In the Spotlight: Robert Barnard’s Death of an Old Goat

Hello, All,

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


Filed under Death of an Old Goat, Robert Barnard

39 responses to “In the Spotlight: Robert Barnard’s Death of an Old Goat

  1. I’ve heard of this one, but never found it to read it. I do love an academic novel… and I do believe I’ve had one or two professors who had the same knack for mixing up the lectures they’d been delivering on autopilot for many, many years.

    • I had to chuckle at your comment, Marina Sofia. I’ve had some professors like that, too. This particular novel does give the reader a very sardonic, tongue-in-cheek look at Australian academia of the 1970s, and I’d be interested in what you think of it if you do find it.

  2. Tim

    You scared the hell out of me! I read the title of the posting — death of an old goat — and thought someone had prematurely written my obituary. Then I read your posting, and damn, I am relieved. And because your excellent spotlight posting, I’m adding another to my TBR list. Now, if only I can make a dent in that list before someone really does write that obituary! Tempus fugit!

    • Oh, there’s never enough time to read it all, Tim. I don’t care how much time one has, nor how quickly one can read. If you read this one, I do hope you’ll like it. And that’s a really interesting concept for a novel – reading one’s own obituary…

  3. Pingback: In the Spotlight: Robert Barnard’s Death of an Old Goat | picardykatt's Blog

  4. I read this about 10 years ago and I don’t remember the plot at all. Now I want to read it again. Thanks, Margot.

  5. Loved this book when I read it a couple of years ago. Barnard’s wit can be savage, but there’s so much to savor. A couple of my favorite examples:

    Discussing some of the local gentry, Barnard writes: “Their clothes were well-cut, and almost hid the fact that they were fat. Nothing could hide the fact that they were stupid.”

    Or how about this description of our police detective, Inspector Royle: “He was tall, heavily built, with dull eyes and a permanent midnight shadow. The criminals of Drummondale – about twenty percent of the population – had a healthy respect for his fists and his boot and none at all for his brain.”

    Barnard’s wit is sorely missed today!

    • I like both of those examples very much, Les. And I’m glad you enjoyed the novel. As you say, Barnard’s wit can be very savage, but he does have a way with words, doesn’t he?

  6. Keishon

    Not heard of him but just looked him up. His ebooks are expensive so I did put some copies on my wishlist. Thanks for the spotlight, Margot.

  7. Hmm… I started out thinking I’d never heard of him, but actually as I read your description it sounds vaguely familiar. I suspect I must have read it long ago, probably when I was working my way through everything the local library had. Don’t remember it well enough to express an opinion, though – I suspect I might find the satire a bit wearing, but otherwise it does sound interesting…

    • I’ve had books like that, too, FictionFan, where I know I’ve read them, but just don’t remember them clearly. As to the satire in this one, everyone’s different when it comes to how much is the right amount/too much, etc. So I can see how you might find some of it more than you’d prefer. Still, the story is interesting. If you do read this one, I hope you’ll like it.

  8. mudpuddle

    i liked it… although it did strike me that Barnard seemed to be getting his own back to a certain extent… i wonder what his college experience was like…

  9. Col

    I’ve not read Barnard but I think Moira said this was a good one. It’s on my wish-watch list!

  10. Oh well spotted Margot. The “rural” university was, in fact, the University of New England up on the northern tablelands of New South Wales where Barnard spent a bit of time. I worked there as a VP a few years later, and it was pretty clear that some of the “models” for the characters were still around. A few would recite all of the names. UNE is six hours by road from both Sydney and Brisbane so is isolated, and the town is small – so academic politics back then were serious!

    • Thanks, Brian. And thanks for all of this helpful insight about the setting. I didn’t know you had such a close connection to this book; it’s interesting to learn about the real setting. And I can well imagine that the academic politics would have been serious indeed in a small university town that’s isolated like that.

  11. I really enjoy Barnard’s books, though I guess his sense of humour could get a bit extreme at times. Still not read this one actually – thanks Margot, really enjoyed reading about this one.

    • Glad you enjoyed the post, Sergio. You’re right about Barnard’s wit; I can see where his wit would get to be too much. Still, this one has some good examples of it. If you read it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  12. I always discover such intriguing new books and authors through your Spotlight posts, Margot. Thanks for the introduction.

  13. I’m so glad you enjoy this series, Mason. And this one does give a look at life in a rural Australian university of the 1970’s. If you read it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  14. I have read a lot of his books over the years but I couldn’t tell you the plot of any of them now. We celebrated him on FFB a few years ago.

  15. As someone who lives in small, rural area with a University, this aspect intrigues me. I love snarky characters, too.

  16. I was wondering about the weird title.
    Well, this sure sounds like a very different and intersting story. I’m not sure there are many sarcastic murder mysteries out there.
    Thanks so much for sharing it 🙂

    • It is an unusual title, isn’t it, Jazzfeathers? And it’s a bit of an unusual story, too, truth be told. The wit isn’t for everyone, I’ll admit. But if you do try this one, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  17. I loved this book, as Col correctly remembers above. It is hilarious, and also very clever. I love the way he wraps it up on the last page. And he is very sharp on academic politics, and on all kinds of prejudices.

  18. Terry Halligan

    Very good review. I’m very interested now, getting books by this author. I’ve often read your very helpful comments to reviews that you read on I never imagined I would be writing one myself.

  19. Denny Lien

    This was the first Barnard I ever read, and while I eventually wound up reading almost all of his work, this is in memory still my favorite. No doubt it helped that I read it when I was myself a graduate student in English, and one who was having second thoughts about my intended academic teaching career as well. I’m now feeling the urge to reread it.

    • Well, it certainly does skewer academia, doesn’t it, Denny? And some of the things that Barnard has to say are hilarious. I can see why you enjoyed it at the time you were reading it.

  20. I love books that are set in colleges from the faculty’s point of view. Raymond Carver Will Not Raise Our Children by Dave Newman comes to mind. And what a fun title for this crime novel! I couldn’t wait to see if it was about an actual goat or a grumpy old man.

    • Thanks, GtL, for mentioning the Newman. I’ve heard that’s a good ‘un. And, yes, I liked the title for this one very much.. It’s clever, as is the novel.

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