Click here to read reviewer Sonia R. Polinsky's take on Bones in the Belfry.
Bones in the Belfry by Suzette A. Hill is a very light novel. Sequel to A Load of Old Bones, it is ostensibly a mystery (it bills itself as "The Case of the Vicar and the Missing Masterpiece") but seems more like a low-brow English comedy than anything else. There isn't even any mystery. Not only that, it wants to make a sympathetic character of a vicar who murdered a parishioner in the first book, just because she was getting too annoying. I haven't read the first book, so that supposition is gleaned from what Hill tells us in this one. The question, as always, is "Is this book good?" The answer, as is too often the case these days, is "kind of."
Reverend Francis Oughterard, fresh off having successfully gotten away with killing an old woman in his parish, is in a bit of a pickle. It seems that an old friend of his from school, Nicholas Ingaza, has come into possession of some stolen paintings. Since Nicholas helped the vicar with an alibi during his troubles a few months ago despite not knowing what he had done, Nicholas expects a little payback and wants Francis to hold on to the paintings for him while the heat cools off. Francis, never the coolest customer to begin with (he was saved from incarceration by the intelligence of his cat, who convinced his dog to collect one of the most incriminating pieces of evidence), he's understandably a bit put out by the request. Of course, things get worse as time goes on, especially when a famous author of mystery books comes to the village to write a book based on the original murder.
Yes, you understood correctly from the above description: the vicar's dog and cat are characters in this novel. They can only speak to each other, but they do speak. A lot. Bones in the Belfry is told in a series of journal entries, mostly from the vicar but with entries from the cat and dog as well, told from their point of view. It's a cute idea, and Hill does a good job with it. The cat is suitably aloof and intelligent, wanting mostly to be left alone but realizing that if his new owner (he was the parishioner's cat to begin with) goes down for the crime, things won't go well for the pets. The dog is more interested in playing with his bones, his chew toy, and other dogs in the village, but he also is smart enough to know that they have to keep the vicar safe or he'll have to find a new home.
Hill does a great job with the characterization, with Francis as a vicar who has made his one mistake and just wants to get on with his life, but things keep happening to keep it hectic. Some of his parishioners are busy-bodies who keep him on his toes. He's especially frantic when the author, Maud Tubbly Pole, comes to the village and keeps wanting to pump him for information on his original crime. She doesn't know he did it, of course, but he was the closest to the whole thing so she wants his "insight" into the setting. Since he'd rather just forget it ever happened and doesn't want to seem too knowledgeable about it, his antics in trying to fend her off are amusing.
As with most of these English village mysteries and novels (I seriously have trouble calling this a "mystery"), Hill populates the narrative with quirky characters, most of whom are fun. There is Francis' boss, Bishop Clinker, who's got an extra-marital secret that he needs Francis' help in keeping quiet (and no, it's not what you think). There's Nicholas himself, who steals the show when he actually appears to collect the paintings. There's Mavis Briggs, the bane of Francis' existence, not out of malice but out of sheer blundering into circumstances that prevent him from solving his problems, as well as thinking that everything's about her.
The main problem with Bones in the Belfry is that it's very inconsequential, even more so than most of these types of novels. It's all very cute and amusing, but when you get to the end, you're thinking "that's it?" I read through 280-plus pages for this? The issue with Tubbly Pole and her book just gets set aside (in an admittedly humorous way, of course). The problem with the paintings gets solved with a lot of space left in the book, space which is used partially to make all the previous proceedings kind of pointless. Some of the vicar's problems end up being fixed through nothing that the vicar did, but just by happenstance. Thankfully, this book does have an ending, but the last page sets things in motion for Hill's third book, so we're left on a bit of a cliffhanger as well.
Ultimately, I did enjoy Bones in the Belfry, and I'm glad I read it. As long as you know what you're in for when you start, it's a fun piece of fluff. Don't expect any major revelations or deep philosophical thoughts. But if you just want a nice, cozy English village novel, which calls itself a mystery (though that could just be the publisher's marketing department and have nothing to do with Hill), you won't do yourself a disservice by picking this one up.