W.J. Burley's style of writing is low-key and therefore perhaps an acquired taste. Over the years, I've had several phases of enthusiasm for his work, interspersed with times when I've neglected his fiction for other fare. But I'm definitely in a Burley mood at present, and I've just read a book which has probably impressed me more than any of his other fiction.
The House of Care is a stand-alone, first published in 1981 and much less well-known that his Wycliffe series, even before the latter was televised. After this novel was published, Burley produced no more stand-alone novels, even though he continued writing until the end of his life; he died in 2002 at the age of 88, with the aptly titled Wycliffe and the Last Lap unfinished. My guess is that he was disappointed by the relative lack of appreciation for his stand-alones; the commercial potential of the series was bound to be greater unless he had a 'breakthrough' non-series book.
It's a pity that The House of Care wasn't more successful; I think it would make good television. John Cooper tells me that when he met Burley (something I never did), the author was asked by a number of American fans unfamiliar with his work which of his books he would recommend. His answer was - The House of Care. Interesting.
The setting is a decaying family estate in Cornwall. The Care family is struggling financially and Sir Henry Care has a complex personal life. Burley introduces a large cast of characters and a family tree would have been welcome. But he presents members of different generations in a credible and interesting way. As with so many of his books, sexual tensions seethe not far below the apparently pleasant surface of life on the estate.
The mood darkens as Sir Henry's daughter Laura, a young woman with a taste for the occult, becomes increasingly obsessed by the mysterious death of her mother, who plunged from Prospect Tower when Laura was a child. Several people are given good reason to want Laura dead and when a revolver goes missing, we fear the worst. Yet when a violent death occurs, it isn't by shooting...
I found this an intriguing read. The ending is subtle, and some would say ambiguous, but it works pretty well in my opinion. Perhaps this story would have enjoyed greater acclaim if it had been a little more dramatic in style, but it offers plenty to admire in terms of writing, characterisation, and evocation of place. And the plot, not always Burley's strong point, is pretty good too. Definitely deserves to be better known.