Robert Barnard, like Agatha Christie, locates his mysteries, for the most part, in cozy, comfortable settings. They do not occur in alleys, in exotic dens, or crime-ridden slums but rather in respectable locations: gossipy English villages, clerical convocations, academic halls, conventions of specialists, arts festivals, and theaters. His first mystery is set in Australia and two later ones take place in Norway, reflecting the author’s travels. However, his main focus, even when living elsewhere, is England with its prep schools, Anglican parishes, by-elections, and its minor royalty. For Bernard’s readers, this is part of his appeal: tea cozies, lawn fêtes, rectors, and constables.
Barnard’s plots are conventionally crafted. They usually involve a closed circle of suspects, among whom various relationships and secrets are exposed, all following the commission of the murder. He admires Christie’s careful approach to plotting, citing her as a genius in the “double-bluff” method and its skillful use of red herrings. However, perhaps, like those of Charles Dickens whom he also admires, his plots are not his major strength. They are sometimes contrived and improbable, or they rely too heavily on withholding vital clues or on providing unforeseen twists at the end. Barnard told an interviewer that his stories are not totally preplanned. He begins with a good idea of the murder, victim, motive, and murderer. Then, however, he often generates the story as he writes, for he thinks with his pen in hand—unlike Christie, who had every detail worked out in advance.
Plots in Barnard’s works are often, as in Dickens, secondary; however, both authors pour compensatory energy into the creation of characters, many of whom are originals and quite memorable. Barnard asserts he is “always pinching things” from Dickens, and they are both certainly masters at vividly depicting lower-class characters. For example, Jack Phelan in A City of Strangers (1990) is described as “wearing a vest that displayed brawny and tattooed arms gone nastily to flesh, and a prominent beer gut. His trousers were filthy, and he sat on a crate in a garden littered with the dismembered remains of cars.” Barnard also provides an amusing variety of clerical types, a wicked caricature of an American scholar, gay models and body builders, an aging actress, and even an obscure member of the royal household.
The names of Barnard’s characters are inventive and also reminiscent of those of Dickens: Marius Fleetwood is a ladies’ man, though readers are told he began as a grocer improbably named Bert Winterbottom. Barnard says he has to guard against becoming too Dickensian and resorting too easily to caricature, for his strength is to write more realistically and display an acute eye for sharply drawn social and domestic detail, as in Mother’s Boys (1981). His characters are powerfully delineated and easily recognizable; for example, with Declan O’Hearn, in The Corpse at the Haworth Tandoori (1998), Barnard creates a new human being, so unusual and recognizable that readers would know him if he walked into a room. In Out of the Blackout (1984), he experiments with a new realism and an unusual piece of detection in which the central character, taken as a five-year-old child from London during the Blitz, is searching for his real identity.
Realism is evident in Barnard’s depiction of the sometimes self-referential world of writing and publishing. He explores authors of all kinds: writers of mysteries, romances, biographies, and memoirs. He deftly provides a sharply drawn social milieu of the subculture of male models; he gives memorable depictions of the realities of divorce and is especially good at depicting the dysfunctional family.
Barnard experimented under the pseudonym...
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