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'A Charitable Body': Murder Most Genteel

Jan 10, 2012

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There are mystery novels that keep a reader up all night and there are milder mystery novels to doze off to; Robert Barnard is a much-decorated old hand at writing the latter. (Among Barnard's veritable vanload of awards for his 40-some novels are the Cartier Diamond Dagger Award for lifetime achievement in mystery writing; the Malice Domestic Lifetime Achievement Award; as well as the Anthony, Agatha and Macavity awards.)

His mysteries are witty and assured; they send a drowsy reader off to bed confident in the belief that justice and order will prevail over chaos. Even when Barnard produces a middling effort, which his latest, A Charitable Body, certainly is, it's a gentle pleasure to read. After all, how much fault can anyone but the most dyspeptic critic find with a mystery that contains this delightfully old-fashioned cliffhanger of a chapter ending: "'Everything in the garden is lovely,' said Charlie. But of course that was before the discovery of the body."

The rather clueless Charlie who's commenting on that garden is Charlie Peace, the Yorkshire police detective who, with his novelist wife Felicity, is the hero of one of Barnard's several mystery series. The garden Charlie is admiring belongs to the grounds of Walbrook Manor, a great house dating from Queen Anne's reign that has recently been turned over to the nation to be opened as a museum and arts center. When Felicity is asked to serve on the Board of Trustees of Walbrook Manor, she becomes fascinated by the troubled domestic history of the place ("Walbrook seemed a house made for collapsing marriages") and by the odd rift between the two families that once owned the manse. Long before that aforementioned body is discovered, Felicity becomes convinced that something rotten is festering in the nooks and crannies of Walbrook.

Though the plot of A Charitable Body is agreeably serpentine, the more compelling draw of this mystery — and, indeed, of most of Barnard's novels — is his native mastery of Brit Wit-speak. (For a readily accessible example of this distinctly English form of clever conversation, see reruns of the old BBC comedy, As Time Goes By, which cycle endlessly on public television stations across America.) At a musical performance at Walbrook, Charlie and Felicity are accosted by Sir Stafford Quarles, chairman of the Board of Trustees. Sir Stafford makes patronizing small talk and then ambles off, at which point another guest sidles up to the couple and pronounces this verdict on their host: "Platitudinous old sod, isn't he? ... He wields a truism so that it feels like being slapped with a wet dishcloth."

People rarely speak like that in real life (though one wishes they did). In the pages of Barnard's novels, however, scathing comments and whippet-fast repartee multiply like mold.

Walbrook Manor turns out to be concealing even more scandalous secrets than the odd unsolved murder. On the program of that musical evening at Walbrook was a series of songs in which World War I poems by the likes of Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke were set to music. Felicity learns that the songs were the artistic byproduct of pacifist conferences held at Walbrook back in the 1930s. (The record of those conferences was hushed up, of course, once Great Britain went to war with Germany.)

Felicity hears rumors that many more songs may be hidden at Walbrook, some of them scored by the most famous British composers of the 20th century. Convenient for plot purposes, Walbrook Manor has an attic with lots of dusty cupboards and flimsy locks, and soon Felicity is creeping up the stairs like some grown-up British version of Nancy Drew.

Despite Barnard's occasional bows to the present-time social realities (Felicity and Charlie, for instance, are an interracial couple), A Charitable Body exudes a lovely Golden Age mystery atmosphere: The Great House setting; the missing music and scandalous conferences that date from between-the-wars; even the food here (gin-and-tonics, bacon and sausages and black pudding) would be right at home on the sideboards and chafing plates of an Agatha Christie novel. That slightly tongue-in-cheek antique aura is another one of Barnard's trademark charms as a mystery novelist. As in Christie's tales, nothing in A Charitable Body is so violent, demented or disturbing that it will trouble a reader's sleep. The only bloodshed occurs when Ye Olde English roast beef is carved.

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