Intuitive historian of the English detective novel

Obituary: Robert Barnard, 23-11-1936 to 19-09-2013
Robert Barnard, a sensitive and intuitive historian of the English detective novel, died on 19 September in Yorkshire, in the city of Leeds, where he had made his home for more than 30 years.

Beginning early in his continuously successful career, Barnard had a fine reputation for his studies of the detective stories created by Agatha Christie and many other English ‘crime’ writers; and, largely simultaneously, for his own creative writing of remarkable mystery novels of great panache.

These constituted a mix of detection plots and wicked comedy-of-manners stories, the last to be set particularly in seemingly unremarkable English micro-societies and, especially, in pretentious, strangely secluded schools or in apparently peacefully slumbering villages largely in the east and north of England.

First an academic

Born in Essex, to a writer father who had, resignedly, produced numerous pieces of popular romantic ‘pulp’, Barnard read English at Oxford and later, from 1961 to 1965, spent time lecturing in Australia.

His university teaching there was to be largely and experimentally delivered to ‘externals’ or to older, distance education students around New South Wales at an institution recently hived off from the University of Sydney. This was the University of New England, located in the small city of Armidale in northern New South Wales.

Barnard was married there but then had several years in Norway as an academic researcher and lecturer, finally becoming a professor of English at Tromsø University before making detective and crime writing his full-time career.

In all, he produced some 40 such novels, apart from his quality studies of major English novelists concerned with the comedy of manners and its often quite distinctive ‘style’, from studies of the Brontes to the fictions of Agatha Christie.

He was also fascinated by the 1960s ‘angry writers’ such as John Wain and John Braine, and then by more recent period behaviour patterns and guilts in the snobbish and belated Bohemia of the Notting Hill area.

The last were settings and pretensions he would sensitively explore in his mystery and subtle detection prose. In his own mentoring of new writers, Barnard nurtured two generations of novice crime writers at Oxford summer conferences concerned with this craft.

The final achievement in all his fields was winning the Diamond Dagger for Crime Writing, presented to him at the British Museum in 2003.

The Death of an Old Goat

It has been said that Barnard would have had even more of a public following had he persisted with a repeatedly named and developing detective personality, rather than being more concerned with the ways in which small communities had to evolve and come together to deal with the unexpected and with violence that had just erupted in their midst.

In the case of his first book, The Death of an Old Goat, published in 1974 after he had completed his thesis work in Norway, Barnard records some of his own experiences, using the protagonist Bill Bascomb, in his external teaching of much older students at a new university, as well as living in the would-be Oxford style of the first set of men’s residences he named Wright College.

His own life there is represented in the novel with a degree of self-mocking as someone almost totally alien to those students living in their agriculture-slewed bedroom-studies around him.

It is also present in the strange confusions of behaviour he offers to others; his waking moments seemingly filled with catches of Mozart and with operatic tunes that no one near him could possibly recognise.

However, his own days were muted and rather sad, being surrounded by a much too liquid student ‘social life’; an inability to cope with burly students or with cheap red wine; his love for opera and his general curiosity about the antecedents of many apparent ‘Englishmen’ or Oxford-educated people who had also turned up in this part of Australia.

This characteristic of curiosity about others and their English education is a feature of Barnard’s fascination with the backgrounds of almost all those he met, whether colleagues or figures of some significance in the surrounding community. As well, the book offers his reportage on the main business of the campus, his work away from the colleges, and his interest in the personalities of his colleagues.

He deplores the methods of over-teaching practised around him. These seem to have included an excessive number of lectures, and compulsory attendance at almost too many tutorials, not all of which were well controlled or the purpose too well understood.

Barnard also records, wickedly, a strange habit of organising special prestige visiting lectures on sunny spring mornings, after which the eminent guest was taken to a celebratory lunch, to which the academic other ranks were not invited.

These were then called ‘Commonwealth Lectures’ and were supposed to have public appeal as they were on Australian literature, with socially significant invitations to impress the local ponderous graziers – the tiny but pretentious squatocracy, rather than what Barnard would have deemed English or British significant cultural works and in much more appropriate ways.

A culture loathed

Barnard describes the city where Bascomb worked as very small and at the end of a dying railway line from Sydney, which was reached after 16 hours on the day train.

The town is seen as ever-slumbering, with dirt roads and too many decayed wooden buildings, quite apart from the strange survival then of ‘main street’ frontier balconies from the 19th century that recalled the earliest Western movies.

Barnard also deftly presents the strangely double standards of amorous middle-aged ‘ladies’ on the land. The several women treated are at best agile, awkward, strident and assertive; in short, a savagely malicious portrait of women in a world of not too likeable men.

This was an academic time of frantic tooling up universities after World War II with slightly-built Rhodes scholars who had lost their drive during years of war service; men who had married in wartime to non-intellectual wives who had little understanding of their husbands or their careers.

In fact, there is evident in the writing an ill-concealed authorial feeling of revulsion for all native – if genuine – Australian culture.

Barnard had lectured around the state for weekends in Bathurst, Sydney and elsewhere. Towards the end of his time in Armidale he had successfully established long-running teaching in Restoration Drama and derived enormous personal satisfaction in explaining the nuances of more subtle presentations of the comedies of manners.

I believe the text’s more enduring messages are serious musings on the social upheavals of post-World War II Australia; the trials involved in creating a different sort of ‘university’ in ‘the bush’; and the difficulty in inculcating tertiary studies in students who came from raw backgrounds, most no older than 16.

Like all Robert Barnard’s writings, The Death of an Old Goat has a core of serious reflection, and an immense distaste for those who would prey on the weaknesses of others, or traduce the youth entrusted to their care. The ambivalence of the text stands as Australia presented itself to an observer who had followed DH Lawrence in the task of reporting the way that it all seemed.

The novel itself is funny, ironic, wise and remarkably observant on what was Barnard’s first time out of Britain and before his years in Norway. It is also a complex of many things and, like his two later books that have an Australian strand, it contains much socio-cultural reflection on the country as well as a measure of compassion.

For Barnard’s qualities included acute observation, disgust at vicious social conditioning, and a deal of amusement at the growing pains of the country after World War II.

* Associate Professor John Ryan is a historian and lectures in the school of humanities at the University of New England. He was a friend of Robert Barnard and has published papers about him in various journals.