A FATAL ATTACHMENT (1992) by Robert Barnard

Barnard-Fatal-Attachment-corgiThe 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.

Barnard-Fatal-Attachment-pbShe 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.

Tsar Nicholas II and King George V

Tsar Nicholas II and King George V

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.

Barnard-Fatal-Attachment-avonI 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

  1. Barnard-Fatal-Attachment-BookClubBodies (1988) [Peace only]
  2. Death and the Chaste Apprentice (1989)
  3. A City of Strangers (1990) [Oddie only]
  4. A Fatal Attachment (1992)
  5. A Hovering of Vultures (1993)
  6. The Bad Samaritan (1995)
  7. No Place of Safety (1997)
  8. The Corpse at the Haworth Tandoori (1998)
  9. The Bones in the Attic (2001)
  10. The Mistress of Alderley (2002)
  11. The Graveyard Position (2004)
  12. A Fall from Grace (2006)
  13. The Killings on Jubilee Terrace (2009)
  14. 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.

***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

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34 Responses to A FATAL ATTACHMENT (1992) by Robert Barnard

  1. Colin says:

    A completely new author to me – I’ve never even heard of him. I’ll have to explore some more.

  2. Sergio – Right you are about Barnard’s ability to draw characters. He was so adept at that and he didn’t waste words about it either. This is an example of that skill, and I’m glad you reminded me. :-)

  3. John says:

    The spider and web illustrations make me think spider venom may be involved. Your review omits anything about that. Just a coincidence with the artwork? Perhaps its more metaphorical and I’m being too literal-minded.

    I have Death and the Chaste Apprentice in a box …. somewhere and intended to read that for this salute to Barnard. I’ve never read any of this series. But instead Death on the High C’s turned up in a pile of books I bought earlier this year so I re-read that one and wrote about it. (I just posted my Barnard contribution BTW.)

    The victim in the book you reviewed and the one I wrote about sound like they might be related based on personality type alone. You’ve certainly enticed me with this review to go digging for …Chaste Apprentice.

  4. Like you, I enjoy Barnard’s clever mysteries. I’m impressed with his consistency over the decades.

  5. Kelly says:

    “… character, theme and plot are often beautifully dovetailed in his books and the investigation are usually seamlessly integrated into the story.” Agreed 100%, and it’s often more seamless than other traditional mysteries, because I don’t feel like he’s a slave to the formula.

    • Thanks Kelly – there was great variety in his books as to subject matter and characters – perhaps, one might think, too much for the puproses of creating a recognisable ‘brand for commercial purposes – if that’s true it’s a real shame.

  6. Richard says:

    Sergio, outstanding review, you really nailed this one. I need to take your class in writing reviews.

    I have read several Barnard novels over the years, and only been disappointed in one, which Patti reviewed this week and I mentioned in my review. But other’s love that one so it’s clearly a matter of personal taste and opinion. Your opinion of this one has me wanting to read it.

  7. Excellent review, Sergio. I agree, his plot(s) and twists are what struck me as unusual while I read my first book by Robert Barnard for FFB and it’s not going to be the last. I’m now keen to read his mysteries though frankly I didn’t know he had written four dozen of them. A compelling storyteller.

    • Thanks Prashant – I really want to read or re-read the whole lot now as I realised it had been a long time since I picked one of his books off the shelf. Strictly speaking I may have exaggerated only slightly – I think he wrote about 47 books, including 4 as ‘Bernard Bastable’ (which I have never read) and two collections of short stories. On top of that there were half a dozen of which were non-fiction including his terrific book on Agatha Christie, A Talent to Deceive.

  8. TracyK says:

    When I read your review, I checked my catalog and I have read 20 of Barnard’s books (since I have been cataloging). All of the Perry Trethowan series, all but two of the Charlie Peace series, and many of the standalone books. He is one of favorite writers. Looking forward to reading many more of his books. I haven’t liked some of the later Charlie Peace books as well as the earlier ones. But Barnard always writes well, and has interesting characters. I also like Out of the Blackout a lot.

    • Thanks TracyK – sounds that you and I have pretty similar feelings about Barnard’s output and so glad you liked Blackout too!

      • TracyK says:

        And I meant to say I like your list of the Charlie Peace mysteries. The reason I started reading that series was because I like Bodies so much, which is a Perry Trethowan mystery. And I did not realize that A City of Strangers features Oddie. I haven’t read that one and I will have to get to it soon(ish).

  9. neer says:

    Never heard of this author, Sergio. Your review is so compelling, however, that I feel like reading him immediately. thanks. I’ll go and check the other posts.

  10. Ela says:

    Interesting – I have heard of Barnard but not read any of his books. The premise does sound a lot like Ngaio Marsh (I’m thinking ‘False Scent’ in particular) but much better constructed. Thanks again for suggesting yet another author to try!

    • Hope you have a look at his work Ela – I really thuink he was a superb talent, though some of the Perry Trethowan novels are sometimes seen a bit weirdly humorous, so might be worth dodging those initially – they are:
      Death by Sheer Torture (1981)
      Death and the Princess (1982)
      The Missing Bronte (1983)
      Bodies (1986)
      Death in Purple Prose (1987) [aka The Cherry Blossom Corpse]

      Personally I think they’re all great, but then I would say that!

  11. Yvette says:

    I do vaguely remember reading a few Barnard books many years ago and liking them and then for whatever reason, I went away from them and began reading other stuff and well, you know how that goes. Now’s a good time to head back to Barnard, I think. His passing and your post remind me what a wonderful writer he really was, not to mention, prolific. I’ll have to check out the other tributes as well. Thanks, Sergio. :)

    • Thanks very much Yvette, very kind – certainly Patti’s meme brought out a lot of reviews (and fans) and, probably significantly, practically no overlap, which suggests that for good or ill he may have been too prolific without enough of a consensus about his best works – I think the good thing is that you can leap in almost anywhere!

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