A Talent To Entertain

Note – The death at the age of 76 of Robert Barnard prompts me to include on this site a version of an article I wrote about the man and his work shortly after his last crime books were published.

The appearance within the past year of two brand new books by Robert Barnard is a cause for celebration. The pleasure is tinged with a little sadness, because Bob (as everyone knows him) has indicated that, having recently celebrated his 75th birthday, he plans to take a very well-earned retirement from regular professional writing. But all this makes it the perfect time to review his highly successful career, and for me to reflect on a friendship with Bob and his wife Louise, that has been a source of joy to me for close on a quarter of a century.

Bob Barnard is an Essex man – he was born in Burnham-on-Crouch in 1936. The same vintage year saw the arrival on the scene of two of his crime writing colleagues, Reginald Hill and Peter Lovesey – all three of them would proceed to win the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger for their sustained achievements in the crime genre. Bob was educated at a grammar school in Colchester before going on to Balliol College, Oxford. His father, whose varied career included a spell as a London police constable and also as a thatcher, became a successful writer of romantic fiction, although Bob wryly points out that he encountered some difficulties with the taxman as well.

Not long after leaving Oxford, he moved to the other side of the world, becoming a lecturer in English in New South Wales and meeting and marrying Louise, an Australian. His time there provided him with the background for his debut crime novel, Death of an Old Goat, which was published by Collins Crime Club in 1974. By that time he had – perhaps wisely, given what he had to say about Australia and its academic life! – moved to Norway, first lecturing in Bergen and later becoming a professor of English at Tromso. Almost inevitably, in 1980 he proceeded to write a book set in Norway, Death in a Cold Climate.

He rapidly established himself as a distinctive talent, with a flair for skewering vanities, especially among the English middle-classes, that has never deserted him. Religion (his grandfather became a keen Jehovah’s Witness, much to his father’s chagrin) and the Royal Family regularly get a kicking in his fiction, and it is typical of him that his nothing-is-sacred stories often also take aim at Balliol men and novelists. Death in Purple Prose (1987, also known as The Cherry Blossom Corpse) pokes fun at writers of romantic fiction, while another of his titles is the self-explanatory Death of a Mystery Writer (in the UK the same book was published, in 1978, as Unruly Son.) His ability to construct unusual plots, allied to a sharp wit, earned a range of accolades, including appearances on the short-list for Edgars, for best novel and best short story. One of his conspicuous strengths is brevity; his novels continue to defy fashion by remaining as concise as ever.

From Death of an Old Goat onwards, Robert Barnard showed an ability to make effective use of what he has learned on his travels around the world, as well as his knowledge of subjects in which he has a special interest. He is an opera buff, for instance, and Death on the High C’s, published in 1977, illustrates his enthusiasm for opera. So does The Mistress of Alderley (2002) which features an unorthodox murder weapon. His love of music also prompted him to write a couple of books in the mid-90s under the name Bernard Bastable, featuring Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

He is also an expert on the Bronte family and their work, and co-authored with Louise A Bronte Encyclopaedia (2007), although he tends to be dismissive of The Missing Bronte, a novel he produced in1983. A few years ago, I had the privilege of visiting Haworth Parsonage with several other crime writers who were shown round by Bob, and he gave us a memorable insight into the lives of the Brontes. The Corpse at the Haworth Tandoori (1998) does not, however, focus on that extraordinary Victorian family or their home

Politics is another of his interests (he once worked for the Fabian Society), and crops up in several of his books, as well as in the recent short story “Political Necessity”. Political Suicide, published in1984, was a very enjoyable novel set around a by-election, although changes in the political landscape in the intervening years mean it is now a little dated A Scandal in Belgravia (1991) also has a political backdrop, and if I were asked to name my all-time favourite Barnard novel, that would be a strong candidate, not least because of a splendid late plot twist. The same title, incidentally, was recently used for an episode of the second series of the highly popular BBC TV series Sherlock.

His first series character, the Scotland Yard man Perry Trethowan, made his debut in Sheer Torture (1981). Later, he introduced Charlie Peace, a black cop who sometimes worked with Mike Oddie. These cops are all likeable, but perhaps not developed as fully as is the modern fashion. For Bob Barnard, series characters tend to be a means to developing a particular story-line, and arguably much of his best work dispenses with them.

Bob Barnard is a stern judge not only of the people who appear in his fiction, but also of his own work. In fact, I struggle to think of any successful novelist I’ve got to know – other than the late, great Julian Symons – who is quite so critical of many of his own books. In the case of both Julian and Bob, I feel their judgments on their own work have sometimes been too harsh, but their constant quest for something new and better sets a good example for other writers.

Yet if he is an unflinching critic, Bob Barnard is quick to lavish praise where it is due. Quite apart from his passion for the Brontes, he has a deep understanding of Dickens’ greatness, and his enthusiasm for Victorian fiction prompted one of his most under-estimated books, To Die Like a Gentleman (1993). Again published under the Bastable by-line, this is an epistolary novel, suggestive in style of Wilkie Collins, yet brisk and entertaining enough to stand on its own merits rather than merely be appreciated as some form of pastiche. The fourth book published as by Bastable, A Mansion and its Murders, appeared first in the US, and it may be fair to say that although Barnard is (despite setting his stories in various parts of the world) a very English writer, his work has sometimes seemed to be valued more highly in America than in his native country.

Barnard’s critical skills are displayed in A Talent to Deceive: An Appreciation of Agatha Christie. First published in 1980, this readable and perceptive work was revised and updated a decade later, with a bibliography compiled by Louise. Studies of Christie’s mysteries and life have proliferated in recent years, but along with those in a thoughtful discussion of her methods by Emma Lathen to which he refers, and in John Curran’s two recent books exploring her private journals, Barnard’s insights are the most incisive. He does not allow his scholarship to prevent him discussing Christie in an accessible and enjoyable way; he discusses her personal life, and a chapter is devoted to her famous disappearance of 1926, but the emphasis is properly on her writing, and her mastery of plot structure.

To my mind, his chapter about Christie’s “strategies of deception” is one of the very best short analyses of the methods of constructing tantalising whodunit puzzles ever written. “She demanded from her reader,” he says in explaining her global appeal, “only a noticing eye and ear, and a lively grasp of the facts of everyday life.” Significantly, he draws an analogy between her approach and that of Dickens in Oliver Twist and Bleak House. Even though it is more than three decades since it was written, A Talent to Deceive remains a must-read for the Christie fan.

By the time I came across Bob in person, he and Louise had returned to England, his success having enabled him to concentrate on a life of crime. They moved to Armley in Leeds, where they still live, a choice dictated at least in part by the excellence of the city’s operatic productions. Our first encounter was at the same unforgettable inaugural lunch of the Northern Chapter of the Crime Writers’ Association at which I met Reg Hill and his wife Pat; Bob and Louise also became regular attendees at the lunches and week-ends that we organised over the years. I’ve been lucky enough, for instance, to hear him lecture about Christie both at Torquay, the town of her birth, during her centenary celebrations in 1990, and at Harrogate, in the very hotel where she was discovered staying under an assumed name in 1926. I recall one sceptical, youngish crime writer back in 1990 challenging Bob about Christie’s literary merit, only to find that Bob provided a compelling account as to why she continues to be so widely read, when other, seemingly more gifted writers – as well as many “commercial” writers whose literary talents were in fact much less substantial than Christie’s – have fallen by the wayside. It was an education for those present. A special memory of Bob’s generosity concerns the time when he and Louise – knowing of my fascination with the traditions of the genre – invited me to be their guest at a Detection Club dinner at the Savoy in 1994. At that time, I was still a newcomer to the scene and never dreamed that one day I’d be joining Bob and Louise at other Detection Club dinners, as a fully fledged member.

As with Christie, there is no pretension in Robert Barnard, the man or the books. He said modestly twenty one years ago, “I write only to entertain…My books are old-fashioned, though I think some of them contain more humour than most of the ‘Golden Age’ writers usually put in”, and added that, as well as Christie, he especially admired Margery Allingham, Ruth Rendell, and Margaret Millar. He might also have mentioned Christianna Brand, another brilliant plotter, who became a good friend of his, and about whom he once wrote an article for Mystery Scene.

I admire Bob Barnard’s short stories, and for the past two decades, his has been one of the first names to spring to mind when I have been looking for contributions to anthologies. I have fond memories of a Saturday back in 1992, when Bob, Val McDermid, Chaz Brenchley and I met at the house of Ann Cleeves, herself a future CWA Gold Dagger winner, to discuss the first anthology of work by Northern Chapter members, Northern Blood. Since then it has been my privilege to read a good many of Bob’s manuscripts (and they are manuscripts –he doesn’t do email!) The most recent is “Just Popped In”, which appeared in the 2011 CWA collection, Guilty Consciences. Naturally it gave me a special thrill when “Sins of Scarlet”, a story of dark deeds in the Vatican which he contributed to I.D.: Crimes of Identity, won the CWA Short Story Dagger. And frankly, nobody was more surprised than me when, two years later, I won the Dagger myself, given that the short-list included such stellar names as Michael Connelly, Laura Lippman….and Bob Barnard.

Bob’s skill at the short form has been recognised over the years, not only with nominations and awards, but also by publishers who have brought out no fewer than three collections of his work. Quite an achievement in this day and age, when single-author story collections are widely and depressingly seen as uncommercial. The latest gathering is Rogue’s Gallery, which includes “Sins of Scarlet” as well as stories taking pot-shots at a range of targets. They include Conservative politicians and their wives, the doomed marriage of the Prince and late Princess of Wales, incompatible married couples, Mozart again, and parents who take it for granted that their own mother or father will put their lives aside to look after their grandchildren.

His latest, and perhaps final novel, just published in the US but not yet available in the UK, is A Charitable Body, which sees Charlie’s wife Felicity becoming embroiled with a charitable trust overseeing Walbrook Manor, an eighteenth-century mansion. This is emphatically a work of fiction, but I would hazard a guess that Bob’s knowledge of the ways of the charitable world is informed by his long involvement with the Bronte Society.

Both books are pleasing reminders not only of Bob’s talents as a crime writer, but also of his multi-faceted life and interests. Even if he keeps to his resolve to put away his pen, he has given mystery fans a vast amount of entertainment for close on 40 years. Anyone who appreciates a crisp, agreeable crime story with a touch of both originality and humour, and has yet to read Robert Barnard’s work, has much fun in store.

(This article is adapted from an article that first appeared in Mystery Scene)