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September 22, 2013

Robert Barnard: An Appreciation

This Felony of the Week is a tribute to the late and deeply lamented Robert Barnard, who died on September 21. More than almost anyone else, Bob was the writer who led me to fall in love with mystery fiction, back in the 1980s: His gleefully pointed characterizations, and his deliciously malicious sense of humor made me beam with joy. I recently re-read Corpse in a Gilded Cage, and you know what? Still beaming.

Corpse would make a great introduction to Barnard’s work, for anyone who’s come late to the party: It’s a happily snotty tale about a family of Cockney layabouts that inherits an Earldom, with all the servants, noblesse oblige, and Downton-style estate that goes with it. I dare you to get through the book without at least once snorting with laughter.

Also snort-worthy: Death and the Chaste Apprentice. The setting at a provincial arts festival gives Barnard scope to skewer any number of artistic “types,” from the conductor stuffed practically to bursting with his own pontification to the preening tenor and the wide-eyed ingénue. Barnard was a passionate fan of the performing arts, opera in particular, and his knowledge of the field – both the music and the people involved in presenting it – infuses every line.

Because his funny books were so gorgeously funny, Barnard has often been thought of as a specialist in wit. But the few “serious” mysteries he wrote are, to my mind, at least the equal of the funny ones, and perhaps even better. Both Skeleton in the Grass and Out of the Blackout focus – one way or another – on the political environment in England in the 1930s, the years running up to World War II. The family at the heart of Skeleton is perfectly Downton-esque – unmistakably upper-class, gracious and charming to a fare-the-well, and somehow obscurely poisoned, like a beautifully shiny apple that hides a worm at the core. Blackout was not written as a companion-piece, but the two together are a stunner: The family in this story, about a little boy who was evacuated to the countryside during the London Blitz, and who now as an adult goes looking for the mother who never picked him up, is the opposite of Skeleton’s – dead working-class, vulgar, ugly of both face and politics. But which family was more completely poisoned?

One of the great afternoons of my life was at Bouchercon in 2005. Bob Barnard was there, and allowed me to buy him one coffee after another, in my role as shameless fan-girl. At one point, we were at the coffee-bar when a new barista came on; he overheard us talking about Bob’s love of opera, and said that he, in fact, was an opera singer. “Please,” said Bob, and the barista, with a milk-pitcher in one hand and a roll of paper-towel in the other, launched into a gorgeous version of “Nessun Dorma.” Bob was delighted. And that’s how I will remember him.

If we were drinkers, I’d ask you to raise a glass to one of the finest mystery-writers of the 20th and 21st centuries. But we’re readers, so if you wouldn’t mind, please join me in raising a book – 25% off this week, if you don’t happen to have one.



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