The Rev Otis Joy & Burton Sands

(creator: Peter Lovesey)

The Reaper cover
The Rev Otis Joy is the 29-year-old rector of St Bartholomew's at Foxford in Wiltshire. "He managed to look benign, thanks to a generous mouth with laughter lines at the edges, a fine, straight nose and deep-set eyes of that pale yellowish brown that is disarmingly called hazel. A sharp intelligence lurked there." He is "a first class priest, popular, hard-working, a most able preacher who fills the church most Sundays." Unfortunately he is also an embezzler and a murderer. He is, of necessity, "a keen student of criminology". The detective work in the story is done not by him but by one of his adult confirmation candidates, Burton Sands (see below), but I've included him here as he is such an entertaining character.

Burton Sands is a sanctimonious confirmation candidate, a "ginger-haired chartered accountant with freckles and a dour expression whose only charm was his name, which sounded like a seaside resort. Burton Sands had come late to the faith, but he was not a typical born-again Christian. He had chosen the Church of England after carefully investigating its claims and obligations. He picked it as a superior form of unit trust, a low risk investment that might pay decent dividends in the long term." He soon suspects that Otis Joy is not what he seems. Sands is socially inept but determined to persist with his awkward questions, and it is his investigations and badgering of the police that eventually force them into action. But he is a much less attractive character than Otis Joy, murderer that he is.

Peter Lovesey (1936- ) was born in Whitton, Middlesex. He was educated at Hampton Grammar School and Reading University, where he went to study Fine Art but soon switched to English. While there, he met his future wife, Jax. National Service followed, then he moved on to teach first at Thurrock Technical College, then Hammersmith College, and produced his first sports book. In 1969 he and his wife spotted an advert for a first crime novel. The prize was £1000, which he won with Wobble to Death, which introduced the Victorian detective, Sergeant Cribb. He went on to write seven more Victorian crime novels, and two television series. In 1975, he gave up teaching and became a full-time writer, sometimes writing under the name of Peter Lear. He won silver and gold dagger and other awards. He lives near Chichester. His son, Phil Lovesey, writes psychological thrillers.

The Reaper (2000)
The Reaper is a thoroughly entertaining story that you're not meant to take too seriously. I hope. It starts with the murder of the local bishop. His body is found lying at the bottom of a quarry. In his car are a suicide note, a copy of Men Only and a Bible underlined at the text, "... hath devoured thy living with harlots". His last phone call, the police discover was to one Madame Swish.

Had he been devoured by guilt or did someone hurry him on his way? He was last seen alive by The Rev Otis Joy, the charming young rector of the Wiltshire village of Foxford. Adored by the ladies in his congregation, who filled his pews and collection plates each Sunday, the Rev Joy had become less popular with his bishop, who had discovered irregularities in his previous church's accounts. The bishop's demise is only the first of a series of sudden deaths in Foxford - most of them the work of the charming Otis.

The whole story is written with considerable panache and humour. After murdering the bishop by hitting him with a solid glass paperweight of St Paul's Cathedral, and "after a wedding rehearsal in the church - but before rigor mortis set in - Joy returned to the rectory, his pastoral duties over for the day. He felt as shaky as anyone does with a dead bishop waiting for disposal, but he was in control. He trusted himself not to panic. In fact he was experiencing quite a surge of adrenaline at the challenge of the things to be done. A clergyman's life is more structured than lay people ever appreciate, and there is quiet satisfaction at coping with whatever life throws at you and still conducting services on time."

He helps himself to his own "contingency fund", thanks to a happy arrangement with the church treasurer. But when the treasurer announces his imminent retirement, Otis has to get rid of him before he can show the books to anybody else. Then he has to find another compliant candidate of his own to take over the job to prevent interfering chartered accountant Burton Sands moving in and investigating his private fund. But it is Sands's dogged detective work that almost undoes him.

The congregation of impressionable women and cynical men is well portrayed, and the author seems very well acquainted with the details of church life. Otis's sermons continue to impress his congregation as when he refers to the bishop's apparent suicide: "The papers tell us - and we all believe the papers, don't we? - that Marcus, our Bishop, indulged in flagellation. How? On the phone, using a credit card. His actions harmed nobody. And afterwards he was found dead. End of story. Pretty depressing stuff. You wouldn't think so, reading the papers - and, in case you're wondering, I saw them too. They play up every salacious detail, as they always do when the clergy are caught out. Yes, we expect our bishops to be of good character. Marcus strayed from the path, if this report is true. Who has not done a foolish, humiliating thing at some time in his life? I don't mind telling you I have. I try to leave the good life, and sometimes I fail. Let's take a moment now to think about our own moments of weakness and shame ...."

It is no surprise that Otis allows a lively New Orleans type jazz parade at the funeral of a particularly objectionable parishioner. It was, according to leading participant King Gumbo of the Gumbo Jazz Band "some boogaloo". And indeed "Foxford had seen nothing like it. Come to that, the whole of Wiltshire had seen nothing like it, and maybe the whole of England." But then not many parishes have such an outrageous rector as this one.

As he explains to a widow who had confessed that she had poisoned her husband so that she could be free to marry him, "The church wasn't just a job ... or just a section of his life. It was his whole existence. Through it, he came alive. It was more potent and powerful than sex, or relationships, music, sport or anything that drove most men. He liked to interact with people, but through his work as a priest, rather than on a personal level." He is in many ways a really effective priest, but he had had to learn about survival the hard way, thanks to a violent upbringing at the hands of the "so-called Sisters of Mercy" followed by secondary education with the Jesuits. Pity he had to resort to embezzlement and murder, though.

Recommended for its sheer verve and humour.

The author has has his own interesting website with links to many interviews. There are numerous web references to him.

Please sign my GUEST BOOK. All comments, contributions (or corrections) welcomed!


The Reaper cover
This is an entertaining story about a charming but murderous clergyman.
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