Robert Barnard; A Fall from Grace (2007)

Charlie Peace, Barnard’s occasional series character, and
his wife Felicity are moving to the Yorkshire village of
Slepton Edge. They are moving on the basis of Charlie’s
promotion to Inspector, and the fact that Felicity’s father,
the monstrous egoist Rupert Coggenhoe, is selling his
Devon cottage and moving north. Charlie and Felicity know
that if he were to move in with them he would be a total
leech so they buy two houses (or a house for themselves
and young daughter Carola ,and a bungalow for Rupert).
As they settle into Slepton Edge they meet ex-doctor
Chris Carlson, who is running as an independent for mayor,
and his wife Alison, semi-retired actor Desmond Pinkhurst,
the local police Inspector Ben Costello and various other
village personalities. The only fly in the ointment are a
group of children who appear to persecute ‘newcomers’
to the village by chanting outside their homes after dark.
But then Charlie and Felicity discover that there is more
to Rupert’s reasons for leaving Devon than he has told them,
and when he forms a friendship with the fifteen year old
girl who is the leader of the chanters they get seriously worried.
When Rupert is found dead in a quarry the question arises
– did he fall or was he pushed?

I have remarked before in respect of Barnard’s recent books
that he seems now to be writing above all to please himself. There
are manifest weaknesses in this book – the attempt to re-produce
contemporary teenage dialogue is an outstanding example. The pace
is leisurely, almost torpid at times. Not much happens. There is
not even any clear-cut resolution. There are no real surprises of
the sort which Barnard is capable is producing in the way few
other contemporary msytery writers can. The book is a gentle speculation on
goodness,
egoism, parenting and anything else which happens to catch
Barnard’s attention (the state of the NHS for instance). It lacks
the force of his previous book, Dying Flames, but it is still eminently
readable. As always well plotted. And highly individual.

Barnard is perhaps poking fun at himself when he writes of
Rupert Coggenhoe…

‘he had made a respectable living writing novels in a variety
of genres, effortlessly shifting styles without ever becoming a
complete master in any one of them’

Barnard’s own career sees him move, apparently ‘effortlessly’
indeed, through from the comic to the psychological to the
sociological to the plot-driven. His series characters, such
as they are (Trethowan, Oddie, Peace) are rarely his main
centre of interest. It is these factors which lead to his substantial
underrating. Because taken as a whole he deserves to be considered
as a major figure in British mystery writing. A Fall from Grace
is a minor work, a grace note, but still full of charm and
individuality.

(August 2007)

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