It’s World Book Day today, so it seems a good time to recommend the series of books I’m reading at the moment: the ‘Bones’ books (or the 'Francis Oughterard' series) by Suzette A. Hill.
I’m currently part-way through Bones in the Belfry, the second book in the series which follows the Reverend Francis Oughterard (also known as F.O.), his dog Bouncer and his cat Maurice and their adventures in 1950s Surrey. All the Rev wants is some peace and quiet, but life – and crime – keeps getting in the way and it’s often up to his animals to help sort it out. Sounds a bit twee doesn’t it? It isn’t.
I’ve only read almost two of the books so far, and I wouldn’t give away the story anyway, but I can tell you that the first book begins with the discovery of a body in the woods in the quiet village of Molesworth in Surrey. One way or another, Bouncer and Maurice both lose their owners and decide to move into the vicarage, adopting F.O. as their new guardian – which means they’ll do anything to make sure they don’t lose their new-found security.
I must admit that when I started reading the first book in the series, A Load of Old Bones, I had reservations. The first chapter was narrated by Maurice the cat, and I thought it would take a great deal of skill to pull that type of thing off without it getting annoying. Well, it didn’t get annoying. In fact, it was expertly done. F.O. narrates most of the chapters, with occasional interspersions from Bouncer and Maurice, so the books strike the perfect balance of human-canine-feline narrative perspectives.
The characterisation is brilliant: Maurice is undeniably a cat, and Bouncer a dog – but not ‘just’ a cat and a dog. Their accounts subtly build a strong and detailed picture of their individual characters, so I have a clear image of each of them in my mind’s eye as I read. There’s also a cast of supporting animal characters – from flighty Pomeranian to up-for-anything Irish Setter – which are delightfully described through the eyes of Bouncer and Maurice, who don’t always see eye-to-eye on these things. In fact, the voice of each narrator becomes so distinctive that you'll find yourself waiting for their varous accounts like the return of an old friend.
F.O. himself is just as entertaining. He's blissfully unaware of his animals' views and machinations, but he has his own animal sensibilities – he refers to a thin, suspicious policeman 'the Whippet', for example. And while all he wants is peace and quiet with a malt whisky, a cigarette and a crossword, he's not quite the walkover other people take him for.
The front cover of my edition proudly displays praise from the wonderful Dame Beryl Bainbridge, who in my opinion was one of the greatest ever writers of darkly humorous novels. It's high praise indeed, but these books deserve it. They’re funny, clever and warm-hearted with a good dollop of farce and, after reading just over one-and-a-half of them, I’m definitely hooked.