h i s t o r y
There was little doubt about the identity of Parker’s murderer.The squat, square-faced figure in a blue greatcoat seen scrambling away through hedgerows was quickly identified as John Heming, a carpenter from a nearby village who worked as a casual labourer for Captain Evans. A first mystery concerned his whereabouts: a search of his house and the surrounding area revealed nothing. Even a lock-down of the port of Bristol and a reward of fifty guineas failed to uncover him. Heming simply vanished.
A second mystery concerned the motive for the murder. None of Parker’s possessions was removed from his corpse, so robbery was ruled out. Nor did Heming, an outsider in Oddingley, have any obvious quarrel with the cleric. Suspicion instead fell on the cabal of farmers who had damned his blood in diabolical tones. For some years, village life had been peppered by a dispute between the proud, supercilious clergyman, a native of the Lake District, and the surly, independent farmers of Oddingley. At the heart of the matter lay an argument over that age-old grievance, the tithe. After failing to secure an increase to the yearly parish levy of £135, Parker had resolved to collect the tithe in kind. As was his feudal right, he demanded that his chief parishioners hand over an annual tribute of milk, sheep and corn. The farmers resisted the humiliating demands of the ‘Bonaparte of Oddingley’: they hid their produce, chased the parson from their gates and presented him with the worst of their yields. These contretemps led to actions in court and, eventually, to criminal conspiracy.
Moore sets this seemingly parochial conflict against a turbulent horizon of war, revolution, rumour, surging inflation, fears of invasion and creeping industrialisation. He is brilliantly sensitive to the preoccupations of honour and reputation that gripped local communities, and to the rancorous, potentially murderous, effects of jibes, curses and sneers. He captures the village of Oddingley in oil colours and, like Constable, is alive to both the beauty and restlessness of rural life.
As Moore acknowledges, the story of Oddingley – with its portentous name – is sufficiently familiar even for a local public house to tout for business on the back of its infamous past. However, his research is so comprehensive that the story more than merits his retelling. Moore makes use of legal documents connected to the case, and quotes judiciously from local newspapers. At different points, the narrative is held up by excursuses on the criminal justice system, the development of forensic science and the invention of the police force. These digressions are mostly pertinent and add to the suspense of the story. Only occasionally do they seem gratuitous: the discovery of a saline odour on Heming’s discarded bag, for example, does not quite merit a discussion of the state of the Worcestershire salt industry, circa 1800. Where detail is missing, Moore resorts to literary parallels – from local ballads to the novels of Hardy and Dickens – to set the scene.
Peter Moore’s story ends twenty-four years after Heming’s disappearance, long after the case has gone cold. A chance discovery sheds new light on the murders, disinterring old secrets and reopening ancient wounds. None of the participants, he concludes, was untypical of the kinds of people you would ordinarily find in an English village: ‘Had they lived at a different time or in another place their stories may have been different or completely anonymous.’ Moore’s impressive debut will ensure that their names live on. To order this book for £13.59, see the Literary Review bookshop on page 37
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