Category Archives: Robert Barnard

All Human Life is There in a Caricature and Cartoon*

As this is posted, it’s 291 years since the publication of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. As you’ll know, that novel takes a satirical look at British society of the day. Swift used the story to skewer social classes, politicians, and more.

Swift, of course, wasn’t the only author to use satire as a tool; plenty of others have done the same. That includes crime writers. And it’s interesting to see how crime writers have used their novels to skewer institutions, people, and so on.

Agatha Christie isn’t usually known for mocking wit in her stories. But she did use satire, including poking fun at herself. In Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, for instance, one plot thread concerns detective novelist Ariadne Oliver, who is said to be Christie’s tool for self-deprecation. Mrs. Oliver is visiting the village of Broadhinny , where she is collaborating with up-and-coming playwright Robin Upward on an adaptation of one of her novels for the stage. She gets drawn into a murder investigation when Hercule Poirot takes another look at the murder of a charwoman whom everyone believes was killed by her lodger. Mrs. Oliver works with Poirot to find out who the killer is. Besides having a bit of fun at her own expense, Christie also takes a satirical look at plays, playwriting, and the process of adapting a work. The story itself isn’t comical, but it’s interesting to see how Christie fits in some sly satire.

Robert Barnard uses quite a bit of satire in Death of an Old Goat. In it, Bobby Wickham and the rest of the English faculty at Drummondale University are awaiting a visit from noted Oxford scholar Professor Belville-Smith. He’s on a lecture tour of Australia, and will be making a stop in rural Drummondale along the way. Right from the start, though, things don’t go well. For one thing, Belville-Smith is insufferable; he’s not accustomed to life in rural Australia, and wastes no time finding ways in which it falls short of his expectations. For another, Belville-Smith is also boring. Worse, he’s getting on in years, and finds it hard to keep track of his points when he lectures. The visit is going badly enough, but things get far, far worse when Belville-Smith is found murdered in his hotel room. Inspector Bert Royle investigates, but he’s not going to find it easy to do so. This is his first murder, so he’s unaccustomed to a lot of the procedures involved. What’s more, there are plenty of suspects, both in the academic community and among the ‘townies.’ Still, he persists, and in the end, finds out who the killer is. Throughout the novel, Barnard lampoons academia, rural Australians, pedants, and other ‘types.’

Ruth Dudley Edwards’ Corridors of Death is also a satire, this time of politics and politicians. In the novel, we meet Robert Amiss, who works as Private Secretary to Sir Nicholas Clark, Permanent Secretary to the Department of Conservation. One day, during a break in proceedings at a meeting of the Industry and Government Group, Clark is murdered. The police are called in, and Detective Superintendent James Milton takes charge of the investigation. He believes that Amiss might be a useful source of information, since he knew the victim quite well. For his part, Amiss finds the investigation process intriguing. So, the two begin to work together. And they soon find that there’s no lack of suspects. Clark was a malicious person who took pleasure in sabotaging the careers of other members of the department. And every one of them was on hand at the time of the murder. Still, Amiss and Milton get to the truth about the killing. In the process, there’s a very satirical look at political life a few tiers down from Downing Street, so to speak. There are plenty of inflated egos, sycophants, layers of bureaucracy, and more.

Teresa Solana’s A Not So Perfect Crime introduces Barcelona PIs Eduard and Josep “Pep” (who goes by the name Borja) Martínez. They happen to be twins, but in many ways, couldn’t be more different. One day, they get a new client: conservative Catalonia politician, Lluís Font. Once he is assured of the brothers’ discretion, he tells them that he believes his wife, Lídia, may be having an affair. Not only is this devastating news on a personal level, it could also cause great trouble for Font on a professional level, since he stands for traditional values such as home and family. The Martínez brothers take the case, and follow Lídia for a week. They don’t find any evidence of infidelity, though, and are ready to report as much to their client. But then, Lídia suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Now, her husband is a suspect in a murder case. He asks the Martínez brothers to continue working on his behalf, this time to clear his name. Eduard is reluctant, but Borja is eager to do the job – and get the fee. In the end, we do learn who killed the victim and why. Along the way, Solana paints a satirical portrait of life among Barcelona’s very well-to-do. There’s a good look at the social backbiting, machinations, and superficiality of that group of people.

And then there’s the work of Carl Hiaasen. Fans of his novels will know that many of them are set in different parts of Florida. Through those stories, Hiaasen uses satire to comment on the ultra-wealthy, the press, bureaucracy, the different cultures in Florida, and much more. He puts his characters into a variety of absurd situations that highlight the many foibles that he explores.

These are by no means the only crime writers who’ve used satire to make their points. And it can be a very effective tool when it’s used well. Which novels like this have stayed with you?

 
 
 

NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Comsat Angels’ Zinger.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Carl Hiaasen, Robert Barnard, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Teresa Solana

And I’ll Have to Play the Game*

Most of us, I’d guess, have some relationships that we maintain out of duty, rather than out of a deep attachment to a person. We may visit relatives we aren’t really connected to, but know we should visit. Or, we send Christmas cards and presents to cousins or other family members we don’t even really know. It doesn’t mean we dislike those people; it’s just that the bond we have is more out of a sense of obligation than anything else.

There are plenty of those relationships in real life, and they’re there in crime fiction, too. Sometimes, they provide solid contexts or plot points. They can also provide character development, minor characters, and even suspects in whodunits.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence asks Hercule Poirot’s help in solving the murder of a charwoman. All of the evidence points to her lodger, James Bentley. In fact, he’s been convicted, and is due to be executed. But Spence has come to believe that he may be innocent. Poirot agrees to look into the matter, and travels to the village of Broadhinny to investigate. One of the people he meets is Mrs. McGinty’s niece, Bessie Burch, who lives with her husband, Joe, in a nearby village. On the one hand, the Burches do inherit a little money by the terms of the victim’s will. So, one could consider them suspects. On the other hand,
 

‘It had been a family tie, honoured as such, but without intimacy.’
 

And neither Bessie nor Joe is so desperate for money as to be willing to kill for it. Bessie and her husband remain ‘people of interest,’ but their relationship with Bessie’s aunt was much more because of ‘family duty,’ than anything else.

In one plot thread of Tony Hillerman’s Coyote Waits, Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn gets a visit from a woman named Mary Keeyani. He doesn’t know her, but she is a member of the same Navajo Nation clan as his now-deceased wife, Emma was. That alone makes her a relative. So, Leaphorn feels an obligation to listen to what she has to say. A similar sense of duty has motivated the visit for Mary. One of her kinsmen, Ashie Pinto, has been arrested for murdering Delbert Nez, a member of the Navajo Tribal Police. She claims that Pinto isn’t guilty, that he wouldn’t do such a thing. Leaphorn understands all too well that she might be saying that out of a sense of obligation. But his own sense of duty drives him to agree to look into the matter. It turns out that Pinto has been framed for murder, and Leaphorn works with Sergeant Jim Chee to find out who really killed Nez.

Stan Jones’ White Sky, Black Ice introduces Alaska State Trooper Nathan Active. In this novel, he’s recently moved back to the small, far-north town of Chukchi, where he was born (he grew up in Anchorage). He is Inupiaq, but was raised in a white adoptive home, so he’s not tightly connected to his people’s culture. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t respect it. In one plot thread, he meets Clara Stone, who is a relative of Active’s biological mother; she is therefore, related to him. She tells Active that her husband, Aaron, went on a hunting trip and hasn’t returned. She’s convinced that something has happened to him, and wants Active to search for him. Active is reluctant, but she is a relative, and even though he doesn’t know her, he feels a sense of duty. So, he gets a bush pilot to take him out to where Aaron Stone would likely be camped. There, they find Stone’s body. It looks at first as though he’s committed suicide, but soon enough, it’s identified as a case of murder. And it turns out that this murder is related to another that Active is investigating.

Much of the action in Steph Avery’s Our Trespasses takes place in 1966 South East London. Teenage sisters Madeline ‘Midge’ and Bridget ‘Bridie’ Dolan want very much to be a part of the music and fashion scene of the times. So, they beg their mother to let them go dancing at the Palais Royale. Finally, after some persuasion, she agrees. Her only condition is that their cousin Jimmy take them to the dance and bring them back later. Midge and Bridie don’t mind, as they consider Jimmy to be ‘cool.’ Jimmy’s got, as the saying goes, other fish to fry. But he does feel a sense of obligation to his aunt and cousins. And, even though he doesn’t really have a close bond with Midge and Bridie, he agrees to take them and make sure they get home safely. What happens at the Palais Royale that night changes everything, and has repercussions that last for the rest of the girls’ lives. It’s even related to a murder that happens decades later…

Of course, a ‘duty relationship’ doesn’t have to be familial. For instance, in Robert Barnard’s Death of an Old Goat, Professor Bobby Wickham and the rest of the English faculty at Australia’s University of Drummond are scheduled to play host to a very distinguished guest. Oxford Professor Belville-Smith is doing a lecture tour of Australia, and will be visiting Drummond to do a series of lectures. Belleville-Smith is insufferable, condescending, and, quite frankly, a boring lecturer. But out of a sense of duty, everyone starts out by trying to make him welcome. Things fall apart, though, and it’s soon clear that this visit is a disaster. Then, on the morning after a ‘greet the guest’ party, Bellville-Smith is found murdered in his hotel room. Inspector Bert Royle has never investigated a murder before. But he’s going to have to look into this one. And it turns out that this murder has to do with something from the past.

I’d guess we all have those ‘duty’ relationships. They have their benefits and drawbacks, but they’re woven into our lives whether we like them or not. And they’re woven into crime fiction, too.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s The Great Suburban Showdown. 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Robert Barnard, Stan Jones, Steph Avery, Tony Hillerman

You Had One Eye In the Mirror*

In Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner), famous actress Jane Wilkinson asks Hercule Poirot to help her persuade her husband, 4th Baron Edgware, to give her a divorce. Poirot doesn’t usually take on this sort of case, so at first, he demurs. Then, she says,
 

‘‘You’d like me to be happy, wouldn’t you?’’…
‘I should like everybody to be happy,’ said Poirot cautiously.
‘Yes, but I wasn’t thinking of everybody. I was thinking of just me.’’
 

And that’s quite true. As we learn in the novel, Jane Wilkinson is thoroughly self-absorbed. She’s not cruel about it, or even particularly rude. But it’s obvious that her only concern is herself. In the course of the story, Poirot pays a visit to Edgware, who says he has no objection to granting a divorce. That night, Edgware is murdered. His widow is, of course, the most likely suspect. But several witnesses are willing to testify that she was at a dinner party in another part of London. So, Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp have to look for other suspects. Throughout the novel, it’s interesting to see how Jane’s self-absorption shows in her character.

She’s hardly the only self-absorbed crime-fictional character, though, and that’s not surprising. Characters who are completely self-absorbed can bring disaster on themselves and others. And they’re often vulnerable in ways that we don’t see in those who are concerned about others.

In James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, we are introduced to Phyllis Nirdlinger. She’s completely self-absorbed, but she’s so attractive that when insurance agent Walter Huff meets her, he’s soon besotted with her. In fact, it doesn’t take long for him to agree to a plan she has to get rid of her husband, in order to get the money from his insurance policy. Huff writes the double-indemnity policy she has in mind, and when the time comes, the murder is carried off as planned. That’s when it really occurs to Huff what he’s done: participated in a murder to get a woman. As if that’s not enough, there are questions both from the police and from Huff’s employer about the policy. What’s worst, though, is that Huff slowly learns just what sort of person Phyllis really is. As things spin out of control, Huff sees that he’s going to have to take some drastic action.

Robert Barnard’s Death of an Old Goat introduces readers to Oxford Professor Belville-Smith. He’s doing a lecture tour of Australia, and has consented to give a few talks at Drummondale University. From the start, things go badly. For one thing, Belville-Smith isn’t accustomed to life in Australia, and adjusting isn’t easy. He’s also getting older, and not as scintillating as he used to be. In fact, he’s given the same lectures so many times that he drones them. He even mixes up two lectures at one point, beginning with one and ending with the other. What’s worst, though, is that he’s self-absorbed. Others’ views and reactions to what he says don’t occur to him. So, he is also insufferable. Then, Belville-Smith is found murdered in his hotel room on the morning after a ‘greet the guest’ party. Inspector Bert Royle has never investigated a murder before, but he’s going to have to do just that now. And it turns out there’s more than one very good possibility.

Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit is the story of brothers Mason and Gates Hunt. They’ve grown up in the same abusive home, but they’re quite different. Mason takes advantage of every opportunity he can, and gets a scholarship to law school. Gates, on the other hand, squanders his considerable athletic talent, and ends up living on money from his mother and from his girlfriend. One day, Gates gets into an argument with his romantic rival, Wayne Thompson. The argument ends, but not the rancor. Later that night, the Hunt brothers are on their way home from a night out. They encounter Thompson again, and the argument resumes. Almost before anyone knows it, Gates shoots Thompson. Out of a sense of loyalty, Mason helps his brother cover up the crime. Years later, Gates is arrested for cocaine trafficking. He’s convicted and given a long prison sentence. He reaches out to his brother, who’s now a county prosecutor, for help getting out of prison. This time, Mason refuses. Then, Gates threatens that if Mason doesn’t help him, he’ll implicate Mason in the still-unsolved Thompson murder. When Mason still refuses, Gates carries out his threat, leaving his brother to face a murder charge for a crime he didn’t commit. Throughout the novel, we see how self-absorbed Gates is. He has no real concern for his girlfriend, his brother, their mother, or anyone else. And that impacts the course of the novel.

Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine is his first novel to feature Shanghai Chief Inspector Chen Cao. In the novel, the body of an unknown woman is pulled from a canal not far from Shanghai. She is soon identified as Guan Hongying, a national model worker. Because of her celebrity, this is going to be a delicate case. Chen and his assistant, Yu Guangming, are all too aware of the ramifications of a case that leads to high places. That’ll be especially true if the killer turns out to be a Party member. Still, they persevere, and slowly trace the victim’s last days and weeks. As they do, we learn quite a lot about the lifestyles of those who are high-ranking Party members – the High Cadre – and their families. Several of them are self-absorbed, and see things only from their own point of view. Without giving away too much, I can say that this self-absorption plays its role in the novel.

And then there’s Eve Moran, whom we meet in Patricia Abbott’s Concrete Angel. Since childhood, Eve has been preoccupied with what she wants. And she’s had no trouble manipulating people and situations to acquire, whether it’s jewelry, clothes, or other things. She’s had the same view when it comes to men. She stops at nothing, including murder, if that’s what it takes. Eve doesn’t even really consider the needs of her daughter, Christine. She’s raised Christine in a very toxic environment, so that relationship is quite dysfunctional. Then, Christine begins to see the same thing happening to her three-year-old brother, Ryan. Now, she’ll have to find a way to free both herself and her brother if there’s to be a chance for either of them.

Self-absorption can be more than just an annoying character trait. It can lead to disastrous choices and dysfunctional relationships. Little wonder we see it in crime fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Martin Clark, Patricia Abbott, Qiu Xiaolong, Robert Barnard

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

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Filed under Death of an Old Goat, Robert Barnard

Been So Long Since I Last Saw You*

letting-a-series-goI’ll bet you know the feeling. You read about – or someone mentions – an author whose work you’ve always admired. Then it hits you: you haven’t caught up with that author’s work in a long time – perhaps too long. How does it happen that we stop reading one or another of our top authors?

I’m not talking here of authors who’ve put you off for one reason or another. We all have lists of authors like that. Rather, I mean authors you really like, but whose books you haven’t kept up with the way you wanted to do.

There are, of course, any number of reasons that might happen. And our reasons for not keeping up with a series can be as varied as we are. So, I can only speak for myself. That said, I do find it a really interesting topic, and I’d love your input on it.

Sometimes, people don’t keep up with, or finish, a series they really enjoy because there are just too many entries in it. For instance, Evan Hunter/Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series runs to more than 50 novels. It’s very difficult to keep up with a series that long. That takes quite a commitment. So, I have to confess, I’ve not read every entry in this series (although I would like to). And one of the things about this series is that it does depict changes in the characters’ lives as time goes by and as they evolve. For that reason, it would be especially good to follow the series straight through in its entirety. I’ve not, but perhaps someday.

There are authors who take a hiatus from a series – sometimes a long one – and then bring it back. That’s what Philip Kerr did with his Bernie Gunther series. Fans of this series will know that it begins with the Berlin Noir trilogy that takes place just before and during World War II. Gunther is a private detective, who’s trying to negotiate the very risky landscape that is Berlin at that time. After the first few novels, Kerr didn’t publish a Bernie Gunther novel for fifteen years. In that time, people move on to other things. Or, their tastes may change. That could very easily impact someone’s decision to keep up with a series. In fact, you could argue that it’s a real tribute to Kerr’s skill that he found a ready audience for his more recent Gunther novels.

In those sorts of cases, it’s understandable enough that someone might not keep up with a series, even an excellent one. What, to me, is more interesting is the case of the series where there’s no obvious reason to let it go, but we do.  Again, everyone is different about this, but for me, Martha Grimes’ Richard Jury series falls into that category. It’s a well-regarded series, with interesting characters and some wit. There are solid puzzles in it, too. I didn’t keep up with that series the way I wanted to, and it has nothing to do with its quality. Nor is it because my tastes have changed dramatically. Perhaps it’s got something to do with time; no-one has time to read everything that’s good. But this is one of those series that I’d like to keep up with better than I did.

So is the “Emma Lathen’ writing team’s John Putnam Thatcher series. Fans can tell you that it has as its context the banking and finance industry, with Thatcher as a vice president for the Sloan Guaranty Trust. The series is very well regarded, and with good reason. I know people who’ve read every one of the novels, too. I’ll confess I haven’t. And there’s no specific reason for that, either. I like the series, I like Thatcher’s character, and so on.  It’s just one of those series that simply hasn’t stayed in the forefront of my reading.

Neither has the work of Robert Barnard, who created several terrific crime-fictional characters. A few are recurring (such as PI Perry Trethowan). Others of his novels are standalones. In both cases, Barnard wrote some solid and well-crafted stories. I enjoyed those that I read very much. But…I didn’t keep up with them. It’s got nothing to do with the quality of the books, and I do recommend them.

Those are just a few examples from my own reading. Perhaps you have some of your own. And that raises a question (at least for me). If we don’t stop reading a series for quality reasons, why do we? Is it the ‘Oooh, shiny’ factor of new novels and new-to-us authors? It is the time factor? Or, perhaps, is it that ‘I will never catch up’ feeling when it occurs to you that you’re four or five books behind with an author?

I’d love to hear from you about this. Which enjoyable series have you let slip away? Do you plan to pick up where you left off?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Hollies’ Come on Back.

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Filed under Ed McBain, Emma Lathen, Martha Grimes, Philip Kerr, Robert Barnard