The theme for Patti Abbott's Friday's "Forgotten" Books today is "children gone wrong"; although the children in the book I'm highlighting in my post are grown, they are nonetheless all fairly nasty and all suspects in a dastardly murder puzzle that centers around the death of their despised father and a rather lucrative inheritance.
Robert Barnard (1936-2013) was an English crime writer, critic and lecturer, whose first crime novel, Death of an Old Goat (1974), was written while he was teaching in Australia, followed shortly after by A Little Local Murder (1976) penned while he was a lecturer at University of Tromsø in Norway. He went on to write more than 40 other books and numerous short stories and was awarded the Cartier Diamond Dagger in 2003 by the Crime Writers Association and the Malice Domestic Award for a lifetime of achievement.
He had several series protagonists including policemen Perry Trethowan, Idwal Meredith, and Charlie Peace, even Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, either under his given name or the pen name Bernard Bastable. He once said that favorite crime writer was Agatha Christie and published a critique of her work titled A Talent to Deceive: An Appreciation of Agatha Christie in 1980. This is likely why his stories are primarily of the traditional British detective story school, with the author himself once referring to his style as "deliberately old-fashioned."
Death of a Mystery Writer, published in 1978 (and received an Edgar Award nomination for Best Novel), follows that "old fashioned" theme, centering around Sir Oliver Fairleigh-Stubbs, an overweight and overbearing man who revels in stirring up trouble, after he collapses and dies at his birthday party. He left behind a family who was relieved to be rid of him, especially since he'd amassed quite a fortune as the author or best-selling detective novels.
To the family's surprise, Sir Oliver left most of his estate to his eldest son who openly hated his father, while the long-suffering wife, calculating daughter, and unpleasant younger son are each to receive the income from one carefully chosen book. But the manuscript of the unpublished volume left to Sir Oliver's wife—a posthumous "last case" that might be worth millions—has disappeared, and the author's death is beginning to look less and less like an accident.
The spirited Welsh Inspector Meredith, who in some respects resembles Sir Oliver's fiction hero, steps into the picture to look into the proceedings. It doesn't take long to discover the old man had been poisoned, his favorite after-dinner liqueur spiked with nicotinic acid, and that there are plenty of suspects. Meredith also begins to suspect that the clever murderer is taking his scheme from the plot of Sir Oliver's missing novel.
Barnard's trademark charm and wit are evident here, as in the passage:
"Oliver Farleigh sank into a mood of intense depression: he gazed at the cutlet as if it were a drowned friend whose remains he was trying to identify at a police morgue. He picked up a forkful of mashed potato, inspected it, smelled it, and finally, with ludicrously overdone reluctance, let it drop into his mouth, where he chewed it for fully three minutes before swallowing. Conversation flagged."
Kirkus Reviews added, "Sir Oliver is so robustly, vitally hateful that the story sags ever so slightly after his removal from the scene; but the denouement is neat, the pace brisk, and the satisfaction almost total—proof positive, once again, that the Olde English Detective Story can still, in the right hands, be an un-dusty delight."
After Barnard's death in 2013, several of his fellow crime fiction authors paid tribute and offered up fond remembrances via online posts, including Mike Ripley in The Guardian and Martin Edwards, who recalled Barnard's "sharp and mischievous sense of humour."