Monday, September 23, 2013

Death of a Mystery Writer

Like most of us, critic-columnist Mike Ripley was shocked to learn that English crime novelist Robert Barnard died late last week at age 76. “I hadn’t communicated with him for 18 or 19 months,” Ripley tells me, “and had no idea that he had been put in a nursing home [in Leeds] in January.” Quickly, however, Ripley pulled together an excellent tribute to Barnard, which was posted earlier today in Shots. It begins:
Robert Barnard was one of a quartet of writers born in 1936--his contemporaries being Reginald Hill, Jonathan Gash and Peter Lovesey--who formed a solid backbone for traditional English crime writing of the highest order in the last quarter of the twentieth century.

Unlike others of his generation, Robert Barnard’s zestful and witty novels did not benefit from television adaptations, nor indeed from large paperback runs in the UK. His books were often more easily available in America where he was probably better known as an exponent of the ‘cosy’ school of crime writing--a label he never denied or disparaged as he felt the main goal of a crime writer was simply ‘to entertain’. In this he tried to emulate Agatha Christie, for whom he had a great admiration, describing her as the writer “who has probably given more sheer pleasure than any other in this century” in his critical study
A Talent to Deceive in 1980. He was no doubt proud of the fact that his first editor at the legendary Collins Crime Club was Elizabeth Walter, who was also Agatha Christie’s last editor, and Robert was the obvious choice to give the oration at Elizabeth’s funeral in 2006.

One reason often given as to why Bob Barnard was not the household name he should have been, was that he never had a central series hero, whereas Hill had Dalziel and Pascoe, Gash had Lovejoy and Lovesey (initially) had Sergeant Cribb, all characters which attracted the interest of television producers. In fact, Barnard had several series heroes--among them policemen Perry Trethowan (perhaps the most successful), Idwal Meredith and Charlie Peace and, under the pen name Bernard Bastable, even Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart!--but his series were never produced in concentrated bursts, Barnard preferring to employ a character when a plot or a central theme required it.
You can read all of Ripley’s remarks here.

Also check out fellow author Martin Edwards’ warm remarks about Barnard, whom he calls “one of the first friends I made in the crime writing world” and “personally very generous.” Edwards, it seems, knew that Barnard’s health was not good:
... [O]ne of the last times I saw him was at the Detection Club’s annual dinner in the Temple. By this time, he was becoming troubled by memory problems. For an intellectual whose memory had always been fantastic, this was a dreadful blow, and he felt unable to continue with his public speaking, something in which he excelled. I went to visit him and Louise at their home in Leeds last year, and we had a pleasant time together, but his health began to deteriorate, and this year the decline had been steep. For Louise, who has coped with great courage during the past difficult months, the loss is profound.
I’m sorry that I was never given the opportunity to meet Robert Barnard myself, and that I am quite seriously behind in reading through his oeuvre. If you haven’t yet sampled any of Barnard’s work yourself, here’s a list of books to get you started.

FOLLOW-UP: The Gumshoe Site says Barnard “died in his sleep on September 19 at the Grove Court Nursing Home in Leeds, England.”

READ MORE:Robert Barnard, R.I.P.,” by Janet Rudolph (Mystery Fanfare); “Robert Barnard--A Talent to Entertain,” by Martin Edwards (‘Do You Write Under Your Own Name?’); “Robert Barnard: An Appreciation,” by Maggie Topkis (Felony & Mayhem); “Robert Barnard Obituary,” by Mike Ripley (The Guardian).


Kelly Robinson said...

I don't know how I missed the news. He wrote some of my favorite mystery novels.

The Passing Tramp said...

I used the same title for my piece on Barnard today--hadn't seen yours. Enjoyed his work a lot.