Darkmans, Nicola Barker's previous novel, must have seemed impossible to follow. A mammoth slab of a book, it picked over a vast weight of topics, from art forgery and chiropody to malicious 13th-century magic, and gathered a slew of awards and nominations. A lurching, tonally uncertain piece, it nonetheless gelled into something far more strange and unsettling than many of her contemporaries' efforts could even suggest.
Burley Cross Postbox Theft thus arrives as something of a surprise. Barker's eighth novel is a broad comic mystery which wrestles the West Yorkshire constabulary from the occult shadow of David Peace's Red Riding sequence, and conjures a world of curtain twitching and council disputes. The robbery of a postbox in the well-to-do moor town of Burley Cross spurs the local police force into action. Recovering the plundered mail, they scan each missive for evidence of the culprit, uncovering a series of strange interactions between the fractious residents: buried among complaints about dog muck and ugly freestanding structures, loves are professed, confessions given and threats made.
Barker uses an epistolary structure and lays out the narrative in the form of both the surrendered evidence and the confused reactions of the two-man police force. The plot emerges cautiously, as incidents overlap, and much of the humour derives from the collision between the narrators' assumptions and the truths they accidentally reveal.
Barker's knack for skewering the mores of the chattering classes remains strong, and a number of sparkling comic set-pieces stand out. However, there is the nagging feeling throughout that Barker is coasting. When placed among her ambitious body of work, this will primarily be seen as an "entertainment". The small minds of middle England have always been due a sharp toe punt or two, but the assembled gallery of Pooterish commentators begins to gall after a time. While a few rare strands offer darker textures, such as a distraught letter from a mother to an abandoned child, there is something rather monotonal about the work as a whole, and the occasional bagginess of Barker's prose does little to help.
No comic novel can be about nothing, of course: the jokes must have something to bite against. So it is that when one character foresees the end of "handwritten letters, and home-cooked meals, and sparrows, and boredom" and remarks despairingly that we are moving into "a much bigger, brighter future, in 24-hour digital HD", we cannot help but see the author moving beneath the text. Barker's writing has always been concerned with marginal communities – from the fringes of the Thames Estuary to the coast of Devon – and she writes with a fond eye for the eccentricities of little England. However, while Burley Cross Postbox Theft is by no means a failure, it is exciting to imagine that Barker might next return to the darker corners of her canvas.