Saturday, February 8, 2020

FFB: Villainy at Vespers - Joan Cockin

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.

THE CHARACTERS: Inspector Cam who appears in only three novels by Cockin, is having a field day in this entry in the subgenre known as the policeman's holiday mystery. Nearly every mystery writer has at least one of these novels in which their detective attempts to get away for a vacation until murder interrupts and in a combination of professional routine and curiosity ends up investigating the crime or crimes. Sayers (Busman's Honeymoon) , Christie (Evil under the Sun), Stout (Death of a Dude) and Brand (Tour de Force) come to mind immediately.  But Cam is with his family and we are reminded of his distractions with the crime when his family pop in periodically to get him back to the business of relaxation.  His wife is impatient with him and in his absence and apparent disinterest in their family she befriends Betsey Rowan, an American schoolteacher. Betsey is travelling with a group of rambunctious students who have all set up tents while camping on the beach.  Cam's children pester him hoping they can get an insider's look at the gruesome crime scene simply because their father is a police officer. The harried policeman manages to take it all in stride with good humor and minor irritation, only twice scolding his unruly children for their lurid curiosity.

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 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, a 13th century work of art embedded in the floor of St. Poltraun's; a travelling antique dealer who may know the identity of the naked corpse; and Mr. Copperman, the town vicar, and his wife Mrs. Cooperman who have been sly and elusive in answering routine questions about who the murder victim is and how he came to be in their church.

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 (though it is mostly Cam doing the abstract thinking and true detective work) uncover the identity of the naked corpse, connect a spate of thefts of art work and artifacts from local churches to the murder, and unravel a web of deceit and cover-ups among the mistrustful citizens who succeed in mixing up the police by not fully cooperating with the murder investigation. Along the way the reader is treated to some fascinating local legends, one ghost story featuring a visit from Satan, and more than anyone would ever want to know about monumental brass rubbing.

INNOVATIONS: Mostly it is Cockin's writing that makes this a noteworthy if completely unknown detective novel.  The first paragraph alone led me to buying the book. It is almost impossible to put the book down after this startling opening:

Human sacrifice --primitive physical sacrifice-- has long been out of favour in England. 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. Poltraun'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 his 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.

With wit and panache Cockin tells an entertaining story of rogues and con men, satirizes British tourism and foreign visitors, pokes fun at the sensational nature of newspapers, and the public's prurient interest and insatiable desire for blood, guts and gore. That we have Cam along as our wise detective with a sense of humor as sharp as his creator makes the reading all the more satisfying.

Lithograph of original brass rubbing done in 1891,
from a British 14th c. monumental brass
(click to enlarge)

THINGS I LEARNED:  The phrase "Dog in a manger" is as old as the hills, but I swear I've never come across it anywhere in my reading until it popped up on page 90 of Villainy at Vespers. I wasn't at all sure of what it alluded to nor was I too clear on its meaning. After diligent Googling I uncovered its source in Aesop's Fables. The phrase alludes to a person who stubbornly refuses to give up something that he is not entitled to and, more importantly, has little real use of just like the dog in the fable refuses to give up his relaxing in the manger to allow the cows to feed.

Palimpsest also comes up over the course of the story.  My only other encounter with this unusual word is seeing it as the title of Gore Vidal's dishy memoir.  The modern definition of the word -- "something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form" -- vaguely refers to its origin from ancient monasteries when supplies for manuscripts were scarce which led to the practice of recycling and reusing old, outdated manuscripts to create new works. In the context of this mystery novel the word applies to the legend that the Pollpen brass may in fact be a palimpsest, that an earlier brass work is possibly visible on the reverse side.  Briarley is excited to get his hands on the brass and examine it to prove that the legend is fact.

QUOTES: Cam: "The work of a police officer in a case like this is to discover and explain the abnormal. It is in the deviation from the normal that a crime reveals itself."

Edmund Crispin allusion (!!):
"A humorist! Do all our village policeman try to model themselves on Gervase Fen, do you suppose?"

"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 [son], but Cam made a threatening gesture.
"I don't want any lawyers in my family. So be off with you and don't give your poor father as much trouble as a Royal Commission."

Mr. Copperman admonishing his congregation prior a ceremony to re-sanctify the despoiled church:
"You are no body of people gathered together for the united purpose of prayer and thanksgiving. Instead, you are inspired by an infinite variety of motives -- curiosity, superstition, vanity, perhaps a little pity, perhaps a little awe. But there is no common ground amongst you. You are spectators, not participants. You have come to take all you can and give nothing."

Cam, at the beach in swimming attire, receives patronizing glares and smirks from younger men:
"Look on. Take your fill. And please heaven that you may one day be like me. Fat, over forty, and free from the need to prove I'm a man by excessive athletics."

THE AUTHOR: I've uncovered another moonlighter!  "Joan Cockin" was in reality Edith Joan Burbidge Macintosh, PhD, CBE, one of the first women to work in British diplomatic service during World War Two. According to to her obituary published in The Scotsman, June 12, 2014 her "illustrious career" was cut short within a few years when she was forced to resign her position as First Secretary to the High Commission in New Delhi after marrying a Scottish banker.  Foreign Office "bureaucratic red tape" prevented women who married non-diplomats from remaining in diplomatic service.

Prior to her diplomatic career she had attended Oxford as a history major and worked for the BBC upon graduation. The Ministry of Information sent her to Washington, DC where she was charged to create anti-Hitler propaganda and encourage Americans to join in the fight against the Third Reich.

In addition to three detective novels she wrote educational books for children as well as local and ancient Scottish history.  Long involved in charitable work dating back to her days in India Macintosh helped found several charitable organizations, and was largely involved in consumer advocacy. She appeared on a Scottish radio program inspired by her work on the Citizen's Advice Bureau which led to her becoming the first chairman of the Scottish Consumer Council. Finally, her work led her to legal advocacy and she held chairman positions on the Scottish Constitutional Commission, Scottish Child Care Centre and was a member of Victim Support Scotland's council.

Macintosh had three children with her husband Ian and died in June 2014.

EASY TO FIND? It's a rare one, my friends. Nothing new there. Only four copies out there as of this writing and all of them rather pricey.  I stumbled across a very cheap copy of the book in some eBay listings which included a photograph of the first page of text.  I read that from beginning to end and wanted to read the rest of the book. So I hit the Buy It Now button. That proved to be one of the best impulsive book buys of the past couple of years. I have already been looking for the other two books with Cam as detective. I've found the first one, Curiosity Killed the Cat (1947), and will be reviewing that one soon.

Inspector Cam Detective Novel Trilogy
Curiosity Killed the Cat (1947)
Villainy at Vespers (1949)
Deadly Ernest (1952)


  1. Brass rubbing isn't a "lost art". London Brass Rubbing Centre in St Martin-in-the-Fields gives courses and practice sessions. There are fewer paces where you can do it, though, as it damages whatever is rubbed a little.

    1. To most modern readers brass rubbing is indeed a lost art. And I'm sure there are very few among the younger generations who would have any idea what brass rubbing entailed, let alone what it meant. I learned a lot as will anyone should they pick up this exciting and excellently written book. I was happily surprised to learn of multiple organizations still in existence that are devoted to preserving the few monumental brass artworks still surviving. The photo of the brass rubbing I chose came from the website of such an organization.

  2. "Superbly plotted" and "excellently written"? Say no more! Thanks for bringing this book to your readers' attention.
    Now I just have to hope that I can find this title through interlibrary loan. A quick search on WorldCat suggests it may work out.

  3. Rick Robinson says:
    Sounds interesting, but sadly unavailable. Thank goodness there are many other things to read!

  4. This sounds marvellous - what a pity so hard to find. Perhaps someone could republish. I've never heard of her, but she sounds like a fascinating character.

    1. I've been advising Debra Riley at Moonstone Press on worthy books and neglected writers who deserve reprinting. I think I'll also suggest Joan "Cockin" Macintosh. She has several living relatives who I'm sure would be amenable to the project.