characters. It all makes for an impressive, if not perfect read and while it is certainly on the darker side of festive crime fiction in terms of its depiction of domestic violence I think it is certainly very effective.
This book was first published under the title Redemption in the UK.