A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Newell Dunlap & Bill Pronzini

W. J. BURLEY – Wycliffe and the Scapegoat. Supt. Charles Wycliffe #8. Doubleday Crime Club, US, 1979. Avon, US, paperback, 1987. First published in the UK by Victor Gollancz, hardcover, 1978. Mills & Boon, UK, paperback, Keyhole Crime series, 1981. Corgi, UK, paperback, TV tie-in, 1997. Adapted as the episode “The Scapegoat” for the TV series Wycliffe, 7 August 1994 (Season 1, Episode 3).

   This story takes place in a clannish seaside English town that observes a rather strange All Hallows’ Eve ritual. On a wheel of fire, nine feet in diameter, is burned a life-size effigy –a scapegoat, as it were — and as it burns, the wheel is allowed to roll over a cliff and into the ocean.

   Thus is evil symbolically cast out for another year. The so-called Fire Festival dates back to Celtic times, but this year’s celebration may have been a little different. It develops that the murdered corpse of the town’s undertaker was used instead of an effigy. Certainly the undertaker, one Jonathan Riddle, was not a popular man, and the town is full of people who would have liked to see the end of him (including the members of his own family).

   Enter Detective Chief Superintendent Wycliffe, who, with his wife, is spending a long weekend near the town. He becomes interested in the case and undertakes his own investigation — a rather routine one, after the colorful dramatics of the Fire Festival. This is a bit of a letdown, although the characters are well drawn enough and the situation interesting enough to hold our interest.

   Writing in Twentieth Century Crime & Mystery Writers, Carol Cleveland says that Wycliffe is “an unconventional policeman who hates routine and authority, and proceeds about his murder investigations by the gestalt method. He immerses himself in the victim’s history and circle of acquaintances until he feels his way to a conclusion.”

   This is the pattern here, and while the method works well enough, Burley’s prose is so lacking in flair that it makes the book plodding in tone. The solution, though satisfactory, is not particularly memorable.

   Wycliffe appears in a number of other novels, among them Three-Toed Pussy (1961), To Kill a Cat (1970), Death in Stanley Street (1974), and Wycliffe in Paul’s Court (1980). Burley has also written two novels featuring Henry Pym, a zoology professor and amateur criminologist; these are A Taste of Power (1966) and Death in Willow Pattern (1970).

   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.

[UPDATE.] There were in all twenty Wycliffe novels, the last being Wycliffe and the House of Fear (1995). There were no further adventures of Henry Pym. There were a total of 38 episodes of the ITV television series Wycliffe, including the pilot and a Christmas special, spread out over five seasons. Only the pilot and the six shows of the first season were based on Burley novels. According to Wikipedia, “Wycliffe is played by Jack Shepherd, assisted by DI Doug Kersey (Jimmy Yuill) and DI Lucy Lane (Helen Masters).”