The current renaissance and reprints of crime authors is wonderful for those of us who like this genre and I am certainly in that category. I have written before about the Classic Crime Series published by the British Library with their marvellous discovery of Golden Age and earlier authors, I have mentioned George Bellairs who is being republished in e book format by Bloomsbury and Endeavour Press, and now Pan Macmillan are getting in on the act with their own imprint.
The books they are reissuing seem to be from the seventies and early eighties and though that may seem recent to the likes of me and thee, does mean that these titles are now some 30-40 years old and I suppose are now in the category designated 'retro reads' by the Daily Mail.
Robert Barnard. Well who he? I knew nothing about him, had never heard of him and if those nice people at Pan Macmillan had not got in touch with me would probably have continued on my blissfully ignorant way without a thought. After reading two titles they sent me I am now absolutely delighted to say what a wonderful discovery and, even better, he has loads of books available so that means I have a lot of good reading ahead of me. Always happy when that happens and I have another author to track down. I have already loaded another four onto my Kindle.
The two I have just read are published in paperback and, as with the BritLib series, have those lovely nostalgic covers which so catch the eye. Pretty certain if I had seen these in a book shop I would have picked them up as they are rather beguiling and The Case of the Missing Bronte would have had me whipping out my plastic in no time at all. So as I said, who he? He died just a few years ago in 2013, born in Essex, lived in Leeds and educated at Balliol. Seems he was a full time academic and Prof of English at the University of Tromso in Norway, which it seems was the world's most northerly university though whether that means anything is neither here nor there.
He wrote under the name of Bernard Bastable and penned novels featuring Mozart as a detective (mmmm not sure about that) and created several detectives including Perry Trethowan and Charlie Peace. Agatha Christie was his ideal crime writer and was the winner of the 2003 Cartier Diamond Dagger Award so he is clearly no slouch.
And my thoughts on the books? Loved them. The Case of the Missing Bronte features Superintendent Trethowan who is returning to London with his wife after a visit in Northumberland. Their car breaks down as they drive through the Yorkshire Dales and they are stranded in a small village and take refuge for the night in the local pub. There they meet Miss Edith Wing, a seemingly ordinary woman who tells them of the death of a friend and her inheritance of all her papers. And in these papers she comes across an extraordinary document - an unpublished work by Emily Bronte. Too many people get to know about this and it is not long before she is attacked and left for dead at her cottage and the manuscript stolen. The author was at one stage the Chair of the Bronte Society Council so his Bronte background and knowledge is spot on.
Barnard's style is witty and engaging and firmly tongue in cheek. I find myself laughing out loud at some of his descriptions of character and place such as his visit to an 'expert' at the local University which had not exactly prospered "Other new universities made their mark. You went there because you were bright, to another because you were a revolutionary, a third because you were over sexed. You went to Milltown because it was there......even in the early seventies the students hadn't been militant. They explained at NUS conferences that they were too depressed. Everyone understood..."
The second title A Little Local Murder is the sort of mystery I love. Set in a village environment a la St Mary Mead, we meet Mrs Deborah Withers, Twying's resident Doyenne and arbiter of good taste. I mentioned above that Barnard loved Dame Agatha and I was immediately reminded of Mrs Price Ridley in Murder at the Vicarage when I read the description of Mrs Withers. She opens all her hen pecked husband's mail and finds that the village is to be the subject of a radio programme linked with their twinning town in the US. Immediately Mrs W decides that she will be the one to control the presentation of her 'county town' and assumes responsibility for picking those who will take part.
As she is disliked by nearly everyone in the village and is warned by Inspector George Parish of provoking rivalry among the villagers, it seems clear to the reader who is going to end up as a corpse in the ditch. But we would be wrong and it turns out to be somebody else entirely. Wonderful cast of awful characters in the village including a petty, pompous teacher and a nosy gossipy village shop keeper, a snooty resident who thinks she is a cut above everyone else and an anonymous letter writer obsessed with sexual misbehavior all make up for a hoot of a read.
I enjoyed these two titles immensely and now look forward to reading many more. However, one thing that struck me most forcibly when reading these was how certain attitudes prevalent at the time of writing now make one feel slightly uncomfortable. When reading detective stories of the so called Golden Age, the thirties and the forties, we expect to find sexism and a certain amount of racism and anti-Semitism and we accept that as the attitudes of the time. By the time we reach the seventies and eighties when these books were written it comes as somewhat of a shock that some of these attitudes are still in force and regarded as normal. Certain words and phrases now jar slightly and remind those of us reading in 2016 that things have come a long way in this regard.
But this slight caveat aside, please do make a note of the name of Robert Barnard and give them a go. I think you will enjoy them.
Both these titles are to be published in May 2016 and my thanks again to Pan Macmillan for sending these to me.