Saturday, March 16, 2013

Here Be Villains: Rogue's Gallery (2011), by Robert Barnard

some unsavory characters
Rogue's Gallery, Robert Barnard's third collection of short stores (after Death of a Salesperson and The Habit of Widowhood) is fine contribution the the library of short crime fiction.  Most of the fourteen stories in the book are of twist-in-the-tale variety, rather than essays in detection. With one exception, all were first published in the last dozen years.

The best-known short story from the collection doubtless is the rather brilliantly-titled  "Sins of Scarlet," which won the 2006 Short Story Award from the Crime Writers' Association (beating out over 100 other stories).  The CWA judges, chaired by Peter Lovesey, called "Sins of Scarlet" "the ultimate in locked room murders, set in the Sistine Chapel during an election of a Pope."

In accepting the award, Robert Barnard commented that the story was turned down by "a leading US short story magazine," on the grounds that "it was too offensive to too many people" (it was instead published in a CWA anthology edited by Martin Edwards)  Be that as it may, the situation is a cleverly devised one, with a nice twist explaining precisely how the two deaths that take place in the tale were accomplished.

Obviously Barnard must have been generally inspired in writing this 2006 story by the election of a new Pope in 2005 (though of course there were no murders during that conclave!). Now I review the story the same week another new Pope was elected. Odd coincidence!

Not yet!
In Robert Barnard's "Sins of Scarlet"
there are severe glitches in a papal election

The earlier published title story also involves a wicked pope from a bygone era--or more particularly his painting.  "Rogue's Gallery" actually is more a supernatural tale, and an enjoyable one, somewhat reminiscent of Bram Stoker's "The Judge's House."

The wickedly humorous "Family Values" is one of my favorites from the collection.  Set in 1948, the story takes place at a stiflingly genteel residential hotel in the Peak District.  It's about the mother-and-son--or are they?--who come to stay at the hotel.

The ironically titled "Mother Dear" is a dark tale about a children who begin plotting the murder of their hateful mother.  For me this story had an added frisson from my recollection of an interview where Barnard admitted his own bad relationship with his mother.

"Incompatibles," about a son, a future crime writer, and his ill-matched parents, is another dark tale that seemed like it might possibly be drawing on some personal elements.  The ending is left tantalizingly inconclusive.

The earliest story in the collection, "A Political Necessity," dates from 1991.  It details the plot of a conscienceless politician to get rid of his of his wife, who has became fired with religious enthusiasm--a great deal of it.  Will his plan succeed?

One of the latest stories, "The New Slavery," is original to the book.  This one I would hardly even call a crime or mystery story, but it is a poignant tale, critiquing social conditions in modern England, and parents who palm off the responsibility for raising their children on elderly parents.

Nothing gets past this man!
"Lovely Requiem, Mr. Mozart," is a one more installment of Barnard's alternative history of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, in which Mozart lives to become an old man, residing in England and giving musical lessons to Princess Victoria (see two previous novels, published under Barnard's Bernard Bastable pseudonym).

It seems an eccentric, wealthy English gentleman wants to commission Mozart to write a requiem mass for him, but there are some very odd conditions attached....

I liked this one a lot.  It's one of the few lightly humorous tales in the collection.

Some of the tales are less successful.  "The Fall of the House of Oldenborg" and "A Slow Way to Di" seemed to me to wear out their conceits (about Hamlet and Princess Diana, respectively). "The Path to the Shroud" read like a pastiche of Tennessee Williams' The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone.  "Last Day of the Hols" seemed rather amorphous to me, though there's a great last line about Agatha Christie, where Robert Barnard, unlike some, gives the Crime Queen her due.

Robert Barnard deserves his due too.  He's an accomplished practitioner of the arts of crime and mystery, in both their long and short forms.


  1. That title story sounds great!!! I simply must read it!

  2. Good God! was EQMM really that PC and puritanical in its editorial decision making only seven years ago? Were they fearing a possible flurry of subscription cancellations? I'm glad we have internet magazines now for crime writers who are daring enough to break taboos. Now I have to find this volume and read "Sins of Scarlet"

  3. John, I know, I was surprised as well! Patrick, this particular pope has a connection to the Borgias, so watch out!