Originally published in 1932
The American edition was published as Clerical Error that same year
The Reverend Mr. Pardicott is struck by the idea that he should kill one of his parishioners, Colonel Cargoy. He sets about trying to devise a method by which he can eliminate him and finds his answer in a book of poisons...
Those of you who listened to my appearance on one of the very early episodes of the In GAD We Trust podcast will be aware that another novel by Anthony Rolls, Family Matters, was largely responsible for my starting this blog. It also was the book that I credit as piquing my interest in inverted crime stories – an interest that you could fairly describe as having transformed into a fully-formed obsession.
Today’s post is not about that book. I will, no doubt, eventually get around to writing about that book in more detail though I feel I ought to save it for one of the big landmark posts. Instead I decided to read and write about Rolls’ first criminous novel which, depending on whether you read the British or American editions is either The Vicar’s Experiments or Clerical Error.
Now, before I go much further I should make it clear that this book is sadly long out of print. As you may expect it is rather expensive to acquire – I found that the American edition is cheaper but even that set me back $50. If this book interests you enough to search it out I strongly suggest looking for both titles and keep an eye on it appearing in some listings as by C. E. Vulliamy (Rolls’ actual name).
Okay, so that is more than enough introduction – what is the book about?
The Vicar’s Experiments introduces us to the Reverend Mr. Pardicott who presides over a small rural parish. He is in the middle of a meeting with Colonel Cargoy, a busybody who makes it his business to object to every proposal on the parish council. Pardicott is enduring the conversation when he is struck by the idea that he should kill the old soldier:
Up to a quarter past three, Mr. Pardicott might have been described as the gentlest of rural clergymen; at twenty minutes past three he was a criminal of the most dangerous kind. In a dizzy moment of revelation he saw that he had been chosen by the Inscrutable Purpose to be the destroyer of Colonel Cargoy.The Vicar’s Experiments, Chapter One
Those seeking a detailed psychological portrait of the murderer will likely be disappointed with the treatment Rolls gives to motive. In the short passage quoted above we see Pardicott snapping as an idea occurs to him he simply cannot or will not shake. He appears to view himself as an instrument acting under some sort of divine instruction and much of what follows seems to only confirm that idea to him.
We do soon see though that Pardicott does have at least one other motivation. Although he himself is married, he has a growing attachment to Cargoy’s much younger wife. Pardicott does not focus on this and indeed, his interest in the experiments he will start to conduct seems to outgrow these beginnings, but they are at least there and I think it is a more satisfying explanation than his simply being mad.
Once Pardicott gets the idea of murder in his head he then sets out to figure out how he will accomplish his deed. Though Pardicott’s motivations for murder are not particularly complex, I found it interesting to follow him as he devised and brought about his plan. The method he decides on is quite novel and while scientifically complex, explained well. Before long the parish has one fewer resident and the question becomes what will happen next. If you are in any doubt, I would invite you to consider the original British title for a clue…
Published just a year after Iles’ enormously influential Malice Aforethought, there do seem to be some similarities between the two works. Both are set in the countryside and strike broadly humorous tones, making light of some pretty dark ideas. Each features someone in a profession traditionally held in esteem behaving badly, involve obscure poisons and in both cases sexual desire is at least a partial motivation for murder.
In spite of those similarities I think it would be a mistake to think The Vicar’s Experiments a derivative work. While psychology is a factor in both books, Rolls emphasizes his own belief that murder is almost always committed by the insane. Iles’ Dr. Bickleigh was clearly a man in control of his faculties, choosing to apply them to a dark purpose. Pardicott has become seduced by an idea that compels him to act and everything he sees appears to reinforce that he is acting in accordance with Providence.
Where much of Malice Aforethought is spent getting to a point where Bickleigh is able to commit the crime, Rolls dispenses of Cargoy early in the narrative. As a consequence of this, much more time is spent exploring what happens after the murder and how the local community responds.
Rolls also places far more importance on the detection of the crime, albeit while employing a rather ineffective sleuth. This investigation is not particularly rigorous, in large part because the person carrying it out is a man of pretty limited imagination and ability. The reader will likely identify multiple loose ends and clues that might point the sleuth in Pardicott’s direction – the question is whether they will notice them and, if so, what they will do.
Rolls is able to sustain much of the lively pacing and work in some humorous moments in the early part of the investigation. One of my favorites is a sequence involving discussion of church architecture which is done very well, featuring some amusing turns of phrase.
There is a definite shift of pace and tone however in the final few chapters of the book. These feel quite noticeably slower than what has gone before and the comedic elements largely disappear. This is understandable given the turn of events in those chapters of the novel and yet it does seem quite sudden and, in my opinion, it is not wholly successful.
I think that endings are often a problem with the more comedic inverted stories. If they were successful there needs to be some form of justice and yet it is hard to provide that while keeping the laughs coming. Those who are able to do it usually manage this by making that moment come quickly with an explosive, ironical reveal. This is part of what makes Malice Aforethought such a memorable read.
The Vicar’s Experiments sustains its comedic tone much longer and more successfully than most. It captures a rural community quite well and there are some very amusing observations and commentaries in the narration. One of my favorites isn’t really a gag at all in the usual sense but rather a sort of in-joke with complaints about the dreary church architecture of Lewis Vulliamy (the author’s grandfather – a fact hidden by the use of the Rolls pseudonym).
I appreciated that the characters are all pretty colorful and distinctive. There are some amusing observations about several of those in professional roles (some of the sharpest relates to the country doctor). On the other hand, the women suffer from not being given much to do and Pardicott’s wife feels largely peripheral to much of the story.
In spite of these flaws, I felt that The Vicar’s Experiments was a really entertaining read. If, like me, you are a fan of Rolls’ Family Matters I think you will find this enjoyable and worth your time. I found it consistently amusing and was impressed by how that tone was sustained for most of the book. The murder plot uses some clever ideas, some of which seem quite inventive, and while the investigation feels quite bumbling in comparison the book remains readable right until the end.
The Verdict: Consistently amusing and well observed. Only the final few chapters underwhelm but the journey to that point is witty and entertaining.