Coggin, Cockin and Cornish Comedic Crime Capers

Galileo Publishers has, in the past year or so, risen to being one of my favourite reissue houses, mostly on the back of the extraordinarily good series of Clifford Witting’s Inspector Charlton books that they have resurrected. His ‘Midsummer Murder’ was featured in the Unpopular advent series in December last year, whilst ‘Catt Out Of The Bag’ has made it firmly into my top ten of Seasonal Detective Novels and will no doubt be one that I shall enjoy again and again for years to come. Joan Coggin’s terrific ‘Dancing With Death’ was another richly enjoyable slice of seasonal fictional fare, and whilst not quite as top drawer as Witting’s offering it has nevertheless helped cement her place as one of my favoured purveyors of comedic criminality. ‘Dancing With Death’ was the fourth and final outing for Coggin and her magnificently scatterbrained character of Lady Lupin. Coincidentally (or more likely not) the book mirrored Lupin’s first outing (1944’s ‘Who Killed The Curate’) in being a mystery set in the Christmas season of goodwill to all men, except for those who are rather unfortunately earmarked for murder. Coggin is certainly light reading, yet whilst the books are coated with a patina of nostalgic whimsy there is too a little biting undertow of social commentary. ‘Dancing With Death’ then is about love, age, money, greed and the deception of appearances, yet it is also about the transition from wartime destruction to post-war privation and the uncertainties of The Future. I do hope that Galileo will be able to reissue the other three Lady Lupin books, for even the American Rue Morgue reissues are some twenty years old now and very difficult to find at a reasonable price. Fingers crossed. Perhaps too the Girls Gone By outfit will look at reissuing the ‘Bramber Manor’ series of girl’s school books that Coggin wrote under the name of Joanna Lloyd, although I imagine too that like all of us they have more than enough to be getting on with.

What Galileo has done however is publish a novel by the awkwardly similarly named Joan Cockin, whose ‘Villainy At Vespers’ I have just finished. Did I initially confuse and conflate the two names? It is a distinct possibility… Yet the chances are that I would have picked up the book regardless, for the resuscitation of Witting and Coggin is certainly enough for me to place a great deal of faith in the archaeologists of detective fiction working for the publisher. ‘Villainy at Vespers’ definitely repays that trust, for it is a tremendously entertaining romp through a post-war landscape. First published in 1949, the book is set in Cornwall during the kind of “June when workers in city offices look out through grimy windows at the sun and curse their luck in having decided to take their summer holiday in August.” It kicks off from the first paragraph in suitably grisly and melodramatic style: “Human sacrifice – primitive physical sacrifice – has long been out of favour in England. A considerable stir was, therefore, created when the body of a man, naked and with his throat cut was discovered upon the altar of St. Poltraun’s Church in the village of Trevelley.”

It is not entirely clear which part of Cornwall the fictional village of Trevelley is supposed to be, although I concede that for most readers this would be entirely irrelevant. For those, like myself, who find it impossible to read such things without at least once pulling out a map to consider the roots of physical inspiration, it’s an enjoyable diversion. At times Trevelley feels very much like somewhere on the North Cornwall coast, perhaps around Padstow, Polzeath and the Pentire Point. On the other hand, the fictional ‘Powey’ and the descriptions of the numerous crossings of the river inevitably makes one think of Fowey and the Bedinnick Ferry made so famous in much later years by Trembling Blue Star’s gorgeous song ‘ABBA on the Jukebox’. Either way, North or South coast (or most likely a fictional melange of the two), the Cornwall that Cockin depicts might yet be a ways from sinking into the unpleasantness of its own tourism successes, but there is already a sense of a landscape that sees a need to reinvent itself and to mediate its mythologies in order to move forward into the second half of the 20th Century.

So already in 1949 we have a Cornwall that is infiltrated by characters from London (and worse, from Abroad!), bringing the kind of crime and violence that will irrevocably change the character of the place. Cockin seems to take pleasure too in positioning this ‘new’ flavour of crime both as being alien and yet simultaneously connected to the ‘historic’ criminality of smuggling so essential to the Cornish Culture some might be seeking to protect. Throughout the book then there is a kind of push and pull between the two elements of criminality and their appeal as tourism attractions. Past and present (and, inevitably, future) jostle for position, each reliant on the other but also battling for supremacy. There are too notions of the position of The Church in all this, as Cockin notes the apparent decline in spirituality in favour of architectural interest or, indeed, the shock value of Unfortunate Events. Gruesome ‘pleasure’ seekers drawn to places by the grim allure of mystery and the pungent stench of ‘evil’, or the middle-aged, middle-class and semi-educated refugee from Modernity meandering from place to place with a Pevnser or a Betjeman clutched close to their chest, seeking out Medieval carvings and brasses to rub. Thumbing through my copy of C.B. Newham’s tremendous ‘Country Church Monuments’ I naturally plead guilty to at least the latter of these charges.

‘Villainy at Vespers’ might, then, be a clever observation of the transformational tourist landscape of immediate post-war England, but it is also quite simply a grand detective yarn. It sits comfortably within the Detective On Holiday sub-genre where Inspector Cam might be seen to rub shoulders with the likes of Christianna Brand’s Inspector Cockrill, George Bellairs’ Littlejohn or E.C.R. Lorac’s Macdonald. Or, if one likes one’s detectives in the amateur mould, perhaps Wimsey or Poirot. Indeed, Cockin plays the always enjoyable (to me at least) card of tipping the wink and invoking other fictional characters within her book. Poirot and Holmes get a namecheck, as does Edmund Crispin’s Gervase Fen who would by 1949 be sadly already near to the end of his enormously enjoyable ‘career’, until of course his odd resurrection in 1977’s somewhat bonkers ‘The Glimpses of the Moon’.

One might take this willingness to poke fun at one’s own work as as sign of confidence in one’s ability and understanding of the genre, and in Cockin’s case this would be entirely correct, for ‘Villainy at Vespers’ is a thoroughly well constructed and neatly, ahem, executed piece of period detective fiction. There are two further books in the Inspector Cam series (‘Curiosity Killed The cat from 1947 and ‘Deadly Ernest’ from 1952) and I for one would love to read them. Fingers crossed too then that Galileo will add those Cockins to the Coggins in their continuing reissue action.

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