Robert Barnard was born in Burnham-on-Crouch in Essex in 1936. After going to Colchester Royal Grammar School, he went on to study at Balliol College at Oxford University. Unsure of what he wanted to do after graduating, he worked for a year in a bookshop run by the Fabian Society. Barnard has fond recollections of the society which was founded in 1884 by, among others, playwright George Bernard Shaw and children’s author Beatrix Potter. He describes it as a ‘think tank’ for the British Labour Party.
“The Fabian Society would put out pamphlets with very worthy titles like ‘Reforming the Control of the Sewage System’. When I worked for them, in 1959-1960, it was a very exciting time. One was tempted to go into politics.”
Instead of politics, Barnard went on to a College of Further Education for a few months before suddenly changing his mind and going to Australia in 1961. He had decided to accept a lectureship at a university there, rather than becoming a teacher in Britain.
At Armidale University he met his Australian wife, whom he married in 1963. Three years later the couple moved to Norway, where Barnard was to become Professor in English at Tromsø University. It was here that the author made his first attempt at writing a novel.
“In the late sixties I tried my hand at an ambitious comic novel centred on Mrs. Thatcher, who was then Shadow Minister of Education. It sort of petered out for lack of plot in the third or fourth chapter, so I thought ‘Well at least a crime novel will provide me with a plot-framework’, and I have always been grateful for that framework.”
He goes on to explain. “What I mean is that at some point in the novel you have to have a body, and towards the end of the novel you have to have a solution. My novels aren’t really adventurous as far as the structure is concerned. You always do, around page sixty or seventy, have a body, and the solution comes at the end. I sometimes try to put in an extra twist, but basically they are fairly conventionally structured crime novels I think.”
Like most writers, Robert Barnard’s first manuscript—involving a plot about looted Nazi art treasures—was rejected, but the letter turning down the manuscript was encouraging enough for him to make a further attempt.
Barnard’s first novel, Death of an Old Goat, was published in 1974. It is set at the fictional Australian University of Drummondale. Due to the university’s rural location, any academic visitor is treated like a VIP, especially if they are ‘civilised’ Brits. Unfortunately the visitor, a snobbish, over-the-hill professor, is murdered. The death is looked into by a rather incompetent local policeman, Inspector Royle. The inspector is helped on the ‘inside’ by Bill Bascomb, a young British guest lecturer at the university.
I remark that some of these details sound somewhat familiar. “Yes” Barnard happily admits, “Death of an Old Goat is autobiographical. I’m in it. I am Bill Bascomb, and a lot of my colleagues from the Australian university where I taught are in there too.”
What did his colleagues have to say about their portrayal? Or is ‘ex-colleagues’ a more apt phrase? Barnard laughs, “No, no. I know that the vice-chancellor of the university said publicly that I ought to be horsewhipped, which I thought was delightful. I was very flattered by that. Supposedly Australians react very badly when people say what a ghastly country it is, but in fact they are fairly good humoured. By the time I went back to the university, many years later, everybody seemed very relaxed and, on the whole, delighted by the book. Of course the moment you use real people in books they tend to change quite a lot. Plot dictates they need to have other characteristics.”
The fact that Barnard was offered a writer-in-residence fellowship at Armidale University last year would seem to indicate that all is forgiven. In hindsight the author regrets not accepting the fellowship. “I should have gone back, because I have in mind a plot for a sequel to Death of an Old Goat involving the same detective. In addition to my duties as a writer-in-residence, I think I could get the inspiration to write the sequel and do it quite quickly.”
It is not surprising that Barnard turned to writing crime novels because, besides offering him the helpful framework referred to earlier, he has always read the genre for pleasure.
“From Enid Blyton and Malcolm Saville—two children’s authors—I went straight on to Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Christiana Brand, Margery Allingham, people like that. I got them from the local penny library, the private library where you paid, as far as I remember, a penny a week to borrow the latest books. That way you could get them before the public library got them.”
Amazingly Barnard recalls most of the story lines by the ‘classic’ authors, as well as many of those by their contemporaries, referring to various plot devices frequently. For instance, talking about Death of an Old Goat, he says “It is unlike traditional mysteries in that Inspector Royle is totally incompetent. I think the only other writer who does that is Joyce Porter with her Dover books. The first one, Dover One, is very, very good.” Later, after mentioning that he used to set crosswords for The Times literary supplement for about fifteen years, I ask him if he ever used this ability in a novel, and Barnard says “No, I don’t know of any novel that makes really good use of crossword puzzles. There is a very poor Rendell novel called One Across, Two Down, and it is almost the poorest of her books. I have never made use of codes or cryptograms or any of the other thing that all the Golden Age writers, particularly Dorothy Sayers, were so fond of.”
Of the Golden Age era, Agatha Christie is Robert Barnard’s favourite author. He put his knowledge of her books to use in A Talent to Deceive, an appreciation that, with its extensive bibliography, has become a standard on the Queen of Crime.
The aforementioned Rendell is just one of the present-day authors Barnard enjoys. “I read people like Reginald Hill with great pleasure. Simon Brett, Peter Lovesey, people like that. Of the more recent writers I would specify people like Caroline Graham, Lindsey Davis… There are a lot of good new authors around.”
When discussing his own novels, it becomes clear that he is not one of those authors who claims his books are like children where one does not have favourites. Throw titles at him and he will both recommend or utterly dismiss the book in question. “Death of an Old Goat…Good”, “Death in Purple Prose (US title: The Cherry Blossom Corpse)…Not worth mentioning”, “A Hovering of Vultures…”, a heart-felt “Awful!”.
Many of the author’s novels have interesting origins, and at least three favourites were inspired after reading biographies—a pastime that Barnard calls “a British habit”.
Unruly Son (US title: Death of a Mystery Writer) was sparked off by books about novelist Evelyn Waugh. “Definitely the main character is lifted from Evelyn Waugh, and some of the anecdotes are pretty much taken straight from biographies.”
Mother’s Boys and Sheer Torture—titled Death of a Perfect Mother and Death by Sheer Torture respectively in the US—are the two further novels inspired by biographies. A joy for Barnard, not in the least because they feature dreadful people.
“I really love dreadful people. One of the great delights of writing crime fiction is that you can sit back and read about really ghastly people and think ‘Oh, I could use that’. People are really a lot more dreadful in real life than they are ever allowed to be in fiction. I read playwright Joe Orton’s biography, Prick Up Your Ears, and found his mother a horrible woman. She fertilised in my mind and, though I placed her in a very different situation from Orton’s mother, she was the basis for a character in Mother’s Boys.
As for Sheer Torture, there have been a tremendous amount of biographies about the Sitwells and the Mitfords, and I thought I might amalgamate them into an aristocratic, or gentry-ish upper class family that has similar artistic leanings. I blended the Sitwells and Mitfords and made my own family of monsters, the Trethowans, and I have to say I was very happy with that book.”
To date Barnard has used Perry Trethowan—the hero of Sheer Torture—in four further novels but, in the author’s opinion, never again to the same good effect. “I made the big mistake of writing the first Perry Trethowan novel in the first person. It made it much more vivid to have Perry relate directly to the reader his horror at having to go back to this ghastly family he escaped from. After Sheer Torture I felt I had to write all the other Trethowan novels in the first person as well. I found this restricting because I think Perry, as a policeman, needs to be involved with the murder right from the beginning.”
Barnard found this requirement especially limiting in Bodies, one of the few novels where, according to the author, the corpse is ‘introduced’ in the first chapter. He felt he needed to do so to allow Trethowan his entrance into the story. Instead he would have preferred to explore the “seedy, Soho, body-building, glamour milieu” that forms the background for the novel a bit better.
Bodies, a novel about “the modern-age obsession with bodies, rather than brains, mind, or conscience” introduced Barnard’s only other ‘series’ character: Charlie Peace.
Charlie has featured in four further novels, currently equalling Perry in book appearances. Yet the author is weary of a fixed protagonist in his novels, and he explains why.
“Take, for example, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. It is very difficult to put Poirot into a serious plot because, basically, he is a caricature, a comic character. The reason I am not wedded to serial characters is that they dictate the tone of the books they appear in, and the thing I like about my own novels is that each one tends to be a bit different.”
By the time Bodies was published in 1986, Barnard had moved back to Britain with his wife and was living in Leeds. Despite loving Norway, the decision to move back to Britain was largely motivated by his writing. “Norway is a breathtakingly beautiful country. I love the people. I can manage the language, but the fact is that, when I went full-time as a writer, I had been out of England for 22 years. I was writing about an England of the late 50’s, early 60’s. It wasn’t the England of the 80’s at all. I will have to live in this country a bit longer and keep up with the changes. Particularly as there is a likelihood of a change of government in the immediate future, but eventually I wouldn’t rule out a move back to Norway.”
After deciding to become a professional writer, Barnard wrote two novels he is deeply unhappy with: The Missing Brontë and Little Victims—known as The Case of the Missing Brontë and School for Murder in America.
“Little Victims is a dreadful book, absolutely my worst. I wrote The Missing Brontë and Little Victims just when I was going to, or had started writing full-time. I thought I needed to write two books a year to keep my head above water financially, which was quite wrong. I didn’t need to write two books a year at all. The books are skimmed, rushed and very poor.”
His next novel, A Corpse in a Gilded Cage, is another Barnard favourite because the author liked the premise, and took his time to write it. “It was based on an incident back in the fifties, when I was an adolescent. There was somebody who had been, I think, a street sweeper in Southend, who suddenly found he was the next Earl of somewhere-or-other. He died quite recently I believe, but he spent the rest of his life taking his attendance money at the House of Lords—which gave him a much better living than sweeping streets. I thought this was such a delightful idea so, in my novel, I had somebody inherit a title unexpectedly.”
Out of the Blackout is also highly rated by its author, and the book marks a departure from his humorous novels. “I remember the war, and I was thinking of writing a book about it. Then I heard someone talking on the radio about being an evacuee. His mother came to see him just once in all the years that he was in the countryside. She came into the cottage, talked for about ten minutes, and then said ‘Where is the nearest betting shop’. She left and he never saw her again until he was of an age to work, able to make some money. Then she demanded he come back to London. I thought that was a fascinating story and it inspired me to write Out of the Blackout.”
Since Out of the Blackout there have been a further dozen Barnard novels. Political Suicide is the only further outright humorous mystery to make the grade. What brought about this change in writing style?
“I believe what happened was that, when I came to live in Britain after 22 years living abroad, I found this country profoundly depressing. Particularly as I came from Norway where you have no way of telling who are the poor people, who are the middling people, and who are the rich people. You walk through a street in Britain and you can pinpoint people’s income and class straight away. So I think that is why the books became darker and more serious.”
In Political Suicide, Barnard, a member of the Labour Party, couldn’t resist a few digs at an unnamed Prime Minister who is obviously Margaret Thatcher. Not that his own party doesn’t escape criticism, the novel is remarkably even-handed.
“I don’t think a detective story writer should have a personality, opinions, or anything you can pin down. Agatha Christie is the best example of somebody who draws out completely her personality from the books. There is nothing there that you can pin down. I’m not quite as able to withdraw as that but, in Political Suicide, I did make the Labour candidate quite as repellent, be it in a different way, as the Conservative candidate.”
Skipping the next two books, Barnard stops to pause at The Skeleton in the Grass, calling the novel “lovely”. “For some reason I’m interested in the year 1936. Probably because that was when I was born, but also the feeling that in that year the world started drifting towards war, and the whole climate of universal events was changing. I think that is behind The Skeletons in the Grass. Also behind it is, I think, a slight suspicion of do-gooders and people who have simplistic answers for the world’s problems. This is one of my better serious novels, together with A City of Strangers and A Scandal in Belgravia.
Ah, A Scandal in Belgravia. The novel, famous for its brilliant twist on the very last page, is frustratingly enough out of print in both Britain and the US. When I mention to Barnard that, of the people I know who have read it, no one will give me a clue as to what happens, he roars with laughter and says “And nor should they, it would be very naughty if they did!”
Apparently, Margaret Thatcher makes an appearance of sorts in this book too: “The narrator is a rather dim cabinet minister who has done his stint under Margaret Thatcher and then got the push.” Does the author ever envisage using the former Prime Minister as a main character?
Mischievously he replies, “She would have to be the corpse wouldn’t she.”
Masters of the House is a psychological thriller about some young children trying to stay together after their mother dies, their father being incapable of looking after them himself. An unexpected death further complicates matters. The author’s portrayal of the children is remarkably perceptive. Equally so, the description of the loss of faith by a clergyman’s wife, an event that forms the catalyst for The Bad Samaritan, Barnard’s most recent novel.
How does he research such topics, is he religious himself?
“I’ve hardly ever been to church in my life. You have to imagine these things. People say that I am good at depicting children even though I haven’t got any myself, but I’ve been a child, and I can imagine what it is like to be a child. It is similarly so with faith. I would very much like to have faith. I’m sure it is a very comforting thing and that it provides some sort of bedrock. So I can imagine what it must be like to lose your faith”
What about police procedure? “If one is thinking about writing a crime novel, the first thing you should do is to make a nice motto to put over your desk which says: BUGGER POLICE PROCEDURE. Does it matter? If you make a mistake that flies in the face of common sense of police procedure, then that is another matter, but the actual minutiae of police procedure? Who cares?! Let’s not let it stand in the way of writing a good story. A good story is the main thing.
Talking of stories, apart from the nearly thirty novels the author has written, his bibliography lists over fifty short stories, and numerous articles on, or about, crime fiction Where does Barnard find the time?!
“I have plenty of time for short stories because I tend to do them in the summer months, or when I have put aside a novel to revise at a later date. When I am into writing a novel, which is mostly from October to March, I will write a chapter a week. In longhand from Monday through to Thursday, and typing it out, on an old fashioned electric type-writer, on Friday.”
Barnard interrupts himself, “The pen is the greatest thing for writing. It stops you from over-writing. It stops you from going on, and on, and on. Word-processors encourages verbal diarrhoea. When people talk about having a word processor, saying they are so easy to make cuts, they are usually the sort of people to whom I want to say: Then why don’t you! Frequently their novels are much too long.”
When I ask Barnard if there are any names he’d care to mention, he shouts in mock outrage “Definitely not!”, and laughs before continuing about his writing process.
“Once I have finished a novel, I will put it aside for a couple of months and write other things before going back to revise it. It is usually a process of adding to the first draught because I have been fairly economical first time around. Then I’ll submit it to my agent in June or July. That is the usual process. I’ve only taught myself to write short stories as a way of filling in time. I am rather proud of the fact that I have been nominated often and won awards for short stories. They aren’t my preferred mode of communication at all. I find it much more difficult to write a short story. It takes a hell of a lot more time than writing the equivalent of pages for a novel. You have a lot less space and have to be very concentrated. Every little touch has to tell, which is not really the case for a novel.
At the time of this interview Barnard was working on a new book. Once again featuring Charlie Peace, it is set in a refuge for homeless young people. The care and concern in the author’s voice are heartfelt when he talks about the motivation for this novel.
“I find the fact that we have allowed the problem of homeless people to grow over the last fifteen years incomprehensible. Not just young people, but one’s heart does particularly ache for the young people who really haven’t got a home to go to. Parents split up, neither parent wants them, that sort of thing. They have no recourse to the social services because they are not old enough. We are just throwing away part of a generation and I find that very, very shocking.
You can say as much about what is important and relevant through a humorous book as you can with a serious novel, but in some cases humour isn’t appropriate. I would like to write another funny novel, and I expect that I will.” Barnard halts momentarily, suddenly remembering the Bernard Bastable novels. “Of course both my Mr. Mozart books are very humorous.”
Bernard Bastable is Barnard’s pseudonym for his historical novels, the first of which was To Die Like A Gentleman. “That is the book that took longest to write, twelve, thirteen, fourteen years. I would write an extra chapter each summer, something like that. I felt I was getting it right. The first chapter or two is very, very good, but I was never really confident in my ability to write a historical novel without making an awful faux pas, like having street-lighting before it existed. I found it very inhibiting until I talked to Christiana Brand about it—because she wrote historical novels. She said ‘Oh Darling, if I write He picked up his table napkin, and then I have to start worrying if they had table napkins at that date, I just cross it out and write He took up his knife and fork.’ She just had this avoidance mechanism Gradually I grew more confident and I probably do the same nowadays.”
The historical setting for the books came about when Robert Barnard wanted to do something very different. “I thought I’d get myself a pseudonym to mark off the historical novels entirely from the Barnard ones, a different publisher as well for these, and it has worked out quite well.”
In fact Barnard recently finished a new Bastable book. It is called Too Many Notes, Mr Mozart, the sequel to Dead, Mr. Mozart. The supposition for the books is that composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart didn’t die in 1791, but spent his old age in London.
“Too Many Notes, Mr. Mozart, has Mr. Mozart teaching the young Princess Victoria the piano, before going on to Windsor Castle with the new king, William the Fourth. He was called Sailor Billy, had a salty vocabulary, and was dreadfully tactless.” says Barnard, adding with a chuckle “Generally amiable but not very bright.” Published in Britain in December, the author is unsure of the novel’s prospects in the US.
Is Barnard ever conscious of his vast American readership when using his very English vocabulary, frequently writing about subject matters particularly relevant to Britain?
“It is very difficult for me to say” he replies, pondering the question. “First of all, I am conscious of it to the extent that I am happy with the situation.” The humour is audible in his voice when he explains this initial reply, “It is a lot better to be popular in the United States where there are lots of rich people who buy hardback books. In Britain hardback crime novels are mostly bought by public libraries. The variation in sales depends on whether the libraries have much money at the time, and at the moment they have very little.”
He continues more seriously. “I’m not conscious of it when I’m writing, I don’t think about it at all then. Whenever I’m in America people tell me not to let the spelling be changed, or not to let the publishers cut out British words. Readers like finding out what the British usage of words are. They don’t want to be cosseted by the illusion that America and Britain are exactly the same. People are always emphasising that they like the ‘British-ness’ of my novels.”
Then why have so many of his titles have been changed for the US versions?
“When I was first published by a big American publisher, Scribner’s, they changed the titles to emphasise that I was a crime writer. All the novels had ‘death’ or ‘murder’ added to the title. In fact I wrote The Missing Brontë so they couldn’t put death or murder in the title—there wasn’t a corpse in that book. It is the only one of my novels where there is no corpse.
I don’t need to worry about this anymore because my current publishers are trying to shift me to the list of ‘general’ novelists, rather than crime novelists. Now they don’t particularly like ‘death’ or ‘murder’ in the title. It’s typical of American publishers, they are wonderful, and they do know their business, but they can be aggravating.
I remember when I went to America for the first time. A very nice-looking young man came up to me and said ‘Oh Mr. Barnard, I did want to meet you. I’m Charlie Scribner the Fourth. I’m the man responsible for changing your titles to their American ones.’ I had to restrain myself and be tactful, because I think those American titles are absolutely dreadful…. Death of a Mystery Writer, Death of a Literary Widow [Posthumous Papers was the original title]?! Mother’s Boys he wanted to change to Death of a Good Mother, which is even worse than Death of a Perfect Mother! No, I would have much rather kept my own titles. The only time when I thought the American title was rather better was with Disposal of the Living, which originally was Fete Fatale.”
With a touch of sadness in his voice Barnard recalls Scribner’s when he first new it, “It was a family firm, and old Charlie Scribner was a lovely man, an old-fashioned American gentleman. Alas, control had passed on to international conglomerates now.”
Before the interview comes to a close, I ask Robert Barnard if any of his books have ever been adapted for the cinema, television or radio. Cheerfully and resolutely he replies “No, it’s books that interest me. The people I want to reach are the people that go to the public library and always take out crime novels, those are the people who I want to keep entertained.” He forgets to mention those rich American readers who buy the hardbacks.
© Copyright Adrian Muller, 1996.