Mystery author #19: Robert Barnard

Note: The reviews may not seem to be quite finished. This is because I want to discuss certain points of the books in the author review at the end, where I will try to tie everything together.

Title: Death of a Mystery Writer
Original (British) title: Unruly Son
Year of publication: 1978
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Police
Main setting & time: Rural England, 1970’s
Number of corpses: 2
Some themes: Dysfunctional family, fame, mystery writing

Story: When famous mystery writer Sir Oliver Fairleigh-Stubbs is murdered with poison on his birthday, there are plenty of possible suspects, including all of his children. Inspector Meredith of the local police has to penetrate the tangle of family animosity and dig deep into the dead man’s past to find the motive.

Review: I have read that this is supposed to be a satire of the classic country house mystery. This is probably due to the rather dark, ironic and, yes, sometimes satirical humour in the story, and the rather exaggerated main characters who act as if they should be on stage playing in a Greek drama. But if anything, I would rather call it a mild parodic tribute, because frankly, it just isn't nasty enough to be a full satire, even if the murder method is one of the more unconvincing I have come across. Poisoning schemes, however clever, are generally rather unbelievable anyway. But this doesn't matter, because it's the motive, opportunity, chase, the thinking through the twists and turns of the case, questioning suspects and witnesses, the avoidance of red herrings and finally satisfying capture of the criminal that matters in a story like this. The murder method doesn't matter, but the fact of the murder does.

As mentioned before, some of the characters are mightily exaggerated, which serves to make them both sinister and funny, but they are by no means just simple stereotypes, most of them are merely very strongly delineated characters with unexpected depths (but not all of them…).

It is always interesting to read what authors have to say about their craft and the literary community, and this is no exception. Sir Oliver is a genuine hack who doesn't care if there are logical errors in his novels because he has ho faith in the intelligence of his readers, and he thinks the mystery writing community at large are a bunch of lame old nags. One can not but wonder if his venom is supposed to be due to bitterness at himself for having become a commercially successful hack rather than an Author Of Import. One also wonders if the opinions he expresses about the mystery writing community are his or Barnard's. It is after all a well known phenomenon that presenting fact as fiction tends to soften any criticism that might be levelled at it. But maybe I'm reading too much into this.

Rating: A darkly entertaining country house mystery. 3 stars.

Title: Death in a Cold Climate
Year of publication: 1981
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: Tromsø, Norway, 1980’s
Number of corpses: 2
Some themes: Espionage, blackmail

Story: The nude body of a murdered young man is found on a ski slope in the sleepy northern town of Tromsø, three months after he disappeared, and this sets in motion a painstaking and thorough investigation by Inspector Fagermoe. Once he discovers the young man’s identity, her sets about to puzzle together his movements during the two days he spent in Tromsø before he was killed, and what he had been doing before his arrival that could possibly have caused his murder.

Review: Here is one very good police investigation story that I found highly enjoyable. Barnard, having lived in Tromsø for years, knows the territory, the expat community, the college community and the Norwegian way of doing things inside out and there are many in-jokes only someone who is familiar with the subjects can appreciate to the fullest. But I digress. The small-town environment, with its low incidence of serious crime and therefore ill-prepared police force, is well drawn, and you really feel the cold of the Norwegian winter through the descriptions of the weather. I met with several people in this book that I felt I knew, which may well be due to the similarity in character between Icelanders and Norwegians. Inspector Fagermoe may well be related to the lady sheriff from Fargo, with his patient, plodding method of gathering evidence, but you never doubt he is going to get his man.

Rating: A chilly murder mystery to keep you cool on a hot day. 3 stars.

Title: Death on the high C's
Year of publication:1977
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: Manchester, England, 1970's
Number of corpses: 2
Some themes: Opera, professional envy, racism

Story: The Northern Opera Company is rehearsing Rigoletto when one of the company gets knocked off with an ingenious trick, and soon after the stage-door-keeper is murdered in a more direct manner. There is plenty of professional envy going around, but in the case of the young mezzo it was more like general dislike of her person and habits, and certainly there could be no-one who would want the stage-door-manager's job badly enough to murder him for it. The police go around following up leads that go nowhere until a chance remark by a member of the company sends them in the right direction.

Review: This is the least convincing of the Barnard mysteries I read and also the most entertaining. Gaylene Ffrench – I know her. Everyone knows someone like her. A lot of comedy can be squeezed out of someone like her. But Barnard doesn't stop at making this nasty would-be-prima-donna an object of comedy – he also pokes subtle fun at some of the other characters, and in the end, this is what you most enjoy about the book. The story is really about one big red herring – the police going round and round and getting nowhere – and once that is cleared up, the case is solved in a few disappointing pages.

Rating: A sparkling, operatic (in more ways than one) comedy. 2+ stars.


Author review:
I mentioned before how much I dislike the reluctance of authors who have qualms about executions to let their villains simply be caught when they are writing about countries or eras where the death penalty is in force. I don’t mean that I want to see every murderer marched to the gallows, but I think it is much more realistic for an author to find a way for the guilty not to face the death penalty, like a life sentence due to some extenuating circumstance or incarceration in a home for the criminally insane, or, if it comes to that, getting killed while trying to escape or even being pardoned (it could happen convincingly in a historical). This annoys me even more when there isn’t a death penalty involved and the suicide solution is taken by the villain. It becomes unbearably annoying when it is out of character for them to do so. Unfortunately two of the Barnard books I read had suicide endings, which have clouded my enjoyment and earned them a lower grade than they perhaps deserve. The third had a villain who was so rarely mentioned in the story in any way that could be called a clue that I would almost call it a breach of Van Dine's rule # 10, while the private lives of people who had nothing to do with the murder were discussed in detail that was clearly only padding and didn't even serve to act as red herrings. Actually, all three villains are not much mentioned in the respective novels, but in the other two there are at least hints of them being the villains. In one story it should be blatantly obvious from shortly after the murder who he is and from then on the evidence against him just keeps piling up (or rather, the proof of the other character's innocence), but Barnard repeatedly uses a clever stage magician's sleight of hand to deflect suspicion from him until just before the end. In my case it was more of a 'sixth sense' kind of thing that told me who he was than any knowing reasoning on my part, which is evidence to the genius of the author.

I like Barnard's writing style, with its sly, ironic humour, witty turn of phrase and twisting plots, but if the books I read (note they are all from fairly early on in his writing career, being nos 3, 5 and 8 of his books) are anything to go by, he has a problem with writing convincing endings. However, I plan to get my hands on some of his later books and will reserve judgment (and the awarding of stars) until I have read theml


Maxine said…
I've read a lot of Barnard in my time and I usually like him. There are several about the same policeman -- Perry someone and his Black sergeant -- which I don't think work so well, but others are pretty good. I can't remember the titles, but there is one about a politician and one about children left in a house without parents, both pretty good. He writes some about the Bronte country (Barnard is in the Bronte society and is or was an official -- maybe secretary). I have forgotten all the details of the books and so do not remember this suicide thing you mention -- I think that it is not a theme of many of the books, though. I would say he is worth reading but as my comments have shown, forgettable!
Bibliophile said…
I think I was probably unlucky to have those exact books fall into my lap. It didn't help either that the next book I picked up after the two suicide books also had a suicide ending. Thus my decision to read more before awarding stars.
Anonymous said…
Thought you might find this site to be a good resource.

Mark J.
Steve Lewis said…
Barnard is not an author I've read, so I can't comment on your observations. But I've been meaning to and maybe I ought to make myself a 52 book challenge as you have. I've found your reviews and comments very interesting. So that you know, I've posted a link to your site from mine, I hope you'll come over and look around.
In my interview with Robert Barnard, he talks about the real-life figure who inspired Sir Oliver Fairleigh-Stubbs (interview posted on

To correct the previous commentor, Barnard was chairman of the Bronte Society, and his work is far from forgettable. My personal favorite is _A Scandal in Belgravia_, with a humdinger of a twist ending.

A better Web site that lists his work is:
Bibliophile said…
Thanks for the website and book reccommendation, Elizabeth. I'll be putting the URLs in the link collection when I get home from work.

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