Damn His Blood, what a great title. I wanted to read the book before I’d seen it or even knew what it was about on the strength of the title alone. Fortunately, once I did have it in my hands the subject matter was just my thing too. What’s not to like about an early nineteenth-century true murder mystery featuring a vicar, a retired military man and a cast of rural village folk. Except perhaps the brutal murder part, obviously.
Picture the scene. Oddingley, a village near Worcester that the Reverend George Parker called home. His tenure was not without controversy, and his relationships with the villagers were not entirely peaceful. Still, he cannot have imagined it coming to an abrupt and violent end one fine midsummer evening in his own glebe meadows. Parker was shot and brutally beaten, murdered at close range. Who would want the Vicar dead? Well, who wouldn't, as it turns out.
Oddingley had become horribly split, with the residents forced to choose between Parker and Captain Evans. The sticking point was the tithe. Parker wanted to increase it, and controversially began collecting it in kind to ensure he got his due. Evans and his cohorts were aggrieved to the point of murder. Literally. Parker gained the nicknamed Bonaparte of Oddingley, a tyrant in his demands, although he was deeply reactionary rather than revolutionary. A man out of time is the apt phrase Moore uses. He was also stubborn and ungracious in victory. His was always unlikely to be a good end.
Moore captures the atmosphere of menace that developed in the village. Left-handed, literally sinister, toasts were drunk to the vicar. Oaths were sworn against him, and in the opinion of some killing him would be no worse than killing a dog. A tavern plot was forged. And so, the poor man met his violent end. It was clear from the start that this was a premeditated murder, and one with no shortage of suspects. But it took two decades to establish some approximation of the truth about what happened and even then no one ever paid the judicial price for the deed.
Moore uses his sources well, gleaning every last drop of information to construct a compelling and entertaining narrative. The characters are larger than life. One of the prime suspects, Heming, is a shifty chap and no mistake. He lurks around, appearing and disappearing in an instant. Despite having a wife and family he has the aspect of a vagrant milling around to take opportunities wherever they can be found. Captain Evans, retired from the army and now head of his household, is a huge figure, commanding respect and fear, a natural ringleader.
Moore sets this sensational and singular event in context. The local politics of this traditional rural village are essential for understanding the event, but wider social and political factors were also at play. This was a time when the implications of the French Revolution were still resonating, the country was at war with France, and taxes and inflation were rampant. Anxiety over the threats to their livelihood both big and small made it a bad time for Parker to challenge social norms.