Monday, September 23, 2013

Death of a Mystery Writer: Robert Barnard (1936-2013)

Especially sad news for me: Robert Barnard, about whom I have blogged here several times, passed away last Thursday. Martin Edwards appears to have broken the news on the internet; it doesn't seem to be in any online news sources, perhaps an indication of Barnard's somewhat diminished fame over the last dozen years or so.

When I started reading mysteries again back in the 1990s, Robert Barnard, along with Reginald Hill and Peter Lovesey (with whom he shared the same birth year) and of course P. D. James and Ruth Rendell, seemed to me like one of the bigger English names in the genre, with many of his titles being reprinted in paperback by Penguin.

Barnard always enjoyed a following among Anglophile American mystery fans and his American publisher, Scribner, stayed with him for thirty-five years, from Death of a Mystery Writer (1978) (Unruly Son in England) to his last novel, A Charitable Body (2012) (in England in the last dozen years, however, he went from HarperCollins to Allison & Busby, who did not publish his last novel).

I started reading Robert Barnard in the mid-1990s and loved the wit and humor in his mysteries.  Some of my favorite books by him, besides Death of  a Mystery Writer, were A Little Local Murder (1976), Fete Fatale (The Disposal of the Living in England) (1985), classic satirical English village mysteries, Death of an Old Goat (1974), a wicked satire of academia and the entire country of Australia, Blood Brotherhood (1977), a satire of modern English religion, and such excursions into period mystery as Out of the Blackout (1984), The Skeleton in the Grass (1987) and A Scandal in Belgravia (1991).

All the above books were standalones, but I also enjoyed the Perry Trethowan series, five books published between 1981 and 1987.  The fourth of these PT novels, Bodies (about murder in the milieus of bodybuilding contests and skin mags), introduced a new series character, a black cop names Charlie Peace.  He would appear in, I believe, thirteen more novels (though no website seems to get this right):

Death and the Chaste Apprentice 1989
A Fatal Attachment 1992
A Hovering of Vultures 1993
The Bad Samaritan 1995
No Place of Safety 1997
The Corpse at the Haworth Tandoori 1998
Unholy Dying 2000
The Bones in the Attic 2001
The Mistress of Alderley 2002
The Graveyard Position 2004
A Fall from Grace 2006
The Killings on Jubilee Terrace 2009
A Charitable Body (2012)

Back in the 1990s I read and enjoyed the first four novels in this series, but then fell away for some reason.  I am reacquainting myself with this series now and will have more to say about it on Friday.  Meanwhile, see my reviews of two other Barnard novels and a short story collection.

Also coming up soon, I hope, my review of a novel by Sophie Hannah, the new chronicler of Hercule Poirot.


  1. Sorry to hear about his passing. I recall his short stories in EQMM with fondness. I once read a collection of four of his novels while on vacation. They were all very good, and all different.

  2. This is the first I had heard of his death and I am saddened. I had to look up the date, but Barnard won the Cartier Diamond Dagger in 2003 for lifetime achievement and you don't get that without working hard for it. He started out by writing some very funny mysteries, with an emphasis from farce to satire, and then his writing expanded and matured as he became a confident novelist. What I liked was his voice; the phrasing was always that of a polished and suave speaker, over cigars and brandy in the library after dinner.

    I hope I can find a copy of his "Death of a Mystery Writer" on my shelves and re-read it as a fitting tribute.

  3. I read A SCANDAL IN BELGRAVIA when it came out, then A TALENT TO DECEIVE and became and instant fan, though I haven't read much of his more recent books sorry to say - plan to remedy this soon though. Thanks for the great post and for the update on the Peace series because I thought there were only 10 - I need to go back to my shelves and see which ones I have - thanks as always Curt.

  4. I just discovered his books and am enjoying them a lot. Thank you for passing on the sad news.

  5. I let out a gasp and got a bit sad when I saw this on Martin's blog. He was one of my favorites among the "new" writers back when I first became a mystery addict in the 1970s. I still remember how much I enjoyed DEATH ON THE HIGH C's and all of his mysteries set in Norway. I will also never forget the exasperating "un-mystery" mystery novel DEATH OF A LITERARY WIDOW -- sort of a throwback to Anthony Berkeley's The Wychford Poisoning Case with which it shares some of the frustrating elements of an anticlimactic ending. RIP, Mr. Barnard. You did well in keeping alive the traditional detective novel.

    1. John, I must say I recall hating Posthumous Papers back in the 1990s! But I've liked most of the book by him that I have read.

  6. Thanks for the comments everyone. I have fond memories of Barnard's work. I've only read about half his books, so I know there's a nice legacy of works still remaining for me to enjoy. RIP Robert Barnard.