Thursday 13 December 2007

The English Simenon

Alan Hunter, whom I mentioned recently in connection with the George Gently tv series, was clearly influenced as a writer by Georges Simenon. However, a crime novelist who emerged a decade or so after Hunter, in the mid-60s, has to my mind an even stronger claim to be regarded as the most gifted English disciple of the Belgian master.

W.J. Burley was never a household name. His books about Superintendent Wycliffe might already have faded into obscurity had it not been for a competent tv series featuring that excellent actor Jack Shepherd as Wycliffe. When he died, in his 80s, and at a time when thanks to the telly his sales were higher than ever, Burley’s passing was scarcely noted in the wider world. He was a man who shied away from publicity and was happiest in his native Cornwall, a county he wrote about with love and clarity.

A couple of years back I contributed an appreciation of Burley to an official website set up in his honour by Mario de Pace. With Mario’s help, I picked up a few of Burley’s non-series books, and I’ve even tracked down his rather rare solitary excursion into sci-fi, The Sixth Day. Although Burley wrote in popular genres, his work is quiet and generally eschews melodrama, but he excelled at the evocation of place and mood. He may not belong in the Premier League of crime writers, but his was a career of solid and lasting achievement.

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