The late Robert Barnard (1936-2013) wrote four dozen mysteries that deftly combined ironic swipes at the class system with often very clever plots. He was also the author of a fine critical study of Agatha Christie, A Talent to Deceive. As a small tribute, here is my review of the third case featuring Dexter “Charlie” Peace, a black detective with the West Yorkshire Police, ironically named for the notorious Victorian criminal. Here he investigates the strangling of a popular author.
The following review is offered as part of Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme at her Pattinase blog, which today celebrates Barnard’s work.
“She had been the most notable person in the area and now she was a notable corpse”
Barnard was an expert plotter with a penchant for ironic twists who also had a sometimes very peculiar sense of humour. He was also very adept at drawing incisive, succinct and psychologically convincing character studies (he was once called the ‘the Jane Austen of crime writers”) – this is highly in evidence in this book, not least because the murder doesn’t actually occur until 40% of the way in. Until then Barnard really does a masterful job of creating a series of believable and plausible characters surrounding Lydia Perceval, an author of historical biographies who is a celebrity in Bly, a small (fictional) village not far from Halifax in Leeds. A strong-willed woman with a brief, unhappy marriage behind her, she instead focussed her emotional energies on her two nephews, Gavin and Maurice, in effect trying to ‘steal’ them from their parents (her sister and husband, who live down the road). While undeniably intelligent she is also a colossal snob who drops people when they don’t live up to her exacting standards.
She sets Gavin up for a career as a diplomat through Royal Navy but he becomes a casualty of the Falklands War; Maurice however ‘lets her down’ when instead of politics he goes for a career as a TV producer. But now, several years later, she meets the two young Bellingham brothers who have recently moved to the village and the pattern re-asserts itself as she tries to take them over and mould their lives as their mother is sick and father not really interested in bringing them up. Then one weekend Maurice turns up and discovers about the two boys and tries to warn off their father; then Lydia’s ex-husband also announces that he is moving back to the village (she had really always been in love with his brother, an explorer always away on some exotic adventure).
With all this going on, is it any wonder that she winds up dead?
“Witch, vampire, succuba, virago, harpy, vulture, blood-sucker, emotional leech – call her what you will,” said Andy, waving his hand in a lordly way. “I haven’t her skills with words.”
“You manage,” said his wife.
Peace is a Londoner who has transferred to Yorkshire and who, while bright, is still inexperienced – indeed, he still finds it hard to look at the body when they get to the scene of the crime. Under Superintendent Mike Oddie they dig around to find out who could have strangled Lydia. There is lots of nice banter between the two men, who are sharp and intelligent and very observant about their surroundings (Peace is particularly impressed by her photo of Tsar Nicholas II and King George V, which does in fact have a surprising bearing on the solution of the case). They soon realise that Lydia was admired but not much liked and why her distinction between those men of action she clearly admired and those passive observers she fundamentally despised ultimately lead to her downfall.
In reading this fine and ultra typical Barnard novel, full of his usual wry social observations and fascination with children which keep coming as part of the investigation, I was reminded of Julian Symons’ observation about some of the books by Ngaio Marsh. Symons wrote that he often found the books really engaging for the way they set up the characters and the world they inhabit but ultimately felt disappointed because once the crime was committed and investigation kicked in the story being much duller and mechanical.
I mention this because Barnard is one of those authors that fails to get a mention in Symons’ seminal study Bloody Murder, and it’s a crying shame in my view as character, theme and plot are often beautifully dovetailed in his books and the investigation are usually seamlessly integrated into the story. This is certainly true of A Fatal Attachment. Maybe there are a few red herrings too many, like the coincidental appearance of Maurice and his wife at the time of the murder, but this is a minor quibble and of course one that can be levelled at virtually any Golden Age mysteries, which is certainly the era that inspired the author the most. But this is also a modern book in terms of creating plausible people in a fairly recognisable every day reality. It is also noteworthy perhaps that while Peace ultimately cracks the case, he doesn’t really solve the whole mystery. Barnard instead provides a beautifully modulated coda – one that Ruth Rendell would be proud of – that neatly springs a wonderful surprise but also provides a truly satisfying conclusion that is handled with great dexterity, its irony providing the perfect end to an intelligent and distinguished mystery.
Charlie Peace & Mike Oddie novels
- Bodies (1988) [Peace only]
- Death and the Chaste Apprentice (1989)
- A City of Strangers (1990) [Oddie only]
- A Fatal Attachment (1992)
- A Hovering of Vultures (1993)
- The Bad Samaritan (1995)
- No Place of Safety (1997)
- The Corpse at the Haworth Tandoori (1998)
- The Bones in the Attic (2001)
- The Mistress of Alderley (2002)
- The Graveyard Position (2004)
- A Fall from Grace (2006)
- The Killings on Jubilee Terrace (2009)
- A Charitable Body (2012)
Several fine tributes have been paid online to Barnard and his work: Martin Edwards provided an especially nice one over at his blog, Do You Write Under Your Own Name?; Curt Evan’s typically thorough overview can be found at The Passing Tramp, while Mike Ripley as usual gave us one of the warmest and most knowledgeable of remembrances over at Shots.