Saturday, October 13, 2018

Poisoned Apple: A Taste of Power (1966), by W. J. Burley

"But are the police the best people to investigate a thing of this sort?...I was thinking of Dr. Pym...."
Sanders swore as the lighted match burned down to his fingers and he dropped it on to the carpet.
"Pym?  you mean Henry Pym?"
"You know him?"
Sanders laughed.  "Who doesn't?  His father was my tutor at Oxford.  But he wouldn't do it, the man's almost a recluse."
"He's been mixed up in one or two murder cases."
"So I've heard--he's a friend of some big noise at the Yard--but this is quite different!  The very idea is absurd!"

"Yes,"  Henry agreed.  "What fascinates me is the arrogance of these schoolteachers.  It's so ingrained they don't even know it's there."

--A Taste of Power (1966), by W. J. Burley

Silver Age crime writer W. J. Burley (1914-2002) has been dead for 16 years, the last of his 23 Superintendent Charles Wycliffe detective novels having been published three years earlier in the year 2000.  (The fittingly titled Wycliffe and the Last Lap was left unfinished at the author's death at the age of 88.)  A television series  based on the Wycliffe books was aired originally in the 1990s and the Wycliffes are still in print today; but how much read is Burley now, I wonder? 

Despite this laudatory 2006 piece on the late author from Martin Edwards, a fellow fan of his work, I don't get the impression that a great many people are reading Burley these days.  If this is so, I think it's a shame, as Burley should qualify, in my view, as one of the more notable British mystery writers from the last third of the 20th century.  Personally I like the body of Burley's work  better than that of the late PD James (sacrilege!), just as I prefer Burley's Wycliffe to James's Adam Dalgliesh. 

Although Burley became identified with Wycliffe, he first detective novel, A Taste of Power, saw the debut another detective, Dr. Henry Pym.  While Wycliffe, who debuted in the oddly-titled Three-Toed Pussy two years later, is an archetypal example of the introspective (if not depressive) police detective so popular today, Dr. Pym is a deliberate throwback to the brilliant amateur detective from the golden days of detective fiction yore and his investigations are exercises in classic fair play ratiocination.

In his second of three careers, Burley, a native of Cornwall (where the Wycliffe mysteries are set) became a schoolmaster, teaching biology for two decades at Newquay Grammar School.  (He retired in 1974, I presume because due to his success at crime writing.)  Not altogether surprisingly, then, Burley's first detective novel is a school mystery, and a very good one at that.

A Taste of Power belongs to that great body of British mysteries that portray primary/secondary schools as natural places for murders.  (I don't believe that college mysteries are nearly as depressing a body of work.)  Reading this novel I was reminded of books like Christopher Bush's acerbic Golden Age classic, The Case of the Dead Shepherd (1934) (recently reissued by Dean Street Press), Leo Bruce's gloomy Death at St. Asprey's School (1967) and Robert Barnard's sardonic Little Victims (1983). 

Not coincidentally, these three latter authors all taught school as well at one time or another and all of them hated it (though Barnard was a college professor, and in his books he blasted colleges as well--along with many other things). Are women teachers turned crime writers as sour on primary/secondary education as a vocation?  Gladys Mitchell and Elizabeth Lemarchand were not. (See Lemarchand's contemporaneous girls school mystery, Death of an Old Girl.)

Had Burley turned on teaching by the mid-Sixties, when he was writing Power?  I don't know, but he takes pains in a prefatory note to explain to readers that "My teaching colleagues have been, generally, pleasant and patient people, but it is very difficult to write stories about pleasant and patient people."

And, to be sure, the teachers at the coeducational Huntley-May Grammar School fit the bill when it comes to coeducational unpleasantness.  Someone is sending poison pen letters to teachers and students alike, making all sorts of nasty allegations.  Sensing that the faculty has reached an emotional crisis of backbiting and stabbing yet chary of involving the police, Headmaster Tristram-Jones, a relatively new arrival to the school, seeks the help of amateur detective Dr. Henry Pym.  But of course!

Pym is that mythic fictional figure, the Great Detective, endowed with independent means and strange fancies, which the author, fully conscious of the tradition in which he is working, takes time to detail at some length:

Henry Lancaster Pym, M.A., D.Phil., D.Sc....was the sole survivor of an ancient and wealthy family, and despite the ravages of death duties, he was still extremely well off.  It was said that he could lay claim to a peerage had he been so minded and Henry would have been the last to deny such a rumour.  But the Pyms were of a scholarly bent.  Henry's father, now dead, had been a fellow of a minor Oxford college.  He had believed himself to be an authority on fifteenth-century England and had written a very bad book on the Wars of the Roses, which a critic had described as a "rather belated propaganda for the House of Lancaster."  It was this partisan foible of Pym Senior which gave Henry his baptismal name and cast a blight on his formative years.

Georgian slip-ware teapot (see antiques atlas)
Resultantly hating history, young Pym went to Oxford to read zoology, which he loved, all the while finding zoologists themselves "impossible." So at the age of 30, Pym, relying on his private means, retired to a village in Cornwall, taking up residence at a house he had built called "The Labyrinth." 

There in splendid and eccentric isolation he continued his zoological studies, establishing himself as an authority on chilopods and diplopods (centipedes and millipedes); and carrying on a wide range of secondary interests, including "gardening, English water colours, horseracing, seventeenth-century English slip-ware, Restoration drama, music and criminology."

There's more, but you get the idea.  In writing Power, Burley was going for a full-fledged eccentric genius amateur crime solver, and he succeeded with such in my estimation.  Pym also has a manservant, Perkin, and a pretty young secretary, Susan, who accompanies him on his sleuthing excursions.  Susan is required to wear dresses rather than slacks in Pym's presence, an edict she challenges but to which she ultimately complies.  She does get to call her boss by his first name though. Hey, it was the Sixties.

I didn't sense that there were carryings-on between employer and employee--how would Henry Pym have time for hanky-panky with all that attention lovingly devoted to slip-ware and watercolors?  The chauvinistic tang of this again recalls classic mystery, though the best character in the book is a middle-aged woman teacher in my estimation.

Tristram-Jones is able to get Pym to emerge from Cornwall to search for the poison pen writer (assisted by Susan), but it's not long after Pym arrives that a suspicious death takes place among the faculty, when one of the schoolmistresses is found dead at the bottom of a cliff.  Accident, suicide or...murder???  What do you think?

I found A Taste of Power a fine mystery, with some excellent examples of true detection, something that was becoming increasingly rare in mysteries of a a half-century ago.  (Authorities Barzun & Taylor agree.)  For those who like detection with some dramatic content, there is also an interesting, if somewhat depressing, view as well of middle-age and midlife crises, with the portrayal of proud and able though variously thwarted people suffering from mounting fear that the lives which they had wanted for themselves have eluded them, perhaps irrevocably.  It's a view I've encountered before in English school mysteries, written by English mystery writers who seem to have been rather relieved for their own parts to have left teaching behind them.

Dr. Pym would appear in one more detective novel (where his interest in slip-ware would prove useful) before W. J. Burley irrevocably abandoned him for in favor of his cop Wycliffe.  Without meaning to cast shade at the excellent Wycliffe series, I feel that this was a mistake artistically.  However, the times were not so very understanding and tolerant of odd and privileged amateur sleuths.   Wycliffe became a prototype of the modern fictional police detective, while Pym was cast aside and largely forgotten within a few years. (Marvel Comics fans will know that Pym shares his name with the superhero, a member of the Avengers, known variously in different guises as Ant-Man, Giant-Man, Goliath and Yellowjacket.  This Dr. Henry Pym debuted in comics in 1962.)

Unfortunately, A Taste of Power is out-of-print today, and pretty rare, as it was never published in the US. It is certainly worth seeking out, however, for fans of a classic detective fiction--particularly  that frequently dark and gloomy subgenre, the English school mystery.

English watercolor (courtesy Passing Tramp)


  1. I remember reading this, but unfortunately so long ago that I can recall nothing about it whatever...

    BTW, from your description, the school in the book is a secondary one, not primary (I cannot think of a single mystery set in a primary or infant school).

    1. Yeah, was trying to distinguished between the first 12 grades and universities/colleges and got that all boggled up unfortunately. I still have yet more typos in this piece, sigh.

      Sometimes when you forget everything about a mystery it's not a good sign, but that sometimes happens to me, even when it's a good one. After one reading I forgot the killer on in Gilbert's Smallbone Deceased, for example, only to have it spoiled for me later. And now I remember the spoiler!

      Elementary school murders. I can think of at least one book for sure! and some that include middle school, I think.

  2. I read Burley fairly regularly, though so far only the Wycliffe novels. I think he had a real gift for character and setting, though sometimes I find his books a little bleak.

    1. Yes, I was reminded of PD James, although I think Wycliffe himself less dour than Dalgliesh.

  3. A very good piece. In Britain, the TV series was very successful, but it's true that Burley is much less read today than fifteen years or so ago; a good example of the truth that the vast majority of authors go out of fashion alarmingly quickly once they are no longer producing books. I borrowed A Taste of Power from the local library not long after it was published, but I was simply too young to appreciate its subtlety at that time. I enjoyed Burley much more when I came back to him in the late 80s.

    1. Yeah, I tend to think Burley is a writer for the middle-aged, which I certainly am now! I want to post on the Wycliffe books too soon.

  4. I was tempted by this, but can't find a cheap copy - someone should re-publish...