THE SKELETON IN THE GRASS (1987) by Robert Barnard

Barnard_Skeleton_dellIt is 1936, the year of the Spanish Civil War and the British abdication crisis, and Sarah Causeley is the new Governess for the youngest child of the Hallam family, for generations the lords of a small village in Oxfordshire. She quickly falls in love with the whole clan, but not everybody feels the same way. Stoked by Major Coffey, a fascist embittered after his limelight was stolen by Oswald Mosley, a series of nasty pranks are played on the family. And then one night a dead body is found on their front lawn, lying next to a skeleton …

I submit this review for Bev’s Vintage Mystery Challenge; and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog.

“It’s an observable phenomenon,” insisted Dennis. “And all over the country. Mad women wear socks in Scotland and Wales too.”
“Oh, absolutely,” agrees Elizabeth. “But does a taste for ankle socks drive you mad, or does madness somehow create a taste for ankle socks?”
“And are all ankle-sock wearers mad, and do all mad women wear ankle socks?” contributed Sarah.

This is a beguiling mystery in the truest sense as it is as much about the unravelling of a clever plot as the seduction of Sarah by the progressive and charming Hallams. While the use of the ‘least likely’ suspect gambit will recall Agatha Christie, Barnards’s favourite mystery writer, Evelyn’s Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited is also clearly a major influence, only the Hallams are thankfully not haunted by Catholicism. Instead we see Sarah initially being utterly taken by the family’s bonhomie and do-goodery but then she starts to mature and see that the Hallams are in fact very far from perfect. To make this point Barnard occasionally jumps forward in Sarah’s life to 1941, the mid 1950s and then into the 60s and 70s to get better perspective on the people.

“The present Mr Hallam has often refused to prosecute poachers caught on his farms. Some of the tenants are quite bitter about it.”

Barnard_Skeleton-in-the-GrassDennis Hallam inherited the state after the death of his brother in the First World War, while he was invalided out early on (some say by shooting himself), and knows that he is not best suited to the job, much preferring to write book reviews for The Observer and undertake other more intellectual pursuits. Oldest son Will decides to head off to Spain to fight in the war, much to the family’s worry, daughter Elizabeth concentrates on her plans to make her debut in high society while Oliver continues his studies at Oxford. While Sarah looks after six-year-old Chloe, she gets to meet the Hallam’s extended family – including Cousin Mostyn, a pleasant man but a bit of a buffoon holding a small position in government. It is while the family is at a party at his house that the death occurs but as the house was stuffed with people it is impossible for anybody to have much of an alibi – did the Hallams decided to kill the prankster in revenge? The village soon starts to think so but, despite the best efforts of the police, it will ultimately be years before Sarah learns the truth. The plot is good (Barnard was always a very cunning writer) but its the characterisation and small village period flavour that I really enjoyed. A top-notch book and a good mystery too. TracyK recently reviewed this book over at her blog, Bitter Tea and Mystery.

The I submit this review for Bev’s 2015 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘other than murder’ category as the killing ultimately proves accidental:

011-Vintage-Silver-Barnard

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

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30 Responses to THE SKELETON IN THE GRASS (1987) by Robert Barnard

  1. You’re quite right about Barnard, Sergio – an author I’ve not re-read recently, and really must. And that slow unfolding of the truth over time is something I’ve always enjoyed when it’s done well. An excellent review as ever, and glad you liked this. Yet another author I am ashamed not to have put in the spotlight on my blog yet…

  2. Colin says:

    Never heard of this and it sounds like it might be worth looking out for.

    • Barnard could occasionally get a bit odd, but mostly he was one of the best in combining Golden Age style plotting with a more modern, postwar sensibility. We worth a read. Hi book on Christie, A Talent to Deceive, is really, really good.

  3. tracybham says:

    A great review, Sergio. You do a much better job (than I) at describing what makes this book unusual and intriguing. Thanks for linking to my review. I love Barnard’s writing. His books are not all great ones, but they are all very good, very readable.

  4. Santosh Iyer says:

    Influenced by your review, I have obtained the book and will be reading it soon.

    • Really hope you like it Santosh – I really think you’ll like Barnard – very solid plotting and really solid grasp of character. He has an unusual sense of humour, which is what tends to not always work for everybody in some fo his books (not this one though) …

  5. Yvette says:

    I kind of remember reading some Barnard books many, MANY years ago, Sergio. But for whatever reason I moved on and never went back. I liked your review so much that I may be moved to go back in time and pick up where I left off – wherever that was. When it comes to mysteries, there is just so much wonderful stuff out there, it’s a wonder we ever get anything else done.

    • Well, exactly, lots of top notch reading to be done out there. I think that Barnard, with Reginald Hill, got a bit sidelined in the great twin reigns of Rendell and James in the 70s and 80s but could be just as good as them, and I always enjoy going back to them. There are occasional failed experiements, but mostly their work is superb

  6. Oh I just read this too – blogpost upcoming. It was Tracy’s review that made me find a copy, and I was really glad I had. I am very much in agreement with your review, which I think does the job perfectly. A very clever and subtle book – though I’m still not convinced I totally understand the end and who it was in the ambulance? Don’t want to spoiler for anyone else who might be hoping to read this – please email me if you have any helpful thoughts!

  7. I’ve read about a dozen of Robert Barnard’s mysteries and enjoyed them all. But, I’ve found a little Barnard goes a long way. His early books are more entertaining than his later books.

  8. A very good writer at his best, and this was one of his good ones. One of the many things I like about his work is its ambition. He was always trying to do something fresh.

  9. Todd Mason says:

    And the importance of the Spanish Civil War to both our books this week is an interesting coincidence. I’ve been meaning to read more Barnard, having barely done so, and this does look like a promising next choice.

  10. Santosh Iyer says:

    I have read the book. This is quite good.
    A well-plotted mystery. Superb characterisation. Insightful social commentary. Superb depiction of the time and the place.Suspenseful.
    There is a smooth flow to the story making for easy reading. I finished it in just 2 sittings.

  11. Sergio, I read a couple of novels by Robert Barnard, one of which was A STRANGER IN THE FAMILY, which, as the title suggests, revolves around a family and its dark secrets. In that book, too, the truth unfolds over time which makes one wonder if Barnard wrote a lot about mysteries surrounding families. I will be giving the author another read in the not too distant future. I think, “cunning” is a nice word to describe his writing. You can see it in his narrative.

  12. Bev Hankins says:

    This is a very good one by Barnard…one that I read long before the blog, so I have no detailed review. It may, in fact, have been my first Barnard book–but that younger Bev was a real slouch when it came to recording things sometimes, so I have no record on that count. He does do a good job with Golden Age plotting.

  13. realthog says:

    Many thanks! Barnard’s standard does vary a bit from book to book, but I’ve never yet encountered one that I didn’t like.

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