Robert Barnard: Writer who revelled in the traditions of the Golden Age of crime fiction


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The Independent Online

The prolific crime novelist Robert Barnard arguably launched the "campus novel" mini-genre with his debut work, Death of An Old Goat. It was published in 1974, the same year as Tom Sharpe's Porterhouse Blue but a year before Malcolm Bradbury's The History Man. However, in Barnard's novel, set in a remote Australian university, the academic back-stabbing was literal, not figurative.

Barnard was, in a sense, a man out of his time, writing ingenious and witty Golden Age crime fiction 50 years after that age's demise. Not that he set what he called his "deliberately old-fashioned" novels in the Golden Age of the 1920s and 1930s, but after his debut his contemporary novels were cast as traditional English detective fiction with their clever plotting, vivid characters and often quaint village settings. His admiration for such fiction was demonstrated in his 1980 appreciation of the work of Agatha Christie, A Talent To Deceive.

For almost a decade he wrote this very English fiction while living in Tromso, Norway, 200 miles inside the Arctic Circle, in the land of the midnight sun. It's intriguing that he only wrote one novel set in Tromso, Death In A Cold Climate (1980).

Robert Barnard was born in 1936 in Burnham-on-Crouch, Essex to Leslie and Vera Barnard. His father wrote serials for women's weekly magazines. He was brought up in Brightlingsea and went to the Royal Grammar School in Colchester. Describing himself later as "a horrid, snobbish little schoolboy", he was a fan of crime fiction from an early age.

He went to Balliol College, Oxford to study English. His doctoral dissertation on Dickens's imagery was eventually turned into a book. (He also later completed Dickens's The Mystery of Edwin Drood in a way he felt was convincing but couldn't get it published.)

He left university in 1959 and briefly worked as a bookshop manager for the Fabian Society, then as an adult education teacher at a technical college in Accrington, Lancashire. In 1961 he emigrated to Australia, where he taught English at the University of New England in New South Wales. He met a librarian, Mary Louise Tabor, and they married in 1963. In 1966 he moved to the University of Bergen in Norway to lecture in English literature and after 10 years moved to Tromso University as professor of English.

While in Bergen he was thinking of England. His second novel, A Little Local Murder (1976), was set in the fictional English village of Twytching and the third, Death On The High Cs (1977), was set in northern England and reflected his lifelong love of opera (he once appeared on Mastermind with early Italian opera as his special subject).

Barnard quickly established himself as one of the leading writers of the traditional crime novel (more commonly known as "cosies"). For the next two decades he wrote a novel a year, sometimes two. Mostly these were stand-alones but in 1981 Superintendent Perry Trethowan of Scotland Yard made his first appearance, in Death by Sheer Torture.

In 1983 A Little Local Murder was published to much critical acclaim in the US, where one critic described it as "maliciously funny, closely plotted, acutely observed and genuinely puzzling." American readers quickly took to Barnard's crime mysteries with their quirky, mostly unlikeable, characters, devious plotting and rich humour.

Barnard once said of his characters: "[They] are [all] pretty awful in one way or another, partly because they are suspects in a murder investigation and I don't really believe that nice people are potential committers of murder."

His popularity in America emboldened Barnard to return to England to write full time in 1984. He and Louise settled in Leeds, where he remained for the rest of his life.

Trethowan made four more appearances in the 1980s; his involvement in the case of The Missing Brontë (1983) reflected Barnard's interest in Emily Brontë. Barnard later wrote another novel linked to Bronte's birthplace, The Corpse at the Haworth Tandoori (1998). He was chairman of the Brontë Society for a number of years and in 2000 published a biography of Emily Bronte, later writing with his wife A Brontë Encyclopaedia (2013).

In all he wrote some 45 crime novels. In the 1990s he wrote four "historicals" as Bernard Bastable, two featuring a retired Mozart as amateur detective. By then he was also writing a series featuring the policeman Charlie Peace, who made his debut in 1989's Death And The Chaste Apprentice and appeared nine more times, the last time in Barnard's final novel, A Charitable Body (2012). Barnard also produced three collections of short stories, most recently Rogues Gallery (2012).

Barnard liked the crime genre for what it was – unpretentious entertainment – "I do not want the genre to attain a borderline respectability," he once said. However, there was more to his writing than just entertainment. He was an outstanding satirist and many of his novels can be seen as acute comedies of manners. He trained his satirical attention on a wide range of subjects, taking potshots at academics in his debut, at the church (in Blood Brotherhood, 1977), politicians (Political Suicide, 1986) and the British class system (Corpse in a Gilded Cage, 1984, and City of Strangers, 1990).

He was awarded the Crime Writers' Association's Diamond Dagger for his outstanding contribution to crime fiction in 2003 but, puzzlingly, was otherwise mostly overlooked for British writing honours. In America, by contrast, he won the Nero Wolfe, the Anthony, the Agatha and the Macavity Awards and was shortlisted for eight Edgars.

Such awards testified to his skills as a writer but all who knew him also testify to the kind of man he was: acutely intelligent and very knowledgeable but also witty, kind and warm. He will be much missed.

Robert Barnard, writer: born Burnham-on-Crouch, Essex 23 November 1936; married 1963 Louise Tabor; died 19 September 2013.