Books review: What to read in June

James Walton 16 June 2022

A murdery mystery in the beguiling English countryside and a stranger-than-fiction true story—here's what you should read this month

June 2022 fiction

Murder Before Evensong by The Reverend Richard Coles

English countryside

Murder Before Evensong is both a countryside murder mystery and a reflection on Christianity

The first novel by The Reverend Richard Coles—whose somewhat unusual CV includes being a radio presenter, a former popstar, a Strictly contestant and a country vicar—begins on a note of deep drama. Not the murder of the title, but the plan by Daniel Clement, rector of Champton St Mary, to install a toilet at the back of the church. The trouble, you see, is that there’s never been one before, so the new loo represents something that the parishioners especially fear: change.  

Then again, they haven’t had much practice in dealing with it. As the novel makes clear, Champton prides itself on its continuity. The year may be 1988, yet this is still a place where the lord of the manor remains a figure of feudal authority and there’s a strong sense of social rank. For many locals too—certainly the ones we meet here—the Anglican church maintains a central role. 

"The rhythm of village life is beautifully captured"

Coles writes about all this with a winning mix of affection, amusement and just a faint edge of exasperation. The rhythm of village life is beautifully captured, and he handles a large and varied cast with sharp-eyed sympathy. Like the man himself, the novel is never remotely pious—but nor does it shy away from reflecting on what it means to be a vicar, and on Christianity more generally.

So, you may be wondering, what about that murder? As it transpires, this is a fair question. Not until page 100 does the killer strike—and though the death is said to throw Champton into turmoil, it doesn’t really. Instead, both village life and the book resume their quietly alluring rhythms for another 100 pages or so, before a second murder takes place. Only then does Coles snap into proper whodunit action, serving up a series of cunning twists and eventually a solution that’s undeniably ingenious if not perhaps terrifically plausible.  

And, in the end, this rather confirms the feeling of where his heart really lies here: not so much in the crime story itself, but in the beguiling picture of rural England for which it acts as a neat framework.  

Murder Before Evensong by the Reverend Richard Coles

Murder Before Evensong by The Reverend Richard Coles is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson at £16.99. 

Reader's Digest recommended read

The Premonitions Bureau: A True Story by Sam Knight

Sam Knight, credit Olivia Arthur Magnum Photos

Sam Knight tells the astonishing story with impressive calmness (© Olivia Arthur Magnum Photos) 

The Premonitions Bureau might sound like an organisation straight out of a science-fiction movie. In fact, it was a serious scientific endeavour set up in the 1960s by two intellectually respected men. One was Peter Fairley, the science editor of London’s Evening Standard newspaper, who later presented ITV’s moon-landing coverage. The other was John Barker (1924-1968), a reforming psychiatrist at the badly outdated Shelton mental hospital in Shropshire.  

But along with his day job, Barker had a deep interest in the psychic abilities of the human mind. After the 1966 Aberfan disaster, when a coal tip infamously collapsed on the town’s primary school, he persuaded Fairley to appeal in the Standard for anybody who’d had a premonition of the catastrophe. Seventy-five people replied and, after a spot of sifting, the Premonitions Bureau was born: partly to see if some people really could foresee terrible events, but partly too with a view to preventing them.  

"Along with his day job, Barker had a deep interest in the psychic abilities of the human mind"

Its two biggest stars—often to their own discomfort—were Miss Middleton, a London piano teacher, and Alan Hencher, who worked for the Post Office. Between them, they seemed to predict the Torrey Canyon oil spillage, the death of a Russian cosmonaut, Robert Kennedy’s assassination and a fatal train crash in London. By 1968, the two were also predicting Barker’s own death… 

Sam Knight tells the whole astonishing story with impressive calmness, acknowledging the possibility both of coincidence and of something rather more mysterious. He also uses it as springboard to explore wider questions of how the mind works. 

This edited extract begins—coincidentally or not—the day after Barker had been warned by his sceptical superiors at Shelton to disassociate himself from the Premonitions Bureau or risk losing his job:

“The bureau got its first major hit in the spring of 1967. At 6am on 21 March, the phone rang in Barker’s dining room. He came downstairs and answered. It was Alan Hencher.  

‘I was hoping not to have to ring you,’ Hencher said. ‘But now I feel I must.’  

Hencher was coming off a night shift and was calling to predict a plane crash. Barker made notes on a piece of Shelton hospital letterhead. Hencher was upset. He had a vision of a Caravelle, a French-built passenger jet, experiencing problems soon after take-off. ‘It is coming over mountains. It is going to radio it is in trouble. Then it will cut out—nothing.’ Hencher said there would be 123 or 124 people on board and that only one person would survive, ‘in a very poor condition’. Hencher couldn’t tell where the crash was going to happen but he had had the feeling for the last two or three days. It was as if someone on the aircraft was trying to communicate with him. They were trying to make peace. ‘While I am talking to you, I have a vision of Christ,’ Hencher told Barker. 

Bristol 175 Britannia

Bristol Britannia 312 (© RuthAS via Wikimedia Commons)

Barker passed the prediction on to the Evening Standard. In the subsequent weeks, he made no effort to curb his extracurricular research or to stop drawing attention to himself. On 11 April, he and Fairley appeared on Late Night Line-Up, a chat show on BBC2, to publicise the bureau. Nine days later, a turboprop Britannia passenger aircraft carrying 130 people attempted to land in Nicosia, Cyprus, during a thunderstorm. The plane was on its way from Bangkok to Basel, carrying mostly Swiss and German holidaymakers. It was on its way to its penultimate stop, in Cairo, when the pilots were advised the airport was closed because of heavy rain. The flight plan suggested Beirut as the back-up option but the captain decided to make an unscheduled landing in Cyprus, despite the bad weather.  

By the time the plane reached the island, the captain and his co-pilot were almost three hours over their time limits at the controls. At 11.10pm, the aircraft was cleared to land at Nicosia, but came in a little high. Muller requested permission to make a circuit of the airport and try again. The control tower glimpsed the plane, its landing lights flashing through the low cloud, before it wheeled to the south and clipped a wing on the side of a hill rolled over, broke into pieces and caught fire.  

‘124 DIE IN AIRLINER’, the Evening Standard reported on its front page the following morning. (The final death toll was 126; two people who survived the initial impact were taken to a nearby UN field hospital, where they died.) Fairley and Barker noticed the similarities with Hencher’s prediction immediately. The Evening Standard published an account of Hencher’s premonition alongside the news coverage. ‘The Incredible Story of the Man Who Dreamed Disaster’, the headline read.” 

The Premonitions Bureau: A True Story by Sam Knight is published by Faber at £14.99

Paperbacks

And Away… by Bob Mortimer

One of the bestselling—and best—showbiz autobiographies of recent times. Funny (of course) but often moving too. 

And Away... by Bob Mortimer

Gallery UK, £8.99

A Slow Fire Burning by Paula Hawkins

A body found on a houseboat kicks off the most exciting thriller so far by the author of The Girl on the Train. 

A Slow Fire Burning by Paula Hawkins

Penguin, £8.99

Berkmann’s Cricketing Miscellany by Marcus Berkmann

Father’s Day alert! A hugely entertaining collection of cricket facts, presented with Berkmann’s usual wit and keen eye for arresting detail.  

Berkmann's Cricketing Miscellany by Marcus Berkmann

Abacus, £9.99

No Such Thing as Perfect by Emma Hughes

Let’s face it, not that many rom-coms are both properly romantic and properly comic. Here’s one that is.

No Such Thing as Perfect by Emma Hughes

Penguin, £7.99

Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? by Séamas O’Reilly

Wonderful, touching and somehow joyous memoir of growing up in rural Derry as one of 11 children, whose mother died when Séamas was five.  

Did ye hear mammy died by Seamas O'Reilly

Fleet, £9.99

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