The Detective Novels of Michael David Anthony

I’ve chatted to many devotees of crime fiction who haven’t come across Michael David Anthony (1942-2003), probably because he died far too young at sixty-one and published only three detective novels. Sadly, British bookshops and libraries mostly only stock newer titles these days which means readers have little chance of finding overlooked authors.

Anthony was an outstanding writer, superb on plot, character and background. His novels are in print, thanks to Felony & Mayhem Press, the wonderful American publishers, but it’s a shame he’s forgotten by the British publishing industry. The novels could be described as literary detective fiction, classic English and the setting for all three is one of my favourite sub-genres, clerical crime.

Anthony created an unusual amateur sleuth, Colonel Richard Harrison, secretary to the Diocesan Dilapidations Board at Canterbury Cathedral. This post gives Harrison an outsider’s view of the clergy who live in the Close. Through his eyes we see the Church of England struggling with the changing demands of modern life – the clergy’s schemes and antipathies being closer to Trollope than P.D. James’s Death in Holy Orders. Harrison’s work gives him lots of scope to tour around the diocese, visiting church properties in lovely East Kent villages while investigating.

Richard Harrison is a really interesting character, a tall figure, grey-haired and spare. A traditionalist who wants a quiet life, though he has his secrets. His army career was spent as a spy in military intelligence during the Cold War and in two of the novels The Becket Factor (1990) and Dark Provenance (1994), a connection from his past draws him into the present mystery. His wife Winnie is an art teacher, wheelchair-bound after contracting polio early in their marriage. Their relationship has in the past been strained by his work and guilt.

The clever, subtle plotting means that although the novels are about murder, the reader sees through Harrison’s eyes (in third person) and the police are minor characters. There’s no need for a friendly detective or any sidekick. Full of ambiguity and moral dilemma, they’re intelligent, thought-provoking and the unmasking of the murderer is always deeply satisfying. They’re the sort of novels where you’re avid to know whodunit but you don’t want them to end.

Michael David Anthony had an extremely good understanding of human nature. (Possibly because he grew up in a vicarage.) His characters are fully-drawn and motivations – murderous or otherwise – are completely believable. Like Agatha Christie, he knew how to write about evil. His murderers are chilling in their ordinariness.

His sense of place is wonderful, immersing the reader in Harrison’s world of the cathedral precincts, bustling city and surrounding countryside.

All day the fog had lain across Canterbury, obscuring the sun and giving a more than usually dank and melancholy feel to the autumn streets. Along the oozy, winding banks of the twin-channelled Stour, the mist had steadily wafted up and thickened as the short day waned, curling up under the overhanging gables and around the weed-draped and lichened piles of the medieval pilgrims’ hostel known as the Weavers (now an almshouse for the elderly) spanning the sluggish stream. Smothering in turn the venerable remnants of Greyfriars, Blackfriars and the ruined Dominican Priory, it had spread like some foul exhalation or conjured ectoplasm out from the river into the surrounding streets. Blending with the steaming exhausts of the city traffic, it proceeded to creep its way through a host of ancient backways and lanes, finally reaching out across the greasy, worn cobbles of the Buttermarket through the ancient Christ Church Gatehouse and on into the grounds of the cathedral itself.

These are very Kentish novels. As you can guess, The Becket Factor has a theme relating to Thomas A’ Becket’s murder at Canterbury. The final novel Midnight Come (1998) has parallels with the life of Christopher Marlowe. I’d recommend reading in order as for me,  each novel gets even better. They build a feeling of tension about Harrison which culminates in Midnight Come. This in particular is one of the most superb detective novels I’ve ever read.

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