Monday, 23 September 2013

Robert Barnard RIP

Death of an Old Goat by Robert Barnard

published 1977   chapter 4




[The book is set in a remote Australian university town: Alice is a guest at a party given by the Wickhams for a visiting academic]



At this moment Lucy Wickham caught out of the corner of her eye the figure of Alice O’Brien, heading for the drinks corner, and maliciously decided to frustrate her. ‘Alice’ she said, gazing at her loud scarlet and orange frock of unfashionable length, and her peeling face with the too blatant make-up.


 ‘So glad you could come. How nice you look tonight. But then you always look so nice, of course.’

Alice gritted her teeth and wondered whether to hand Lucy the empty glass and demand a refill. No. Perhaps later. Or perhaps when she became permanent.

‘Beaut party,’ she said chattily in her broadest Australian voice. She knew that Lucy would not be able to sustain conversation long in that style. ‘Nice home you’ve got, too.’

Lucy was struck dumb by the directness of the hint: Miss O’Brien had been on the staff two years, and this was the first time she had been invited to the Wickhams’. Conscious that she was not at her best with animals that would defend themselves, she retreated.




observations: Robert Barnard, a well-known and highly-respected figure in the world of crime fiction, died a few days ago at the age of 76. He wrote a large number of popular crime novels, and this was one of the first (the chronology is vague - in some sources this one is dated to 1974, but the copyright page gives 1977). It is a hilarious academic mystery, with sustained satirical passages that make you surprised it isn’t better known – Barnard mentions Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (on the blog here and here), and this book is at that level, while Alice, above, is a nicer version of Jim's Margaret. 


Some of the humour is broad and not at all politically correct: characters are shown as snobbish, misogynist and elitist, and quite horrendously racist – but you couldn’t doubt that it is intended as fierce satire. You also couldn’t doubt that Barnard worked in academia: his vicious descriptions of academic infighting, the canapés at the party above, and the contents of an English lecturer’s bookshelves, all suggest straight transcriptions from life. You would guess he had a great time writing it, with its Macbeth moments, with the studies of ‘the poetry of George Eliot and the plays of Dickens’ and, above all, with the visiting academic who clearly remembers meeting Jane Austen (“charming woman… most witty”) before she died, although she was very ill.

It is a short, very clever book: in the last page or two you wonder how he can end it: and then the final sentence rounds it off with sudden brilliance.

As if Old Goat  and the other novels weren’t enough, Robert Barnard also wrote one of the very best studies of Agatha Christie’s work: the 1980 A Talent to Deceive, a book that any true Christie fan can return to again and again – it is clever, funny and perceptive, and it is unlikely ever to be bettered.

The party-ready, on-trend women in orange and scarlet are from fashion magazines of 1977.

8 comments:

  1. Moira - What an excellent choice of book to remember Barnard. It may not be politically correct, but it sounds like a clever and funny look at academia. Thanks for sharing. And I remember the scarlet and orange thing..

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    1. Yes I'm afraid I probably wore a few scarlet and orange outfits myself, sometimes varying it with shocking pink! It was a treat to get this book down again, I very much enjoyed it. And he sounds like a very nice man.

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  2. I only heard about Barnard's death last night and only because my husband was seeing some posts about it. Barnard is one of my favorite authors of all time and I have read many of his books and have a lot of favorites. What a wonderful career he had. Thanks for this post which a perfect tribute to him and his writing.

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    1. Thanks for the kind words Tracy. I will probably re-read a few more of his now - and will continue to refer to his Agatha Christie book regularly.

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  3. Moira, sad news. I have never read him but ought to make the effort - probably with this book. I sort of get him muddled in my head with Robert Goddard - another author who I have never read either. I know I have some books somewhere by one of the Robert's or maybe both.
    BTW - Lucky Jim is lying around somewhere along with Old Devils - when I do get there I hope I enjoy him more than the last few from Martin that I've tried.

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    1. His books were more my kind of thing than yours, but I do recommend this one (and also Lucky Jim - much better than Martin!). I read all the Goddards up to a certain point, and then lost track a bit, but they are enjoyable.

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  4. I'm reading this at the moment, thanks to this post -- and it is brilliantly funny. Loving it! Such a great eye for the nuances of both academic and Australia.

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    1. SO GLAD you like it! Exactly, such a clever eye, and even-handedly mean about everyone. This book deserves a revival, it's a classic of detection and satire.

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