Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Butcher's Dozen: Robert Barnard's Thirteen Best Mystery Novels

When I returned to mystery reading in a huge way in 1989, after a six year hiatus when I gave them up, I read a lot of Sayers and Marsh and John Dickson Carr, as well as the stray Christies I had missed earlier, and I reread all the Sherlock Holmes tales.  Two of the first (if not the actual first) contemporary mystery writers I read in the Nineties were PD James and Ruth Rendell, along with Robert Barnard and Peter Lovesey.  With Barnard and Lovesey, I often read their mysteries as they were published: a new phenomenon for me.  

Robert Barnard as you may know died just over nine years ago at the age of 76, after the rapid onset of what I understand to have been dementia.  If you read online reader reviews of his last two or three books (especially the last one, A Charitable Body, published at the beginning of 2012), you will find increasingly critical comments about his work, as if there were something "off" about it.  I'm not sure his last one was even published in the UK, though his American publisher, Scribner, stuck with him to the end.

Robert Barnard published 45 mysteries novels between 1974 and 2012, along with three short story collections and a fine literary study of the work of Agatha Christie, A Talent to Deceive.  (Until his retirement in the early eighties, Barnard, a native Englishman, worked as a professor of English in Australia and Norway.)  I think his best period by far as a writer of mystery novels was roughly 1974 to 1995, as you will see from my "best" list below:

24 of his books were non-series standalones, while his series sleuths were cops Perry Trethowan (5 books) and Charlie Peace (13 books; Unholy Dying, Mistress of Alderly and Graveyard Position often aren't listed as CP books but they are) and, in an alternative mystery universe, a certain Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (3 books).  I like Barnard's PT novels, one of which, Bodies, introduced Charlie Peace back in 1986, but I think his best work was with the early Peace novels and the nonseries ones.  (Admittedly, I haven't read the Mozart ones, published under the pseudonym Bernard Bastable, real life historical sleuths usually not being my thing, with certain exceptions like Peter Lovesey's Bertie.)

Best of Robert Barnard

Non-series Novels 10

Death of an Old Goat 1974 darkly funny flaying of Australian academics

A Little Local Murder 1976 classic village mystery and the episode of the Haydn records

Death on the High C's 1977 opera romp

Unruly Son 1978, aka Death of a Mystery Writer his first book published in the US, where he soon received three Edgar nominations from the Mystery Writers of America for best novel--he was belatedly but very warmly received in the US

Out of the Blackout 1984 first of his historical recreation mysteries, superbly rendered

cover by Barnard's English publisher
in his later years, Allison & Busby
A Corpse in a Gilded Cage 1984 hilarious fish out of water mystery; lots of social satire

The Disposal of the Living 1985, aka Fete Fatale back to village mystery setting, wonderfully done

The Skeleton in the Grass 1987 impressive 1930s period mystery

A Scandal in Belgravia 1991 another period mystery, shifting back and forth several decades a la Barbara Vine (though much shorter) with a speciality of his, the last page twist

Last Post 2008 another retrospective type mystery--a fine return to form by the Old Master before his rapid decline

I think Penguin was did some
kickass covers Barnard 
Charlie Peace Novels 3

A Fatal Attachment 1992 this and the next two all terrific village/provincial mysteries

A Hovering of Vultures 1995

The Bad Samaritan 1995

A few honorables: Blood Brotherhood 1977 Sheer Torture 1981 Death and the Princess 1982 Bodies 1986, Death in Purple Prose 1987 Death and the Chaste Apprentice 1989 A City of Strangers 1990, Masters of the House 1994 A Cry from the Dark 2003


  1. You and I returned to mysteries at about the same time--although I hadn't given them up entirely. My attention was primarily devoted to science fiction from about 1981-90. Death of an Old Goat was one of the first academic mysteries I read when I came back to the genre more full-time. It's definitely a good one.

    1. I swore off mysteries when I started college and stayed off them though most of law school as well. In the summer of 89 I went to a cool bookstore in Chicago and bought Carr's Burning Court, Hag's Nook and Judas Window and A Talent to Deceive--Robert Barnard's appreciation of Christie--and that got me reading mysteries in a big way again. I read about all the Christies I had missed earlier (and reread a bunch) and read tons of Carr and Sayers and Marsh and then James and Rendell and Barnard and Lovesey and Ferrars. Kept me busy with reading material for a while!

    2. All the Carr books were those IPL editions, with intros by Doug Greene as I recall!

  2. Thanks for this - there are few authors where my responses are as divided as to Barnard - I absolutely love some of them, and found others quite awful. Death of an Old Goat is wonderful, very funny and clever, and there's a couple more I loved. I will investigate some of your suggestions.
    AND - I absolutely love Talent to Deceive - I don't agree with every word he says, but I find it one of the best books on Christie, and also at the time was very innovative in its way of writing about crime novels - taking them seriously, and making it clear he really knows the books inside out, but also very entertaining, opinionated and a bit bitchy.

    1. Yes, Deceive is a lovely book and so straightforward for an academic, lol. I think ti was the first really serious piece of mystery criticism I ever read. I think Barnard got into a rut later in his career and of course he was tragically afflicted with dementia is the last stage, but for 25 years or so I would say he was quite good generally, one of my favorites.