(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

W. J. Burley’s mystery novels are rich in setting and character. The Wycliffe series is set in the West Country of Cornwall and Devon, an area Burley knew well and skillfully described. As head of the regional Criminal Investigation Division, Charles Wycliffe roams the area. Some of the murders he solves are close to his home base of Plymouth; others may occur in coastal resorts, on an island, in a hilly tin-mining region, or elsewhere in the Cornish countryside. Burley conveys a sense not only of the area’s natural beauty and the character of its communities but also of the personalities of its people.

Wycliffe, the son of a Herfordshire tenant farmer, started his career in the police force as a beat officer at the age of nineteen. He made a name for himself as a detective in a Midland town and rose to the rank of detective chief superintendent, which he holds when the series begins. He met his wife, Helen, early in his career. The Wycliffes have twin children, and their relationship with them grows, as do their children, in the course of the series. The twins, David and Ruth, complete postgraduate studies and advance to careers of their own. Professional success enables the Wycliffes to buy the Watch House, a seaside home with a garden and a view of the estuary. Wycliffe’s Nonconformist upbringing and socialist views make him a bit uneasy about these outward signs of success, but Helen helps him learn to indulge himself and tries to develop his cultural instincts. Wycliffe, however, finds it hard to change his nature. He remains at heart a moralist who will mortify himself through self-denial when faced with a difficult decision. His socialism occasionally shows in his antipathy to prosperous businessmen.

Wycliffe is attracted to his job because it gives him an opportunity to interact with people. In almost all the novels, Wycliffe compares himself to a scientific observer of animal species.Some men watched animals, building little hides to spy on badgers, birds or deer, but Wycliffe could not understand them. From a window on to a street, from a seat in a pub or a park, or strolling round a fairground, it was possible to observe a far more varied species, more complex, more intelligent, more perceptive and vastly richer in the pattern of their emotional response.

In many ways, Wycliffe’s task is more difficult than that of an animal expert, for “he worked with human beings, on whom all studies had to be done in the wild.”

Wycliffe gains an understanding of his own identity by seeing in others the same intimate thoughts and desires that he himself harbors. The same drive leads him to read autobiographies and diaries and to immerse himself in all aspects of a victim’s life and surroundings when he is conducting an investigation. Interrogations are handled like conversations as he probes to learn more about the people involved in a case. As he absorbs data from his observations and from the reports of his team, Wycliffe withdraws into himself, becoming taciturn and irritable.In the course of an investigation, after a seemingly endless series of interrogations, interviews and reports, when his ideas were confused and contradictory, his mind would suddenly clear and the salient facts stand out in sharp relief as though a lens had suddenly brought them into proper focus. At this stage he would not necessarily distinguish any pattern in the facts but he would, from then on, be able to classify and relate them so that a pattern would eventually emerge.

Wycliffe does not conform to the police force’s ideal for conducting an investigation; he does too much of the investigative work himself and spends too little time coordinating tasks and organizing paperwork. Burley does, however, give some insight into the actual procedures of police work that occur around Wycliffe. He also gives the reader a view of the...

(The entire section is 1584 words.)