|The Rev Dr Simon Bede
(creators: Barbara Ninde Byfield & Frank Tedeschi)
The Rev Dr Simon Bede, special aide to the Archbishop of Canterbury, seems very English, but is actually half English/half American. An Episcopalian high churchman, he is known as Father Bede, and is a widower with a grown-up son. He is above all an efficient administrator, but does not seem to have much spiritual life of his own. When we first meet him, he is 51 ("a serviceable time, middle age"), and looking, as one of the women characters describes him, "a divine Englishman ... a dark broody type with hidden motives". He is very much a quietly confident, reasonably handsome, strong male character - but no saint.
Barbara Ninde Byfield (1930-1988) was the writer and illustrator of children's fantasy/horror books, as well as of the humorous The Eating-in-Bed Cookbook. She lived in New York with her two daughters. She wrote four detective stories including Simon Bede, but he only really plays the lead in the first book, the main part in the subsequent books usually being taken by his girl friend, photographer Nancy Bullock.
Solemn High Murder (1975)
The church background is very well handled. On arrival at St Jude's, Bede "felt immediately at home. The unmistakable smells of damp stone, votive candles, incense-cured wood, and what he always swore was pure prayer were as comfortable and familiar as the cracked wooden handle of the shaving brush he had used for twenty-five years." The internal church rivalries of traditionalists v Pentecostalists ("If they didn't just smile all the time," complains a nun) sound right too.
The police are hardly involved in the story which ends happily with Bede sleeping with Helen, and then the two go off together. At one stage, he sits in church "utterly unable to pray" and thinking of Helen. But he's not usually troubled by too many moral scruples: "He felt sorry for young people today, under such intense pressure to fill every available moment with sex. Damned tiring, if nothing else. Well, in my day we were damned if we did, and now you're damned if you don't. Hope it levels off someday into something healthier than either one." Then he says that, after a funeral, it's only sensible for mourners to get "quite healthily drunk".
It's all makes a good story, although Bede himself is not a particularly engaging character. But he appreciates his food: After tasting "the definitive oyster stew", he declares, "There has be a God". Then when a waitress giggles at the ash still left on his forehead from the Ash Wednesday service, he says, "Ah, I forgot, the day of the dirty foreheads".The author's sympathies seem to lie more with Helen who "had known since she was fifteen that her face was merely pleasant but her legs were sensational" and perched herself accordingly. She's an altogether more feisty character.
This is the only one of the author's books that I would really recommend.
Forever Wilt Thou Die (1976)
A Harder Thing than Triumph (1977)
Helen breaks a bone in her foot after falling into "a vicious damp stinking hole the little bastard (an obnoxious 9 year old called Webby) had dug in the mucky ground". She is very aware that "Simon's had twenty-five hot and heavy years of Anglican politics, and I think he's waiting just now to see if he really is retired, or just on a long, long sabbatical. We're a bit in the same boat, me with Globe folding up and Simon with a new order at Lambeth. Maybe it's time to shift gears and find new directions, I don't know".
When the founder of the community dies of a broken neck, and his wife disappears, it is Simon who eventually works out what happened. But he has now retired from his post of aide to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and little mention is made of his religious background. Indeed it comes as quite a surprise to find him taking a burial srvice at the end of the book. Otherwise his priestly vocation seems utterly irrelevant. A pity, because the other characters and plot aren't really all that interesting.
A Parcel of Their Fortunes (1979)
There is little about the author on the web beyond a short article in Wikipedia.
|The arresting first English edition cover. The books never made it to paperback.|
|This American 1st edition used a cover illustration by the author.