Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Robert Barnard was both prolific and influential in the world of crime fiction. He wrote in more than one sub-genre, too – no mean feat. His work more than deserves a place in this feature (and should have been here before now!). So, let’s take a closer look at his work today and turn the spotlight on his debut, Death of an Old Goat.
Professor Bobby Wickham and the rest of the English faculty at the University of Drummondale, in rural Australia, are to play host to a distinguished visitor from Oxford: Professor Belville-Smith. He’s doing a tour of the country, and has consented to give some lectures at Drummondale.
From the start, things don’t go well. For one thing, Professor Belville-Smith is not accustomed to life in rural Australia, which is quite different to his Oxford surroundings. He is condescending at best, and contemptuous at worst, which is not a very effective way to cement relations with one’s hosts. For another, Belville-Smith’s lectures are not exactly scintillating. He’s very much getting on in years, and has given the same lectures so many times that he drones them. In fact, there’s one scene in which he mixes up two lectures, so that he begins his talk with one lecture and ends it with another.
Still, Belville-Smith seems harmless enough, if insufferable. So, when he is found murdered in his hotel room the morning after a ‘greet the guest’ party, it’s hard at first to imagine who would have wanted to kill him. Still, Inspector Bert Royle has to start somewhere. He certainly doesn’t want to appear inept in the eyes of the locals, some of whom are wealthy enough and well-connected enough to do his career good. Royle’s never investigated a murder before, but he begins the process.
One possibility is that there’s something in Belville-Smith’s history that led to his murder. Several of the members of the English Department have connections to Oxford, and that could have put some of them in contact with the victim. And then there are the locals. One of them might have a good reason for murder, especially given Belville-Smith’s disposition. And several of them have been acting strange since the murder, going off late at night and not saying anything about what they’re doing. So, for a neophyte like Royle, it’s quite a difficult process. It doesn’t help matters that he’s not much of a cerebral type. Still, he persists.
In the meantime, Bill Bascomb, one of the English faculty, is also interested in finding out who killed the professor. As a matter of fact, Royle has informally asked him to ‘vet’ his colleagues and acquaintances on campus, to see who might have a good motive for murder, as well as the opportunity to commit it. In the end, and each in a different way, he and Royle find out who the killer is.
This is a satire, as much as it is anything else. There is the murder and its investigation. But the novel also takes aim at academia (especially rural academia), Australians, and police, among other groups. Those who enjoy books where those conventional types are skewered will appreciate this. Here, for instance, is a description of the office of Alice O’Brien, one of the faculty members:
On one shelf of the book-case was Campbell’s Anglo-Saxon Grammar, a Middle-English dictionary, and an Agatha Christie. Just above these was a large flagon of dry sherry, three-quarters empty, a bottle of whisky, a bottle of gin, a bottle of brandy, a bottle of curaçao, two flagons of cheap red and white wine, and a large collection of tonic water, bitter lemon, ginger ale and a soda siphon.
Not very much in terms of society (either on or off campus) is spared. Readers who’ve spent time in academia will find some of the characters and incidents familiar. The same is true for those who live, or who have lived, in a rural place that is also home to a university.
As you can most likely see from the snippet I’ve shared, the wit here is much more sardonic than it is slapstick. This isn’t a comic caper or screwball sort of novel. It’s more tongue-in-cheek than that. All of this said, the satire may be more than some readers will find enjoyable.
Another element in the novel is the underlying current of relations between Australians and English people, between white and Aborigines, and between educated people and those who aren’t. On the one hand, there’s certainly an obvious set of prejudices. On the other, Barnard uses just those biases against some of the characters, as you might say, and so, skewers them, too.
As you can imagine, there is wit in the novel. Yet, it’s not a ‘jolly romp’ sort of murder mystery. Barnard doesn’t gloss over the fact that a man’s been murdered. And I can say without spoiling the story that this isn’t the sort of novel where the killer throws up hands in defeat and then stretches them out for the cuffs. That said, there isn’t a great deal of violence in the novel, and most of that is ‘off stage.’
Death of an Old Goat is a wry, sometimes-sardonic look at life in academia in the 1970s (when the novel was published). It features a rural Australia setting, a police detective who’s clearly in, as the saying goes, over his head, and a great deal of satire and sarcastic wit. But what’s your view? Have you read Death of an Old Goat? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 3 April/Tuesday, 4 April – Peepshow – Leigh Redhead
Monday, 10 April/Tuesday, 11 April – Something in the Air – John Alexander Graham
Monday, 17 April/Tuesday, 18 April – A Jarful of Angels – Babs Horton