Friday, February 22, 2013

Dropped Down Under: Death of an Old Goat (1974), by Robert Barnard

In "Avoiding Academia," an article he contributed for a themed issue (Academic Mysteries) of Mystery Readers Journal in Winter 1997/97, mystery writer Robert Barnard noted that:

I taught in universities for twenty-two years, from 1961 to 1983....There's nothing that irritates me more than people who condemn whole professions....Still, I have to say that I have not greatly liked the academics I have come in contact with in the course of my life...they have seemed the most sniveling, self-important scraps of humanity you can imagine, and as windy and as whiny a bunch as ever demanded special privileges without doing anything to deserve them.

my favorite cover illustration for
Death of an Old Goat
This attitude to academia certainly comes snarling forth in Robert Barnard's first detective novel, Death of an Old Goat (1974), which is based on his experiences as a teacher from 1961 to 1966 at the University of New England, located in Armidale, Australia.  In contrast with some of Barnard's early work, Goat has been out of print for thirty years, but it is still worth reading.

Goat is the seventeenth Robert Barnard novel I have read--his books were a staple of my recreational literature diet back in the 1990s--and I would without hesitation characterize it as Barnard's most bitingly satirical fictional work.

Barnard doesn't rest content with ridiculing Australian collegiate education, he ridicules Australian...everything.

Judging by the blurbs on the 1983 Penguin edition of Goat, the novel was much praised.  "Perhaps the best academic mystery in a decade," says New Republic.  "The perfect gem, one you wouldn't want to change a word of," pronounces the Los Angeles Times.

On the other hand,academics Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor in A Catalogue of Crime, dissented from this judgment (as was their wont), despite the fact that Robert Barnard is one of the most commended modern authors in their mammoth tome.  "This early effort is thoroughly bad," pronounces ACOC.  "R. B. intended satire but it fails by excess."

the American hardcover edition
I tend to agree with B & T that the satire in Goat is excessive--and I'm not even Australian!.  After a while, one gets wearied by Barnard's contempt for all things Australian: the schools, the liquor, the teachers, the liquor, the graziers, the liquor, the police, the liquor, the railroads, the liquor, the hotels, the liquor, the restaurants, the liquor, the literature, the liq--well, you get the point!

Sometimes too Barnard has the subtlety of a cricket bat to the head ("Their clothes were well-cut, and almost hid the fact that they were fat.  Nothing could hide the fact that they were stupid.").

However, there is a lot of genuinely funny stuff in Goat, especially the first academic cocktail party:

"What I can't understand [says Mervyn Raines, Drummondale University professor of Australian literature] is why all the universities in England do American literature, and nobody seems to know that Australian literature exists."

"Yes," said Professor Belville-Smith, his eyes focused on the ceiling, his mind infinitely further off.

"But was there ever a more over-rated book than Moby Dick?  All that fuss about a bloody whale..."


"And yet there'll be a lot of people in England who've never heard of Henry Handel Richardson," said Merv.

"About ninety-nine point nine per cent," said Bill Bascomb, who was standing by the sofa.

"Yes," said Professor Belville-Smith.

Henry Handel Richardson
Hey, I was surprised as you
Bill Bascomb is a young professor just out from Oxford, who hates his job in Australia and everything else about Australia for that matter.

By Robert Barnard's own admission, Bill Bascomb is his alter ego in Goat.  Bascomb eventually solves the case himself, the Australian police inspector being, naturally enough, a gross incompetent.  Bascomb has a sort of sidekick as well, one Alice O'Brien, who is the only sympathetically portrayed Australian in the book (well, sort of).

Just who is the old goat who dies in the novel, you may be asking.  Well, that would be poor Professor Belville-Smith (see above), a doddering old visiting English professor from Oxford.

I loved this character, who seemed like he had wandered out of a Michael Innes novel, especially when he mixes up his lecture notes (unaltered since the 1930s) on Elizabeth Gaskell and Jane Austen.

Later, at the cocktail party after too many drinks, Professor Belville-Smith starts to recount the time when he actually met Jane Austen: "Charming woman, charming.  Sick, you know, very sick, but brave.  Quite what you would expect from novels, and most witty...."

shades of Innes
The next day Belville-Smith is found dead in his hotel room, his throat slashed (there's no logical reason for this manner of murder having been chosen by the murderer, as one character observes, but apparently Barnard wanted the chance to include some Macbeth references, which are funny, admittedly).

Detection definitely takes a back seat to satire, and I spotted the culprit immediately upon this person's appearance; yet the motive, though insufficient for the crime, is well-hidden (at least if you're not British!).  Also, the last line is a real corker.

Interestingly, Barnard himself says he didn't know who the murderer would be until he was well into writing the novel, so apparently I, a mere reader, know Robert Barnard better than Robert Barnard!  Of course I have the advantage of having read so many of his books.  But I won't say anything more, so as not to spoil the book.  Except this, to reassure the Janeites:

Jane didn't do it.


  1. Curt, I see on Amazon that a Kindle edition is coming at the beginning of April. That gives me (and other readers here) a shot at it...which I may have to take, even though I have no natural antipathy to things Australian. Thanks for the review!

    1. Les,

      I'm almost surprised that Barnard didn't write this one under a pseudonym! I wonder whether he ever went back?

  2. I read this years ago, and I think enjoyed it very much. The bit that really stuck in my mind was the bit you quote, the ancient professor claiming to know Jane Austen, it's been a favourite joke for me and my partner ever since, and one that often pops into my head when I meet rather doddery academics... I must get the book out and read it again now....

    1. Clothes,

      I thought that bit was laugh out loud funny (and sure enough, I laughed out loud when I read it).

      Looked at you blog, by the way, and I noticed the mention of Angela Thirkell. Todd Downing (see today's post) was a great readers of Thirkell, and owned thirty of her books.