W. J. Burley

Although he enjoyed a long and successful career, culminating in a popular TV series based on his books that lasted for five years in the 1990s, W.J. Burley has attracted surprisingly little critical attention. The books featuring Chief Superintendent Wycliffe form the most notable detective series ever to have been set in Burley’s beautiful native county, Cornwall. Yet when he died in 2002, Burley’s passing was scarcely noticed in the crime fiction world. A mystery in itself.

The solution to the puzzle lies in Burley’s private nature. He was for many years a member of the Crime Writers’ Association, but he never involved himself in its activities and seems to have spent little time socialising with fellow mystery novelists. He seems rarely to have sought personal publicity after turning to fiction, relatively late: he was 52 when his first novel, A Taste of Power, was published in 1966. His main preoccupation was to develop his craft. Alone amongst leading British crime writers, he modelled his style on that of Georges Simenon, whose work he admired. His books, like Simenon’s, were short and crisply written, but unlike the Belgian master, he did not write full-time until retiring from his career as a teacher.

Intensely self-critical, Burley confessed in 1980 that he had ‘never felt very happy with my books – they seemed rather too derivative, following too closely an established pattern’. By that time, Wycliffe was already well-established, but Burley resolved ‘to break new ground’. He said of Charles and Elizabeth, a Gothic novel of suspense published in 1979: ‘for the first time I feel that I have written a book which offers something a little different.’ Yet despite his efforts to break away from the constraints of formula, he kept returning to Wycliffe, and as the series progresses it displays an increasing assurance of style. Happily, Burley’s reputation is likely to benefit from the creation of a first class web-site by a Cornwall-based enthusiast, Mario de Pace: www.wjburley.com. So this is an opportune moment to take another look at his career.

William John Burley (he was known as John) was born in Falmouth in 1914. Married with two sons, he worked as an engineer before seizing the opportunity of a change of direction and going off to study zoology as a mature student at Oxford University. At Oxford, he attended Balliol College; best known to mystery lovers as the alma mater of Lord Peter Wimsey, Balliol has over the years produced close on 40 writers of crime fiction. Afterwards, he taught biology at Newquay School.

Like many teachers, he was evidently meticulous in his habits. When he bought a book for his personal library, he not only wrote his name inside it, but also recorded the date of acquisition. Such attention to detail is an excellent qualification for an author of tightly-plotted traditional mysteries. Burley went further, by compiling ‘plot books’ with plans for his stories. These make fascinating reading and extracts can be seen on the web-site.

Burley began with books about an amateur detective before deciding to concentrate on the investigations of a professional policeman. A Taste of Power introduces Henry Pym, a zoologist with a keen interest in murder and a conveniently strong friendship with a senior police officer, Detective Superintendent Judd. Henry reappeared in Death in Willow Pattern (1969), a high-spirited example of the traditional detective novel that, shorn of a few modern touches, might have been published 30 years earlier. Pym is invited, along with his glamorous secretary Susan, to spend Christmas at Peel Place, a Cornish mansion steeped in dark legends. His host, Sir Francis Leigh, wants his advice on the disposal of antiquarian books and manuscripts, but it soon emerges that Sir Francis may have an ulterior motive for asking Pym to stay. A couple of local girls have gone missing and there are hints that Sir Francis may have inherited the esoteric sexual tastes of a notorious ancestor. ‘Crime isn’t a chess problem,’ Pym tells Susan. ‘There can be no dependence on mathematical logic as a tool for unravelling the workings of the human mind.’ This is hardly the credo of a disciple of Sherlock Holmes and Burley seems to have realised that the classic whodunit form was unlikely to give him the scope he needed to explore criminal psychology. So Henry was abandoned – the suggestion at the end of the book is that he will marry Susan – and Wycliffe, who had made his bow in Three-Toed Pussy (1968) moved on to centre stage in To Kill a Cat (1970).

Burley explained in comments in 1991 that he wanted Wycliffe ‘to be diligent but compassionate, earnest but with a wry sense of humour, and sufficiently idiosyncratic to be interesting. My next five books exploited the Wycliffe character and three of them, Guilt-Edged¸Wycliffe and the Pea-Green Boat and Wycliffe and the Schoolgirls, adopted a more psychological approach. This trend culminated in The Schoolmaster, a non-Wycliffe crime story which tells how a sensitive, introspective schoolmaster with a load of guilt finds his way to some sort of salvation.’

One senses that Burley, like so many crime writers, was torn between concentrating on his series and venturing into other territories. For him, the Wycliffe books were not a mere refuge from more testing challenges; he was keen to lift his series above the formulaic. Yet from time to time he succumbed to the urge to try something different. In 1978, he even tried his hand at a different genre. The Sixth Day is a little-known science fiction novel and he did not repeat the experiment. After The House of Care (1980) he seems to have decided to go with the flow and stick to Wycliffe.

This decision was vindicated when he was over 80 and HTV, on the strength of a successful pilot show, decided to produce a series about Wycliffe, with the detective played by an excellent, edgy actor, Jack Shepherd. Burley preferred the original scripts based on his characters to those adapted from his own novels: ‘The breakdown in structure involved with adaptation seemed to lose much of the point of the books.’

Burley summed up his work in The St James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers:

‘Most of my books are set in the far southwest, and they are concerned with the tensions which arise within small groups of people who live or work together in close proximity – the family in a country house; the partners in a family business; the people living in a village street or town square. My criminals are never professionals but ordinary people who feel driven by repressed emotions of fear, hatred or jealousy to commit crimes which in other circumstances they would find unthinkable. In my more recent books I have used actual locations in Cornwall and Devon, confusing the topography slightly in order to avoid the risk of seeming to represent actual people.’

(An earlier version of this article appeared in Mystery Scene)