Robert Barnard died this year at the age of 76. He produced 40 mystery novels as well as critical studies of Agatha Christie and Charles Dickens. His first book in 1976 was A LITTLE LOCAL MURDER. His final in 2012, A CHARITABLE BODY. He was award the Cartier Diamond Dagger in 2003 and was nominated for an Edgar Award 8 times. His novels were considered by most to be cozies and he didn't mind that description, believing himself to be an entertainer at heart. His books enjoyed greater success in the U.S. than in the U.K..He was also a university lecturer for many years.
Here is the NYT obit.
A Talent to Entertain, Mystery Scene Magazine
Martin Edwards words on his death.
it must be admitted, most mocked) television shows is the long-running soap
opera, Coronation Street. In this witty satire, Robert Barnard neatly
skews both the world of soap operas and the world of the actors who star in
them—and he throws in a crisp murder mystery to boot.
Barnard does a great job of introducing us to the
characters—both as characters in his book and the characters they play on the
soap opera, Jubilee Terrace (a
listing of the actors and their associated roles on the program provided at the
front of the book is helpful—you’ll do well to keep the page bookmarked for
easy reference). Barnard does some
interesting narrative work here—we are reading about fictional characters who
are, in their turn, playing fictional characters. It could get complicated, but Barnard handles
the double layer with aplomb. Whoever claimed
that mystery writers weren’t technically sophisticated had not read anything by
The murder mystery involves the death of an actor, Vernon
Watts. He has already died, ostensibly
in a traffic accident, when the book opens (the first scene in the book is the
filming of Watt’s character’s death on the soap opera). But did Watts actually step in front of a bus
by accident—or was he pushed? Because
Watts was as hated by his co-stars as his character, Bert Porter, was beloved
by the viewing public, possible suspects abound on the set. To fill the void left by Vernon’s death,
another dislikeable actor, Hamish Fawley, returns to the show. Fawley is a conceited, self-centered
womanizer who soon takes up with one of the show’s bit players, an married
actress whose husband is one of the show’s stars. She is not very discreet about her affair and
the whole cast is soon aware that one co-star is being cuckolded by
another. And then another death occurs—and
this time it is most definitely murder. But is it connected in any way to the earlier death of Vernon Watts?
It is at this point, Barnard’s series inspector, Charlie
Peace, shows up to investigate. Peace is
shrewd enough to realize that a group of trained actors can make a pretense of
emotions they are far from feeling and he has to carefully turn over all the
evidence in order to finally determine the guilty party. Readers may not be overly surprised at the initial
identification of the killer—but then, just a few pages before the end, Barnard
includes one of his patented plot twists and what we had thought is shown to be
In his review of the movie War Games, Roger Ebert observed that in art technical accuracy is
not as important as a feeling of authenticity. While I have no idea if Barnard’s depiction of what goes on behind the
scenes of a soap opera is accurate, the complicated interactions of the cast
members feels very authentic indeed. This is a crisp little mystery from one of the great masters—it makes me
even sorrier to know that, with Barnard’s recent passing, we’ll have no more books
like this from him.
I don't know why I chose this book to read for today's ROBERT BARNARD day. I read most of his books many years ago, but not this one, I think. I would compare it to a Ruth Rendell standalone if a comparison is helpful. It is an interesting, if not totally satisfying or successful, crime novel. There are certainly crimes, but the reader has grown weary of the dismal cast of characters and the bleak and mean setting before this becomes clear. Funny how the UK can often look like the most charming place on earth, but in other books and movies, the most drab.
A small boy turns up along with other London evacuated children in a remote small rural village during WW2. Unlike the other children, he has no identification and is not on the list. He says his name is Simon Thorne and a local couple eagerly takes him in. When the war ends, no one claims him and the investigation into his identity turns up nothing. The couple has grown to love him and are happy to keep him. I would have liked to spend more time in this charming village, but this was not to be. This was not Mr. Barnard's interest.
Simon grows up and begins a career as a scientist at the London Zoo (and we get almost nothing about this either), and his true origin, of which he has some troubling memories, begins to haunt him. The rest of the novel concerns his attempt to find out who abandoned him and why. Although his investigation turns out to be a fairly static proposition.
Although Barnard paints the family Simon determines is his with an artful brush, they are so unlikable that we don't understand why Simon would allow them to turn what has been a happy life into a dour one. And the final pieces of the puzzle are bleaker still.
I feel I am doing Mr. Barnard an injustice with this review. I certainly found the book a quick and effortless read--his writing is superb--but when the end comes both Simon and the reader must scratch our heads and say, why did he not let well enough alone? And why did Robert Barnard choose to spend time here. These people are not evil enough to be interesting. They occupy that space known as dull and vile. I owe Mr. Barnard a review of one of his better novels.
For a very different take on OUT OF THE BLACK, see Peggy Ann.
Incidentally the reviews on Amazon all seemed to be for blackout blinds and not this book. That was the most amusing thing about it.
Sergio Angelini, A FATAL ATTACHMENT
Randy Johnson, DEAD, MR MOZART, Bernard Bastable
George Kelley, DEATH OF AN OLD GOAT
Steve Lewis. POLITICAL SUICIDE
J.F. Norris, DEATH ON THE HIGH Cs
Kelly Robinson, POLITICAL SUICIDE
Richard Robinson, THE CASE OF THE MISSING BRONTE
Julian Symons, A TALENT TO DECEIVE
Kevin Tipple/Patrick Ohl. DEATH ON THE HIGH Cs,
Prashant Trikannad, A STRANGER IN THE FAMILY
Elinor Walpole, ROGUE'S GALLERY
Joe Barone, DARK IS RISING, Susan Cooper
Brian Busby, THE HAPPY ISLES, Basil King
Bill Crider, THE QUEST, Nelson DeMille
Martin Edwards, THE WRAITH, Philip Macdonald
Margot Kinberg, DEATH OF A RED HEROINE, Qui Xiaolong
B.V. Lawson, UNCLE ABNER, MASTER OF MYSTERIES, Melville Davisson Post
Evan Lewis, A CORPSE FOR A CORPSE, Carroll John Daly
Juri Nummelin, THE GOLD MEDALLION, H.L. Lawrence
Todd Mason, Uncollected Stories, William Campbell Gault
Todd Mason, Uncollected Stories, William Campbell Gault
James Reasoner, THE DEEP COLD GREEN, Carter BrownGerard Saylor, THE MEANING OF LIFE, Monty Python
Ron Scheer, BLOOD GAME, Ed Gorman
Michael Slind, THE THIN MAN, Dashiell Hammett
James Winter, Dark Tower 4, Stephen King