I’ve been taking a break between book projects, in reading just for fun, rather than research. I have about an hour in the evenings, after fifteen minutes diverting Wee Jamie the Wonder Grandson, before his mother packs him off to the nursery for the night. Normally, the evening read is something on my Kindle, but for the last couple of weeks, I’ve returned to the bookshelves, to the books of a scribbler of mysteries… no, not Agatha Christie, but another English writer who was a fan of hers in turn; one Robert Barnard, who wrote mysteries ending towards the ‘cozy’ end of the spectrum rather than strictly procedural. Most of his books on my shelves can better be described as short and atmospheric novels with a mystery element. The two best – or the ones which I enjoyed the most are Skeleton In the Grass, and Out of the Blackout. The first is set in the late 1930s, focusing on a well-to-do family who are stars in the leftish intellectual firmament of the time – set of handsome, rich and glamorous parents who have all the correct progressive opinions, a son fighting in Spain with the International Brigade … and someone in the local village is harassing them with ugly pranks. The young governess for their youngest daughter slowly realizes that perhaps the family are not quite as noble in character as they seem. In Out of the Blackout, a small boy appears with a group of schoolchildren evacuated from London in 1941to a small country village … but no one in authority can find any records of him? Who is he, and where did he come from? Who put him on the train, and had he witnessed a murder, in the midst of the Blitz? As a grownup, the boy spends decades puzzling out his identity, based on a few sketchy memories.

The other Barnard books are almost as good – every mystery different, all with cunningly developed puzzles and interesting, unique characters. He only did a handful with an ongoing policeman sleuth, so there was no scope for making his books into TV series, as was the case with Caroline Graham’s Midsomer books, or Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series, which would have made his books much more widely read. But then again, with Midsomer Murders appearing to make the county of Midsomer have a murder rate to equal Cabot Cove, and Dalziel and Pascoe fizzling out after wandering too far from the book series as written – perhaps that is a good thing. Anyway – check them out; they’re good reads.


  1. I’ve mostly read the “golden age” mysteries by well-known English authors plus a variety of typical tales of murder in the mansion with “crooks and nannies in every nook and cranny” by less widely-known or American authors. This author’s books sound intriguing and I’m going to start sampling his puzzlers.

    Thanks much for the recommendation.

  2. You won’t regret checking out RB, Curmudgeon – his books are really good, and since he didn’t tie himself to a particular detective, they avoid a certain routine quality. He had a couple of stock detective characters, which meant maybe four or five books each – but all the rest are wildly varied, even though murder is involved in most of them.

  3. “Blood Brotherhood,” one of his earlier books, is a truly devastating satire of the Anglican church. It was published in the 1970s but when I read it 40 years later, I recognized every single archetype. Clearly the rot started many decades ago. Perhaps my favorite is “Bodies.” Perry Trethowan investigates a mass shooting at the headquarters of a skin mag in Soho, and it’s wonderfully written.

  4. It was a curious thing, to JP and Pip and I, when we spent the summer in England in 1976 – we would usually go to a local church, wherever we were, on Sunday. In a lot of places in England and Scotland, there was nothing to do on a Sunday then go to church. I remember noting that the C of E services were usually mostly deserted; the churches themselves were charming, historic, the ritual and the hymns were lovely, and I have always loved the language of the Book of Common Prayer … but it all seemed dreadfully hollow. In Scotland, though – full house for the Presbyterian services, usually a very plain, stripped-down basic Protestant service. The most rip-roaring sermon we ever heard preached was a rousing one by the minister of a church in Oban, Scotland. He took as his message the story of Rahab the Harlot, of Jericho, who helped Joshua’s two spies … the lesson being that belief in G*d’s message wasn’t the perk of the moral, upright and socially acceptable. It was a very blunt sermon, and we wondered if the minister wasn’t going to be burned at stake by the parishioners afterwards … but he wasn’t – in fact, it was received most enthusiastically by the congregation.