I discovered Sheila Radley purely by chance. I was in a charity shop looking at books on a sale table – 3 for £1. I had two and I was looking for a third when an elderly paperback crime novel with a penguin on the cover caught my eye. It looked very promising, in a post golden age – village – police procedural kind of way, and so I decided to take a chance.
When I got home and looked up the author I was encouraged to see that her book had been brought back into print – by Felony & Mayhem in the USA and by Bello Books in the UK – and that I had the eighth book in a series of ten.
I usually try to read series in order, but when I knew that two such interesting publishers held the author in high regard, when I saw a fascinating scenario, I knew that I couldn’t push this book to the side while I hunted down the books that came before.
“His name was Cuthbert Redvers Fullerton Bell, but everyone in Breckham Market knew him as Clanger. He was fifty-two years old, and a bachelor. For most of his adult life he had been acknowledged and respected as the town’s principal drunk. And now he was dead.
There was no mystery about his death. It occurred in public, in the soft damp light of afternoon on a mild day in November. Three eye-witnesses saw him emerge unsteadily from The Boot, his favorite pub, at closing time and stand swaying at the edge of the pavement for a few moments before stepping out into the path of an oncoming vehicle. The driver, who was travelling down the one-way street at a lawful twenty-seven miles an hour, hadn’t a chance of avoiding him.”
There really was no case to answer, but after the inquest the dead man’s sister called in the police.
She said that the man driving the car wasn’t telling the truth. He said he was a newcomer to the town and that he hadn’t known Clanger. She said that as a child he had spent holidays with his grandparents, who kept a shop in Breckham Market. That he had played with Cuthbert, until something happened – she could not or would not say what – her father had thrashed the boys, and stopped them seeing each other. And that he had come back and murdered her brother.
It seemed unlikely, it seemed impossible to prove one way or the other, but the police had to investigate, and so they set about interviewing anyone who might cast more light on events.
As Sheila Radley follow those interviews I realised how good she was, how very well she created a cast of utterly believable characters.
The man who was driving the car had sold his business, to start a new life with a new wife. They were very happy.
She had left a jealous, possessive man. He was a Roman Catholic and he refused to accept their marriage was over. They had a teenage son: he was pleased that they had made the break, that his mother was happy, but he had doubts about his step-father and he was concerned about what his father might do.
He had left the wife who supported him as he built his business, and their two teenage daughters. She wasn’t best pleased that he had left them with virtually nothing, had given her no credit for what he did, had abandoned hi children.
A business partner, who had taken thing on trust and been left with nothing, felt cheated too.
And, of course, there was the dead man’s sister, a proud upright woman, who had lived in one part of the family home while her brother lived, very differently, in another part.
They were so well drawn, the details were so right, that they could have been real, I could have been reading about them in the local paper, and they were fascinating. Because I knew that somewhere there had to be the answer to that unanswerable question.
The police knew that too. An inspector, maybe in the throes of a mid-life crisis, at odds with his wife and son and paying rather too much attention to his sergeant. She was a young widow, learning to cope with her situation and making her work the centre of her life.
They were just as well drawn, just as believable. I’m inclined to believe that there’s an interesting ongoing storyline underpinning this series.
Now, as things stood, police work wasn’t going to solve this. Something had to happen. And something did. A robbery. A shooting. And a terrible accident.
The police team changed, and a new man found new angles of enquiry.
The answers, of course, lay in the past, and everything linked together beautifully. The ending wasn’t nearly as elegant as the beginning. A little too much drama, a great piece of luck … but it was right.
I can easily forgive an author who can construct a good plot and bring it to life with such perfectly realised characters small things like that.
And she offered an inspired post script that showed another side of the story, and what happened next.
This book proved to be a very lucky find: a mystery built on classic lines with clever plotting, fine pacing, and true understanding of character.
And, of course, Sheila Radley is an author I hope I’ll bump into again.