A Talent to Entertain
The recent death of Robert Barnard was sad news for his colleagues in the crime writing world, as well as his legion of fans here and overseas. Bob was an Essex man – he was born in Burnham-on-Crouch in 1936. The same vintage year saw the arrival on the scene of two of his crime writing colleagues, Reginald Hill and Peter Lovesey – each of this gifted trio would go on to win the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger for their sustained achievement in the crime genre.
Bob was educated at a grammar school in Colchester before going on to Balliol College, Oxford. After a spell working for the Fabian Society, he moved to the other side of the world, becoming a lecturer in English in New South Wales and meeting and marrying Louise. His time in Australia provided him with the background for his debut crime novel, Death of an Old Goat, published by Collins Crime Club in 1974. By that time he had – perhaps wisely, given what he had to say about Australia and its academic life! – moved to Norway, first lecturing in Bergen and later becoming a professor of English at Tromso.
He rapidly established himself as a distinctive talent, with a flair for skewering vanities, especially among the English middle-classes. Religion and the Royal Family regularly got a kicking in his fiction, and it was typical of him that his nothing-is-sacred stories often also take aim at Balliol men and novelists. His ability to construct unusual plots, allied to a sharp and mischievous wit, earned a range of accolades. One of his conspicuous strengths was brevity; his novels continued to defy fashion by remaining as concise as ever.
From Death of an Old Goat onwards, Robert Barnard showed an ability to make effective use of what he has learned on his travels around the world, as well as his knowledge of subjects in which he has a special interest, such as opera and the Brontes. During the CWA Conference held at Ilkley, many of us visited Haworth Parsonage and were shown round by Bob, who gave us a memorable insight into the lives of that remarkable family.
His critical skills are displayed in A Talent to Deceive: An Appreciation of Agatha Christie. First published in 1980, this perceptive work was revised and updated a decade later, with a bibliography compiled by Louise. To my mind, his chapter about Christie’s “strategies of deception” is one of the very best short analyses of the methods of constructing tantalising whodunit puzzles ever written.
By the time I came across Bob in person, he and Louise had returned to England, his success having enabled him to concentrate on a life of crime. They moved to Armley in Leeds, a choice dictated at least in part by the excellence of the city’s operatic productions. Our first encounter was at the inaugural lunch of the Northern Chapter of the Crime Writers’ Association. Bob and Louise became regular attendees at the lunches and week-ends that we held over the years and were always very good company. I’ve been lucky enough to hear Bob lecture about Christie at two annual CWA conferences, once at Torquay, the town of her birth, and later at Harrogate, in the hotel where she was discovered after her famous disappearance.
As with Christie, there was no pretension in Robert Barnard, the man or the books. He once said modestly, “I write only to entertain...My books are old-fashioned, though I think some of them contain more humour than most of the ‘Golden Age’ writers usually put in”. His gift for entertaining meant that he was regularly nominated for awards, and it gave me a special thrill when “Sins of Scarlet”, a story of dark deeds in the Vatican which he contributed to a CWA anthology I edited, I.D.: Crimes of Identity, won the CWA Short Story Dagger.
Bob’s books will endure as testaments to both talents as a crime writer, and his multi-faceted life and interests. He gave mystery fans a vast amount of pleasure for close on forty years, and they, like his friends in the CWA, will remember him with admiration and affection.