Classic Crime

Sheila Radley

Sheila Radley was born on the 18th November 1928 in rural Northamptonshire. Radley was from the ‘means-tested’ generation and her education was free, leading Radley to eventually study at the University of London, graduating with a B.A. History in 1951.

Radley served for nine years in the Women’s Royal Air Force as an education officer before taking on different roles in adult education, in advertising, as a teacher, a clerk in a shoe factory and as a civil servant. She then dropped out of conventional graduate work and moved with her partner to a small Norfolk village store where she also began writing her books. Her first three books were under the pseudonym of Hester Rowan and were romance novels. Radley then turned her hand to crime novels of which she wrote ten, nine of which were in the Chief Inspector Douglas Quantrill series.

Not much else is known about Radley or her life outside of her writing. I know that she would visit Heffers bookshop in Cambridge on a regular basis but has not been seen for some years leading me to believe she has passed on.

Thankfully, Bello Books have now re-issued her Quantrill novels as e-books and are definitely well worth trying if you enjoy a solid, old-fashioned police procedural with well-drawn characters. I believe this series would appeal to fans of Susan Hill and Kate Atkinson.

Review: Fate Worse Than Death

Fodderstone Green is a quiet village and nothing much happens. When it does, gossip is rife. In late July, Beryl Websdell’s daughter called off her impending wedding and vanished without trace. Two days later a gnome belonging to the vanished bride’s mother also disappears. Are the two events linked?

Three weeks later and it is recorded as the hottest August in half a century and Inspector Martin Tait is looking forward to his week’s holiday with his Aunt Con (short for Constance) at her home in Fodderstone Green. Her vast fortune will come to him and when it does he will be able to have the large house that would be fitting for when he becomes Chief Constable in the not too distant future. It would also allow him to pursue his love of flying which is currently costing him a small fortune he doesn’t currently have. However, Tait is to have a short sharp shock within hours of arriving at his Aunt’s house. Then it is only a few days into Tait’s holiday when he and his Aunt Con discover a body.

I normally start a ‘Classic Crime’ with the first novel, especially if it is a series of detective novels. Although many writers of crime fiction are adept at giving ‘background’ to what has happened in previous books, we as a crew of crime fiction fans always tend to prefer to start ‘from the beginning’. I thoroughly enjoyed her debut crime novel, ‘Death and the Maiden’ and believe it to be an enviable police procedural. It does hint at where Radley was going with her detective series.

However, it is her fifth Quantrill novel, ‘Fate Worse Than Death’ that I feel is the most fully rounded and inspiring novel that Radley produced. Here we see very little of Quantrill in the beginning of this novel which centres more on his ‘bête noire’, the fast-tracked Inspector Martin Tait who is selfish, self-centred and a hideous social climber. But somehow, despite these shortcomings, Radley actually makes Tait human, a man who is fallible, and in the long run, likeable.

By comparison Quantrill, who is biased against Tait solely for having feelings for his daughter, is more a driving force off stage than on. Here, Tait takes centre stage and Radley gives us a wonderful novel. Radley excels at characterisation and the cast who populate this novel are sublime and three-dimensional. Aunt Con is wonderfully full-bodied as is Marjorie Braithwaite, the village harridan. Although Radley’s series of nine detective novels give Douglas Quantrill top billing, Radley preferred to move her players about, some to the fore, others to the background with each new novel.

Recently people have been extolling the virtues of fiction and crime fiction merging as if it is a new phenomenon. Radley published this novel in 1985 and surely has to be credited as a leading innovator of the crime fiction genre who is being simulated today by authors like Susan Hill and Kate Atkinson. The crime is there and leads to a satisfactory conclusion, but it is Radley’s artistic eye shining through her writing as she weaves a glorious tapestry, chronicling the machinations of the residents of an ordinary Norfolk village that sets this book apart. This is writing of a supreme nature and a superb novel.

Reviewed by: C.S.

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