The Rev Francis Oughterard

(creator: Suzette A Hill)

Suzette Hill
The Rev Francis Oughterard had, to his surprise, been sent to the small parish of Molehill in Surrey, after being in charge of "a large and unsalubrious parish in Bermondsey" where, as "we had now entered upon the era of 'muscular Christianity' ", he had tried to show he was hearty and "dynamic", even though "I am not of a muscular disposition". In the end, he explains, "I simply went into a decline, became twitchy, depressed and finally ill."

He had he thinks, just lost his nerve as he had previously done in the army. "I don't know why I entered the Church. It seemed, as they say, a good idea at the time. I am not the most vigorous of people and when I was demobbed I had been in a bit of a state." Although he has a modest income, he felt he ought to do something so drifted into the Church. It appealed to him because "I judged it an institution into which I might melt anonymously and yet derive from it a modicum of status requiring little effort to sustain".

But he gradually comes to realise "that the whole holy venture had been a mistake, a terrible self-induced sham. So what to do? Nothing very much ... With a bit of luck - and conceivably God's will - all should be well, all manner of things should be well ... What an interesting lady Mother Julian must have been! I think I might have enjoyed her company, which is more than I can say of many women."

"Joviality," he admits, "is not my strong suit , and "I am not particularly gregarious". He is in some ways, his dog Bouncer comments, as "daft as a brush". Bouncer, by the way, narrates part of the story - as does the well educated if supercilious cat, Maurice.

Oughterard, it has to be admitted, at first isn't really a detective - just a murderer. But he is such an entertaining character that I felt he just had to be included here!

Suzette A Hill (1941 - ) was 66 when she published her first book, A Load of Old Bones, at her own expense, printing just 500 copies that she found she had to work hard to sell. Previously she had received numerous rejections from both publishers and agents. But it was then bought by an audio book company (with the part of the cat being taken by Leslie Phillips), before being taken up by a commercial publisher. She was given a contract to write two further books, Bones in the Belfry and Bone Idle. Before this, she had read English at two universities, and taught English Literature for many years at Reading College in England, She retired to Ledbury in Herefordshire where "she lives convivially with neither cat, dog nor clergyman".

A Load of Old Bones (2005)
A Load of Old Bones has a very appropriate title. Set in an imaginary Surrey village in 1957, it tells how The Rev Francis Oughterard, hoping for a quiet and easy life, gets involved in a wild world of predatory females, officious policemen and a drunken bishop - although, admittedly, it is he who makes the bishop drunk. So it comes as no surprise that early on he decides to murder Mrs. Elizabeth Fotherington, the widow who has been pursuing him, "staring, simpering, nodding, mapping my every movement like some crazed cartographer". The blurb describes it as "accidental murder" but that is being over charitable. Part of the story is narrated by him, and other parts by his supercilious cat, Maurice, and his dim-witted bone-obsessed dog, Bouncer. Yes, it's that sort of book. But it's all written with verve and humour, and is great fun to read.

It gets off to a good start with "It was Bouncer who found the leg." As Maurice the cat explains, "Now, I know Bouncer is none too bright but even he has flashes of perspicacity, and it passed through his mind that where there was one leg there might be two." And so the body was uncovered. The author explains that when she wrote that opening sentence, even she had no idea whose leg it was. She does not plan ahead and sometimes has little idea what is going to happen next. She says she writes to find out.

To Bouncer, Maurice remains "such a supercilious bastard. Yes, he thinks I wouldn't know that word, but as a matter of fact I know quite a few long words and supercilious is only one of them." But he has to admit that "sometimes I am a bit slow at working things out".

Things get complicated when Oughterard discovers that Mrs. Fotherington has left him a large sum of money in her wii, and her aggrieved daughter, Violet Pond, arrives to explain to him that "clearly she had confused £25,000 with £250." Oughterard comments that "Alhough Elizabeth was a feather-brain, to give her her due she had not been a cretin. Even she would surely have distinguished £25,000 from £250." But he does not want to appear to have any motives for wishing her dead, so has to be very careful what he does.

The narrative is full of jokes, some of them more outrageous than others, as when Oughterard chases after Savage, a blind piano tuner. "I caught up with Savage and in my agitation clutched him by the shoulder. He whirled around. "Christ!" he exclaimed.
"No, no," I cried. "It's me, the vicar,"
Or there's the local flasher, who rejoiced in the name of Robert Willy. According to the local newspaper, he was found dead in a ditch: "He had
obviously been drinking heavily, police reported, and his trousers were in their usual state of disarray. The young constable first called to view the body said that for a dead man he had looked quite cheerful."

Quite cheerful is what you too may feel, after reading this book. Recommended.

Bones in the Belfry (2008)
Bones in the Belfry is set in 1958, and carries on from where the previous book left off. It is very similar in style and content. The Rev Francis Oughterard (vicar of St Botolph's, Molehill, Surrey) finds himself plunged into the world of art crime. Forced by his shady friend Nicholas Ingaza (who has a hold over him for providing him with an alibi when he was busy murdering Elizabeth, as described in the first book), he has to hide some stolen paintings (one featuring a pile of bones) in his belfry. His life is not made easier by the investigative probings of terrifying detective novel writer, Maud Tubbly Pole, who announces that she wants to feature him in her next novel - and, much to his horror, tells him she would like to include Elizabeth's murder too.

Acerbic entertaining comments are again added to his narrative by Maurice, the sophisticated cat, and Bouncer, the simple down-to-earth dog, who have got to like F.O., as they call him. The supercilious Maurice (who describes himself as "of an intellectual bent") had previously belonged to Elizabeth, but explains that "her smothering blandishments ... had driven me almost to distraction and there were times when - had I the strength and the means (and were less dependent on the good food she provided) - I could have readily strangled her. But fortunately the vicar did that instead." However, Maurice now has to live with Bouncer: "Fundamentally," he explains, "Bouncer is a good-natured creature; but being a dog, his raucous temperament can jar the nerves. Indeed there are times when I have to assert myself quite strongly and instruct him in the arts of etiquette and savoir-faire. It is a thankless business."

Bouncer meanwhile is more concerned with bones and a peeing contest with another dog. Maurice explains, "I gather it involves a lot of racing about from grave to grave and much squirting from different heights and angles. He tells me that during one of these sessions he encountered F.O. - not I think on the same mission - and that the vicar seemed very impressed by his performance. I rather doubt this as our master is not known for his powers of observation."

Although Maurice, Bouncer and other animals can talk to each other (a rabbit tells Bouncer to "Sod off!") and understand human speech, even Maurice has "never quite managed to grasp the intricacies of human hieroglyphics - escpecially those scawled by F.O." Well not yet, anyway. And sometimes they don't quite understand what is going on, as when Bouncer tells Maurice about "F.O. singing some hymn about a cross-eyed bear called Gladly. Don't know who he is, but the tune's all right and I joined in myself a couple of times - though that seemed to make the vicar wince, so I stopped." This may be an old joke about Gladly the Cross I'd Bear, but it's one of many throw-away lines that will be enjoyed by those who recognise them!

It is novelist Maud Tubby Pole who explains to Oughterard , "Readers don't want character, they want action!" Agatha Christie's characters, she tells him, "are as flat as pancakes but nobody complains - and the books sell like hot cakes. As do mine!" What matters, she says is atmosphere and plot. Oddly enough, in this book, it is the characterisation and humour that stand out. The plot is, as the author well knows, plain silly.

But you can't help enjoying the fun and the eccentricities of the clergy, such as those of Bishop Clinker who confides to Oughterard that he has a secret vice: "There are not just the two of us, others are involved sometimes as well. Spices it up a bit, if you know what I mean."
Oughterard "wasn't sure that I did know and felt myself starting to blush."
The Bishop went burbling on, "Of course a foursome is the ideal, evenly balanced and everyone gets a go. Six can be fun, but it can get a bit crowded, and at my time of life I tire too easily."
I won't give the game away and explain exactly what innocuous activity they were engaging in!

Right at the end, a policeman tells Oughterard, now amazingly Canon Oughterard, that they are re-opening the murder case from last year.

Bone Idle (2009)
Bone Idle is how the Rev Francis Oughterard (who surprisingly has just been elected a canon) is described by his shady blackmailing pal Nicolas Ingaza who forces him to steal a valuable figurine of a dancing pig from collector Claude Blenkinsop. As Oughterard himself quite rightly objects, "This is preposterous!"

The project backfires, of course, and the hapless Oughterard is plunged into further skulduggery during which someone is murdered. His despairing attempts to distance himself from the crime, and additional police interest, lead to embarrassing complications both for himself and his bishop, the pompous Horace Clinker. Worried that he is about to face further investigations into his murder of Mrs Elizabeth Fotherington (as described in the first book), he is disturbed to be confronted with the dead woman's daughter and her new aggressive and unscrupulous husband, the highly unpleasant Crumpelmeyer. Only the intervention of his world-weary cat Maurice and his intrepid mongrel Bouncer can save the situation.

It is all mildly amusing but we seem to have heard most of it before. As usual, most of the story is told by Oughterard himself but there are also contributions from his cat and dog which, although sometimes little more than repetitive, include some quite amusing conversations between them as when the dog tells the cat, "I've just been talking to a new neighbour .... I met her a couple of days ago but she was on the lead so I didn't get a chance to say much. But just now she was wandering around on her own and we got on jolly well."
"You mean the Irish wolfhound?"
"Yes, she's huge but very pretty, with a nice kind face."
"Well, evidently an improvement on that foxy little Pomeranian, Flirty-Gerty, you were always pursuing! Nevertheless, Bouncer, she's clearly out of your league. Too tall and too educated. Do not get ideas above your station - it will only end in distemper."

But the story of a murderous genteel clergyman was really too slight to be extended over three books.

Bones in High Places (2010)
Bones in High Places is very similar to the previous books – so similar, in fact, that you soon feel that you have read much of it before.
Once again the narrative is shared between the Rev Francis Oughterard, his world-weary cat, Maurice, and his intrepid mongrel, Bouncer.

The most entertaining comments are provided by the cat and the dog, as when the cat writes, "I issue a word of warning: at all costs avoid vicars. Humans by nature are peculiar, but vicars more so. I have lived with only one in my lifetime but he is more than enough and I feel I can generalise from that particular. My master's asinine attempts to keep his head above water while juggling with forces even more neurotic than himself are a trial indeed, although not without interest. A further trial is the dog. But as long as one takes a firm paw he can be managed. As a matter of fact, having the creature as a companion is not without its benefits. One can, for example, chew over with him the details of the day, expanding and honing one's viewpoint. The dog of course invariably insists on putting his own viewpoint (generally at variance with my own and never honed), but I can ignore that, and broadly speaking our alliance is congenial. Occasionally his observations are pertinent, although naturally one is careful not to acknowledge this too overtly as it goes to his head and he becomes insufferable.”

Oughterard himself, though, is becoming distinctly boring. The plot is, of course, absurd. It describes how Oughterard, under pressure from the blackmailing Nicholas Ingaza (who knows that Oughterard unfortunately murdered his annoying parishioner Elizabeth Fotherington in Book 1 of the series) journeys with him to the French Auvergne in search of buried gold in the chateau once belonging to Mrs Fotheringham. He is of course accompanied by Maurice the cat (who has stowed away, but has been practising mewing in French) and Bouncer the dog (secreted it in a lorry-full of dog biscuits).

Once in France they encounter the blustering Bishop and tiddlywinks champion, Humphrey Clinker, and find they are being dogged by two rapacious, gold-digging warders from Broadmoor lunatic asylum. Then there is the startling murder of Boris Birtle-Figgins, cranky custodian of the "Bones of Belvedere", the remains of an obscure 19th-century possible saint.

It is still amusing in parts, but the author sometimes seems to be trying a little too hard. The repeated references in footnotes to incidents in previous books, just draw attention to all the repitition. Recommended only for those who have not read the previous books.

A Bedlam of Bones (2011)
A Bedlam of Bones provides more of the same. Events in the Auvergne, described in the previous book, cast long shadows, and there are soon
sinister repercussions. Who is the menacing blackmailer stalking the previous blackmailer and the bishop? Can the bishop survive the threat of being outed? Why is there a body in the polyanthus bed and can Lavinia Birtle-Figgins really be as dippy as she seems? While The Rev Francis Oughterard struggles to cope, his animal minders, Maurice (the cat) and Bouncer (the dog), try their best to make sense of all this human bedlam.

It gets distinctly tedious, although the narratives of Maurice and Bouncer are still sometimes quite entertaining, as when Bouncer comments that, in regard to funerals, that "It's nice the way the vicar and me share the same interest in bones - although I've never actually seen him gnaw any. Offered him a chew of mine a couple of times, but he didn't seem too keen." And then Maurice complains about Bouncer's "inane attempts at French conversation ...Just because we spent time in the Auvergne he now imagines he is a native speaker and goes around shouting absurd gobbledegook accompanied by much shoulder movement and paw waving."

But the plot is not strong enough to hold the interest, and it gets annoying when the reader's attention is interrupted by asterisks leading to end-of-chapter footnotes urging us to See "A Load of Old Bones" or See "Bones in High Places", and the like. It almost seems like an admission that the author has run out of fresh ideas - and who can blame her? The first book(s) were full of bright inventions, but by now they've been worked into the ground, and it even comes as something of a relief when we hear, right at the end of the book, that Francis is no more.


There is an interesting article about the author in Hereford Times and an even more interesting and longer one written by herself on The Art Of Detection site. She also has her own website.



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A Load of Old Bones cover
Two contrasting covers: the American one above, and the English one below. The book's sense of fun seems better suggested by the cover above.
A Load of Old Bones cover
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