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Book review

In spite of its deceptive (mischievous ?) title, reminiscent of Agatha Christie, Murders at the Vicarage is not set in a countryside parish, but in the heart of bustling Maradana. Professor Ravindra Fernando (RF) has already carved a niche for himself as Sri Lanka’s foremost, and only, writer of medico-legal cases. His account of the rivetting Sathasivam Case has already gone into several prints. While that story of adultery, cricket and murder concerned Colombo’s high society, the present story depicts a segment of middle class Sinhalese Christian life.  The  fiendishly clever murders committed by Rev. Mathew Peiris [MP], of St.Paul’s Vicarage,  and his lover Dalrene Ingram , would have remained undetected, but for the suspicions of Medical Officers in the General Hospital  and MP’s adult children.

Mathew Peiris was a strange and enigmatic figure, far removed from the conventional image of an Anglican cleric. He had a charismatic personality and had many ardent parishioners who firmly believed that he had extraordinary spiritual powers and could converse with angels. In the words of one of his Judges, MP’s cassock gave him “credibility, veneration and authority” His specialty was exorcism where he expelled demons, who had possessed their victims, at well attended weekly sessions. Russel Ingram and Dalrene, his wife, were so regular at these “services” that she was recruited to assist MP in the activities. Before long, MP invited Russel Ingram, with his wife and children, to live in the Vicarage, with him and Mrs. M.P.  Dalrene soon became an indispensable part of the household. She was a typist and MP found her a job at Colonial Motors. Russel was unemployed. Sometime later, MP and his wife decided to visit their three children living in England, leaving the Ingrams to run the Vicarage. It can be deduced that all three adult Peiris children had ‘fled’ to England to escape an unhappy family and a domineering, and strange, father. After a brief visit, MP returned home alone leaving his wife behind in England. Around this time MP claimed, off and on, that angels had spoken to him and predicted two deaths.

We now come to the essence of the story which begins with the strangely similar deaths, in MP’s Vicarage, of his protégé Russel Ingram and, some months later, MP’s own wife Eunice. Russel Ingram’s death had been originally attributed to ‘natural causes’[hypoglycemia/ brain damage]. However, when Mrs. Peiris, living in the same residence, died of the identical medical condition this aroused the suspicions of Medical Officers [among them a young Dr. R.F] who had seen  the patient. An autopsy was duly conducted. Where the cause of death is “not known or violent or suspicious” a Coroner’s Inquest had to be held according to the Criminal Procedure Code. Suspicion had already begun to emerge as regards MP’s role in his wife’s untimely death. He retained Bunty de Zoysa, an eminent President’s Counsel, to watch his interests. However, after a lengthy inquiry,   the Coroner delivered an Open Verdict. This led to the painstaking Police investigation, now famous, which finally ended with MP and Dalrene  being found guilty of murder and being sentenced to death.

The newspapers of the day had a wonderful time with the photogenic Rev. MP in his cassock and Rasputin beard and his lover, the far-from-glamorous, Dalrene. What made the case unique was that, apart from MP’s religious role, it depended entirely on medical and circumstantial evidence – not on mutilated corpses and bloody weapons. It was to go down in legal history as the only such case in Sri Lanka.

The author writes, with great lucidity, of Solicitor General Tilak Marapona’s brilliant case for the prosecution. His suspicions were confirmed by an array of witnesses from the General Hospital ranging from nurses to Consultants of the highest caliber. General Practitioners too, including one from England, gave honest evidence. Regrettably, there emerged a few instances of negligent medical conduct [e.g. prescriptions over the phone; letters issued without seeing the patient] but these did not affect the Prosecution case. It is instructive to read the evidence and the simple honesty with which most Prosecution witnesses, from the medical professions, faced aggressive cross-examination by the Defence lawyers. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of a specialist witness for the Defence who tried very hard to attribute Mrs. P’s medical state to mental disturbance. He failed to establish his views under cross-examination by the Prosecuting Counsel.

The nine hour long High Court Judgment, of 682 pages, was delivered by Justice Bandaranayake. Professor R.F gives the reader a comprehensive summary and the verdict of Guilty for both accused, Mathew Peiris and Dalrene Ingram, who were sentenced to death. As was to be expected they appealed to the Court of Appeal which acquitted Dalrene, but confirmed the death sentence against M.P. He appealed to the Supreme Court which concurred with the Court of Appeal.

The Epilogue is so fascinating that I will not refer to its contents except to note that MP benefitted from the suspension of the Death Penalty and, after serving 19 years in jail was released on a General Amnesty in 1987. He died, proclaiming his innocence, one year later.
A few small pictures enhance the book whose 544 pages probably precluded more and larger illustrations.

Professor Ravindra Fernando has to be congratulated on this eminently readable and comprehensive account of a unique ‘modus operandi’ of murder and an intriguing murderer.