A Death in the Parish by Richard Coles

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A Death in the Parish by Richard Coles front cover

The latest in an impressive line of crime-fighting members of the clergy, Canon Daniel Clement returns to tackle his second cosy mystery in A Death in the Parish. It’s been a few months since the disturbing events of Murder Before Evensong and life in the picturesque village of Champton St Mary is just beginning to resume some semblance of normality. Well, as normal as can be expected for a place that has more in common with St Mary Mead or Cabot Cove than anyone cares to admit.

Further change is soon afoot, though, as church authorities have decreed that Champton is to merge with the parishes of Upper and Lower Badsaddle. Daniel is to be in overall charge but the Badsaddles are to be largely overseen by newcomer Chris Biddle, whose hardline approach to religious matters contrasts markedly with Daniel’s more compassionate stance. The parishioners don’t take well to Chris’s evangelical fervour or his sartorial informality, leaving Daniel to broach some difficult issues with his new colleague.

Such ecclesiastical conflicts pale into insignificance, however, when a ritualistic murder is discovered and the community has to confront the fact that there is another killer in their midst. In between ministering to a terminally ill parishioner, protecting her belongings from magpie-like neighbours, maintaining peace between the villagers and those at the ‘Big House’, discovering what his mother is being so secretive about, and other vicary duties, Daniel teams up with new pal Detective Sergeant Neil Vanloo to unmask the killer.

Seamlessly blending quirky characters, a perplexing murder and the everyday realities of life in an English country parish, Richard Coles’ A Death in the Parish is an entertaining cosy mystery that isn’t afraid to touch on serious matters. The sense of place is once again strong, with Champton St Mary almost being a character unto itself, but while Murder Before Evensong suffered somewhat from an opaque sense of time, there is no such problem in this sequel.

Indeed, the fact that A Death in the Parish is set in the late 1980s is made clear from the start, which allows Coles to address the consequences of the recession and the myriad social changes that were happening at the time, including the requisite Margaret Thatcher jokes. The contrast between Lord Bernard de Floures’s inheritance concerns, Daniel and his mother’s money worries, and the day-to-day lives of the villagers is particularly well drawn in this regard.

Coles clearly has a good eye for characters who would feel right at home in Midsomer County, which means that Daniel encounters some proper eccentrics and oddballs over the course of his investigation. While there are a fair few returners from Murder Before Evensong, there are also a number of newcomers to the series, most notably the Biddle family, the genteel Mrs Hawkins and the nefarious Tailbys. The old and the new mix well together, not least because they all seem to have an abundance of secrets.

Unfortunately, as the majority of the characters are very much introduced as ‘characters’, their defining features are made clear from the outset and there is little room for development as the story progresses. Still, there’s a lot of humour in their portrayals, although Coles also works in issues such as elder abuse and racism, which are not often addressed in cosy mysteries. Daniel himself fares better on the development front. And strangely, so do his dogs, dachshunds Cosmo and Hilda.

Murder Before Evensong was characterised by a slow buildup to the main event – that is, the murders – and Coles takes a similar approach in A Death in the Parish. The murder again doesn’t occur until a fair way into the book, which means that plenty of background detail is provided, albeit at the expense of pace and excitement. Even after the murder has occurred, Daniel’s investigation proceeds in ponderous fashion, occurring in fits and starts around parish matters and musings on religion.

Of course, Coles’ own experience as a parish priest shines through here, lending an air of authenticity to the story. He is clearly interested in chronicling village life and the evolving role of the church in society, but despite his evocative descriptions and dry wit when writing about matters close to his heart, the balance between such elements and the murder mystery aspects of the story isn’t quite right. Going forward, it would be beneficial if Daniel’s investigative exploits came more to the fore.

Overall, A Death in the Parish is an enjoyable instalment in the Canon Daniel Clement series. Despite some minor shortcomings, it showcases Coles’ skill at crafting complex yet still cosy mysteries in countryside settings worthy of the Golden Age of Murder. The combination of appealing characters, an intriguing puzzle and some delightful moments of humour marks it out as a cracking cosy mystery. Beware, though: for all its cosy credentials, there’s a surprisingly strong punch to the gut following the dénouement.

For more countrified crime, check out Leigh Russell’s Barking Up the Right Tree and Penny Blackwell’s The Cherrywood Murders.


CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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