A Bedlam of Bones (Reverend Oughterard Series #5)by Suzette A. Hill
A blackmailer is stalking the bishop—can he survive the threat of being outed? Why is there a body in the flower bed? And can Lavinia Birtle-Figgins really be as dippy as she seems? These and other imponderables immerse the Reverend Francis Oughterard in a fresh web of danger and subterfuge, while his animal "minders," Maurice and Bouncer, try their best to
A blackmailer is stalking the bishop—can he survive the threat of being outed? Why is there a body in the flower bed? And can Lavinia Birtle-Figgins really be as dippy as she seems? These and other imponderables immerse the Reverend Francis Oughterard in a fresh web of danger and subterfuge, while his animal "minders," Maurice and Bouncer, try their best to make sense of all this human bedlam.
“References to past cases, marked by footnotes throughout, may lead curious newcomers to previous books in a series that blithely mixes cozy elements with black farce.”—Publishers Weekly
“Cheeky, chirpy, and witty.... A tale of a blackmailed bishop amidst treacle tarts, waistcoats, and buggery.”—Historical Novels Review
An English vicar is both a murderer and a detective.
The Reverend Francis Oughterard led a life of rectitude until he strangled a parishioner. He escaped detection thanks to his dog Bouncer and his cat Maurice, who managed to cover up the crime. Since then his attempts to hew to the straight and narrow have been undermined by his involvement in any number of other illegal activities (Bones In High Places, 2010, etc.). This time out, a blackmailer is threatening his bishop. Years earlier this worthy cleric had a homosexual affair with Oughterard's sleazy pal Nicholas Ingaza, who turned up trumps for him by providing him with an alibi for murder. Now he too is getting blackmail notes. Soon enough he presses the unfortunate Oughterard into service as a sleuth. When Freddie Felter, one of their favorite suspects, is shot dead outside the bishop's house, Oughterard and Ingaza are tasked with disposing of the body. An unluckily placed police roadblock forces them to dump it in a neighbor's garden, all too close to Oughterard's home. Luckily, Bouncer, who had unwillingly shared the back seat with the corpse, manages to abscond with a notebook full of interesting tidbits that will help Oughterard identify the blackmailer.
The muddled, murderous vicar takes a backseat to his clever pets and a startling ending.
Read an Excerpt
The Vicar’s Version
‘You don’t think, do you,’ I ventured, ‘that you are making rather too much of this hat business?’
‘Certainly not,’ my sister replied briskly. ‘One doesn’t take tea with a murderer every day, does one?’
‘What about me?’
‘That’s hardly every day . . . and besides, you don’t count.’
She refilled her cup and scrutinized the two hats perched at the end of the dining room table.
Suitably chastened, I said nothing and resumed my struggles with the crossword. Such struggles are small compared with the larger conundrums of guilt and concealment,
not to mention the problem of ducking the demands of bishop and Mothers’ Union. Being a clergyman is an exacting matter at the best of times, but the difficulties are compounded if one is also an assassin.
I had not always been an assassin, and indeed for most of my time – as undergraduate, soldier and eventually vicar – had led a life of blameless ineptitude. But that was all changed (the blameless part at any rate) by Mrs Elizabeth
Fotherington on that fateful day in the wood – when in the vain hope of retaining my sanity and a measure of peace I had dispatched her to kingdom come. Since then,
as you might expect, life has turned complex and precarious and I have been subject to a variety of discomfiting entanglements. The most recent of these was what might be termed the ‘French fracas’, a gruelling time spent in the
Massif Central amidst soaring peaks and base pursuers.
Mercifully the latter came to an abrupt end (none of my doing, I hasten to say), but the repercussions were arduous,
and involved me in issues which I had confidently assumed to be resolved once back in England in the safety of my parish of Molehill. Delusion.
‘On the whole,’ Primrose continued, ‘I think I prefer the one without the veil. I know you say you like it, but I don’t wish to give him a false impression.’
‘What sort of false impression?’ I asked.
‘Of being anything other than what I am – i.e. an
Englishwoman of impeccable credentials and honest intention.
The veil has a foreign air, and I wouldn’t like him to think . . .’ She left the remainder unsaid, and picking up the grey hat with the assertive green bow placed it firmly on her head and gazed into the mirror.
I shrugged and lit a cigarette. ‘If you say so. But why on earth Rupert Turnbull should think you are remotely foreign when he knows from our encounter in France that you are as British as he – or me for that matter – I cannot imagine.’
She sighed impatiently. ‘Really, Francis, you are so literal!
You know perfectly well what I mean. It is imperative that he sees me as sound and not one to be trifled with.
There’s a great deal at stake in this transaction – we’re not talking peanuts, you know. And I’m damned if I am going to let that bludgeoning scoundrel think he can get his hands on my paintings for less than the market price –
more would be preferable. A tiny hat with a veil looks either frivolous or dubious, and if things are to go smoothly it is essential I wield the moral advantage.’
‘By wearing a hat without a veil?’
‘Precisely,’ she snapped.
There was a pause while I pondered this. And then I
asked what she would like me to wear.
‘Well, a suit, of course, but the essential thing is the dog collar. You didn’t wear it much in France and it is important that Turnbull be reminded of your status. Just because he battered Boris Birtle-Figgins to death and got away with it, he needn’t think he can run circles around the
‘But Primrose,’ I murmured, ‘we still don’t really know that he did it. It’s not as if he—’
‘If you mean he wasn’t so foolish as to confess to anyone in the way that you blurted your idiocy to slippery
Nicholas Ingaza, you’re perfectly right. But as we all agreed at the time, the circumstantial evidence was overwhelming.
Make no mistake – the man is a ruthless,
calculating killer and highly dangerous!’
‘All the more reason,’ I said testily, ‘to stay out of his way. I cannot think why you arranged to meet him back in
London. We should have severed all connection the moment the steamer left the quayside at Dieppe. In fact,
until the arrival of your telegram last week, I thought we had done just that. It really is too bad!’
She stared at me in wonder. ‘But I have already explained,
Francis. Rupert and I have a commercial contract.
I am to supply his new London language school with at least six of my rustic church and sheep paintings. This is not something he can be permitted to renege upon, however tasteless or violent his private life. And if things go appropriately I could well get a further order for a batch to the Oxford one as well . . . No, as I said, we must rendezvous with him at Brown’s Hotel next Tuesday afternoon at four o’clock sharp – and don’t forget the collar.’
I heaved a sigh and returned to the crossword. Five across: ‘Dog mad as a hatter.’ Seven letters. I swivelled the propelling pencil and carefully wrote in ‘Barking’.
An hour later, with Primrose and hat boxes safely en route to her home in Lewes, and with the phone off the hook, I
made further inroads into the crossword, accompanied by a small packet of peppermints and a large gin. It had been a strenuous day – sorting the drifts of diocesan edicts heaped up during my leave, parrying the inanities of
Mavis Briggs, being lambasted by a mother whose child had failed to be chosen for the Sunday School prize, and last but certainly not least, being faced with the unexpected arrival of my sister.
It was not so much Primrose’s presence per se that had been unsettling (siblings, after all, grow thick skins – and in fact we enjoy a wary closeness), but her resolution that we should renew acquaintance with Rupert Turnbull.
Pleasant and personable, Turnbull had become a source of considerable disquiet during the latter part of our stay in the Auvergne, when it emerged that in all likelihood he was a blackmailer and double murderer, and (unlike myself) confident, adroit and smoothly efficient. As I have remarked before, it is bad enough having to confront one’s own fall from grace, but to be dragged willy-nilly into another’s murky slipstream is distinctly disagreeable . . .
especially when in all probability the party in question would not hesitate to take a hammer to one’s skull if he saw fit.
Really, I thought, if only Primrose were less mercenary,
sleeping dogs could safely lie and a modicum of peace be achieved. As it was . . .
I poured another drop of gin and stared gloomily at my own sleeping dog, and wondered not for the first time what on earth the creature dreamed about. Rabbits? Bones?
Chasing the cat? Certainly not strolling up Albemarle
Street to Brown’s Hotel, sprucely dressed in clerical grey and rehearsing pleasantries to exchange with a fellow homicide . . . Lucky little beggar, innocent as the day he was born!
The Dog’s Diary
Well, like I told Maurice, I wasn’t really asleep – just thinking with my eyes closed. And listening and sniffing. It’s amazing what you can pick up that way – just lying doggo and letting them think you’re dead to the world, when all the time you are alive as a CAT ON HOT BRICKS!
Maurice didn’t like me saying that and started to go into one of his sulks, but he soon snapped out of it when I
began to tell him what I had heard F.O. and the Prim talking about earlier that afternoon. ‘Oh dear,’ the vicar had said, ‘I don’t think I can face any more of that sort of thing,
we had quite enough of that fellow in France. Can’t you meet him on your own if you have to?’ The Prim pulled a face and said her brother wasn’t exactly about to get a medal for chivalry, was he? Don’t know what she meant by that, but I suppose F.O. did because he went red in the face and mumbled that he would go along if she thought he could really be of help.
When I mentioned that bit to Maurice he started to laugh – in that weedy way of his, like a mouse gargling with nettle juice – and said something about there being a thin line between help and hindrance which he didn’t think the vicar had ever quite grasped. Matter of fact I couldn’t quite grasp what the cat was saying either, but then I often don’t. Gets a bit carried away with himself sometimes.
Anyway, the more we chewed things over and reckoned that F.O. (our master the vicar) was about to put his foot in things again, the more gloomy we got . . . No, that’s not quite right: the cat got gloomy and I got all sneezy and bristly (the old sixth sense playing up, telling me there’s fireworks ahead). Most times I don’t get gloomy, except when O’Shaughnessy the Irish Setter beats me in the peeing game or F.O. snatches one of my bones and puts it on the mantelpiece where I can’t reach.
But Maurice is often out of sorts. It’s his own fault. He’s what you might call a disapproving cat, and so all manner of things get up his nose and on his tail and he goes ratty.
Which is why he is jolly lucky to have me as his chum. I
sort of help him along and make him look on the bright side of things. For instance, I told him once that every catlitter tray has its silver lining – which struck me as quite a useful thing to say. But he didn’t seem to get the message and muttered something about being tired of stupid dogs spouting fatuous platitudes (whatever they are!), and that in any case nobody could ever say the same for my basket
. . . Oh well, just goes to show, Muncho before mogs!
Mind you, he has his moments – lots of them in fact. Like that time in France when he attacked one of the goons who was after F.O. and sent him flying over the cliff edge, or when he scared the living daylights out of Mavis Briggs and she nearly fell into the open grave at one of those corpse-burying things our master is always having in the churchyard. (It’s nice the way the vicar and me share the same interest in bones – though 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. Prefers his fags I
Anyway, the point is that Maurice and me know that the business in France with whatshisname – Turnip, I think –
is going to catch up with F.O. and make big trouble. But what the cat doesn’t know and I do – because my bones tell me – is that it won’t be long before Ingaza the Brighton
Type shows up again. And oh my arse, then there’ll be a buggers’ shindig, MAKE NO MISTAKE!
The Cat’s Memoir
It was too bad! I had been fondly hoping that Primrose’s intention to resume connection with that smooth villain was a passing whim. Apparently not, and I should have known better. The more I see of the vicar’s sister the more
I realize that unlike her brother, she is possessed of a rare and steely obstinacy . . .
You see, Bouncer had informed me that during her recent visit to the vicarage he had heard her instructing
F.O. to prepare for a trip up to London for the purpose of taking tea with the Turnip man in some Mayfair hostelry.
As it happened, I had already learnt something of this notion soon after we returned from the deprivations of
France but had foolishly assumed that for once the vicar might allow common sense to prevail. As I frequently have to remind the dog, I am a cat of sharp and sage perception
– and it was galling to have been caught in the snare of wishful thinking. However, as the humans glibly put it, no use mewing over spilt milk. The immediate necessity was to confront the current development and cope as best one could with human frailty – i.e. the vicar’s gaffes.
These gaffes were much in evidence in France – an experience from which I had barely recovered – where,
accompanied by his sister and the manipulative Brighton
Type, F.O. fell foul of all manner of alarming idiocies and dangerous ruffians. (I do not include the bishop and his female entourage in this latter category, though their presence there hardly contributed to peaceful harmony.
Neither, I suppose, should one count the Curé of
Taupinière – a specimen even more suspect than the
Fortunately, two of those ruffians were eventually disposed of – with, I might say, no small help from myself.
But the principal one, Turnip, remained at large and was clearly destined to be a thorn in our master’s flesh – or more to the point, in the flesh of Bouncer and myself. Being a canine, the dog lacks the sensibilities of us cats and is given to spluttering that he finds our master’s entanglements
‘GOOD SPORT!’ Even so, he is not so foolish as to forget that F.O. is a source of food, comfort and relative protection, and that it would be unfortunate were those things to be withdrawn on account of laxity and oversight.
There have indeed been some near misses, and naturally the whole issue of the original Fotherington murder continues to pose a niggling threat to our welfare. However,
on the whole I have learned to live with the vexations; and while I would not agree with Bouncer about the ‘good sport’, it has to be said that balancing on the high wire with the vicar does have its moments of sprightly amusement.
Not that there was anything sprightly or amusing about the dog’s inane attempts at French conversation that afternoon.
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. It is a tiresome and raucous display and I cannot think why the poodle, Pierre the
Ponce, seems so impressed. My own grasp of the language,
selective and academic as it is, does not lend itself to such exhibitionism . . . But then, of course, one has to make allowances for the braggadocio of dogs.
And talking of dogs, I also gathered from Bouncer that we could expect another visitation from the toping Gunga
Din – yes, if you please, that corpulent hound attached to the lady crime novelist who had descended on F.O. when he was once being forced to house Ingaza’s ill-gotten swag. It had been bad enough our master having to cope with the Brighton Type and his oily manoeuvres, but to be encumbered with Mrs Tubbly Pole as well, not to mention the dreadful bulldog drooling at her heels, was really the last straw. And now Bouncer told me they were coming again. Horror!
My instinct of course was to ignore the dog’s prognostications
– based as they were on that questionable ‘sixth sense’ of his – but the recent news of the proposed London meeting with Turnip made me suspicious, and I feared the worst.
Thus, as a corrective to drooping spirits and a means of stiffening the fur in readiness for the coming ordeal, I
decided that a gentle session with the Special Eye would be helpful; and repairing to the quiet of the pantry, I proceeded to caper with my favourite toy. This, I must explain,
had been presented to me by Bouncer in one of his more rational moments. Indeed, in view of the pleasure it has since given, one might almost say it was an offering of inspired thoughtfulness. I say almost for it doesn’t do to lavish too much praise on the dog as it creates mayhem.
But at the appropriate times I am careful to express my gratitude.
The item in question is the blue glass eye which Bouncer encountered under the neck of the corpse battered by
Turnip. Details of the discovery appear in an earlier volume of my memoir and so need no further reference here.
Suufice to say that the little trinket affords much gaiety,
and for the time being permitted me to ignore the looming confusions.
Meet the Author
A graduate of the universities of Nottingham and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Suzette A. Hill taught English literature for many years at Reading College before retiring to Herefordshire, where she lives with neither dog, nor cat, nor clergyman.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >