The Funeral Owl by Jim Kelly
The Funeral Owl by Jim Kelly (Severn House, 2013) the seventh in the Philip Dryden series, brings us to a part of England so remote from “ordinary” experience, it might just as well be in another country (although not France, of course). In a way, the author is playing the same game as Kate Wilhelm who, in her early novels such as Fault Lines (1977), used the landscape as a commentary on the emotional state of her protagonists. Although perhaps a closer match is Dorothy L Sayers given The Nine Tailors (1934) is also set in a Fenland village. Here we begin with a tortuous drive along series of often arrow-straight, raised but narrow roads which are designed like traps for the unwary with deep, canal-like drains on one side and fields on the other. Make a single mistake and you’re plunging down the steep banks into death by drowning or mangling by fence posts and root crops. If the roads don’t get you, there are always the mini-tornados which whip across the flat fens, ripping up the top soil and using it as grapeshot to pepper the few isolated buildings and anyone unable to find adequate shelter. Here are farmers and other hardy souls whose lives revolve around survival. They are the alienated and isolated who never had the gumption to emigrate to more prosperous areas and live out lives of frustrated dreams, often in real poverty.
Earlier in the series, Dryden has been through personal tragedy but is now rebuilding with the arrival of a son, somewhat ironically named Eden in celebration of their location. He’s a journalist, responsible for running three local newspapers. Because he ended up in one of the roadside drains, Humph acts as his driver except, when the latter’s teenage daughter goes missing, Dryden has to get behind the wheel to take them both out into the boondocks to find Humph’s mother. She lives in a desolate bungalow near Brimstone Hill. Perhaps the girl might have gone there. When the reunion occurs (yes, it’s that friendly), Dryden seizes the chance to visit the nearby Christ Church at Brimstone Hill where the Rev Jennifer Temple-Wright holds the office. Thieves have removed some lead from the roof but failed to take the painting for which the church is famous. Oh, and there’s the body of an ethnic Chinese man hanging from a grave, crucifixion style with a wound (partly caused by a bullet) in his left side.
The next day, in a dead, i.e. closed and boarded-up, pub, the local coroner holds an inquest into the death of two young unemployed men found in a flooded ditch. Although they drowned in circumstances no-one can explain, they were close to death anyway because they had been drinking moonshine laced with poison. Later that day, when going through the post to his office, Dryden finds photographs of a pair of Aegolius funereus (boreal or funeral owls — there’s a superstition they are harbingers of death). The anonymous sender thinks they may be breeding in the village. Then there’s the blind Sexton who may be booted out the cottage he’s occupied for decades, and the still-shell-shocked veteran who can’t sleep because of the rather high-pitched noise made by the bird-scarers. And finally the local PC mentions a cold case of art robberies in the area. One of the men responsible has been seen in the area. They may have returned for another series of raids. Not a bad raft of local stories for our journalist to get his teeth into.
Although this novel is not a perfect example of unity of time, the chapters do follow the days sequentially. This fact tends to raise a slight question of credibility. I’ve visited the Fens a few times and have a vague peripheral awareness of the pace of life through observing how often news emanates from that part of the country. It’s never seemed to me to be like a city with murders, explosions, thefts, and extreme weather events every day. Such violent events do occur — no part of the country is immune — but this book manages to sandwich an enormous number of events between the endpapers. This is not to deny such a catalogue of crime could not occur, but it just feels slightly too much. That said, the result on the pages reads like a house on fire, the flames leaping from one item of furniture to the next. It’s a real mystery puzzle with a thriller wrapping. Yet that needs minor clarification. A lot happens that would be grist to a thriller mill. There are an explosion, shootings, murders, rioting with some torture elements, a train derailment, and divers other interesting events. Yet their purpose is as elements in the puzzle. Our hero is not some grizzled ex-MI6 operative who has to fight and shoot his way out of trouble as supervillains beset him from all sides. He’s a local journalist, now editor and bottlewasher -in-chief, doing a good job under difficult circumstances. By virtue of his status, he’s a disinterested observer yet necessarily involved, if only because he interviews those relevant to the stories he writes. In the end, everything is solved (except what happens to the dog and whether the owls are actually breeding) in a neat package. Even the weather gets in on the act again at the end to match the opening and closing scenes to the human drama in-between. It’s fascinating! Even though it does lack a certain credibility by being constrained in time, The Funeral Owl is a superior example of a puzzle plot with just enough human interaction to ensure the story is not a mechanical exercise with ciphers being moved around like pieces on a chessboard. It’s a story about real people caught in a surprisingly hostile environment and being forced to make the best of it.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.