Wycliffe and the Pea Green Boat by W. J. Burley
(First published in 1975; The 6th of 22 novels in the Wycliffe series)
About the author
William John Burley was born in Falmouth in 1914. Married with two sons, he worked as an engineer before a change of direction led him to study zoology as a mature student at Balliol College, Oxford. Afterwards, he taught biology at Newquay School.
WJ Burley began his professional writing career with books about an amateur detective (Henry Pym) before deciding to concentrate on the investigations of a professional policeman (Wycliffe). This series gradually trended away from being a pure police procedural to stories about a policeman with a more psychological approach.
In The St James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers, Burley summed up his work thus:
‘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.’
The quality of the books (along with the TV adaption with Jack Shepherd being of as good a quality although divergent from the books for practical reasons – the act of compressing a Burley novel done to 50 minutes proved almost impossible) have kept the Wycliffe books in print unlike the rest of Burleys work.
W J Burley died in 2002.
Cedric Tremain is charged with murdering his father by booby-trapping his fishing boat. However despite all the locals are agreed that he is an unlikely murderer, the case against him is strong as he has motive, opportunity and know-how as there is some hard circumstantial evidence against him. But Chief Superintendent Wycliffe has a strong sense that something about the case just doesn’t fit. As he quietly continues his investigations a confusing picture emerges. Twenty years ago Cedric’s cousin was convicted of strangling his girlfriend and served fourteen years of a commuted death sentence. While the wheels of justice grind on Wycliffe breaks his holiday to search for a link between past and present to solve more than one murder.
This is an interesting Wycliffe story for 2 reasons.
Firstly, the TV version almost entirely drops the B-plot – the problem of plot condensing is really apparent here and you can see why after this episode the production team opted entirely for original stories using the established characters from the start of series 2 onwards.
Secondly, I feel this is one of the first of the true Wycliffe books as Wycliffe acts slowly & deliberately teasing the case together and getting people to show their guilt themselves. He functions with very little support from a team here relying almost entirely on his knowledge of human nature to untangle the tensions and jealousies of a community to get at the truth.
This last reason combined with the ability that Burley demonstrated repeatedly to pin down an image in just a few words makes this an excellent read.