Sunday, February 11, 2007

MUSES: Robert Barnard

This is the first in a series of topics suggested by the Muses, a group of writers and poets who meet monthly in Columbus, Ohio. I've been invited to be an Auxiliary Muse, and will submit my offerings on this blog, to be read at the gathering 2000 miles away.

18 February 2007 topic: In Love With a Writer. Imitate, embellish, in homage or tribute. Bring an example. "Take off" on her or him!


Robert Bernard has written 37 mysteries since his first, Death of an Old Goat, in 1974, plus two volumes of short stories and two or three non-fiction works. His 38th mystery, A Fall from Grace, will appear in 2007.

Barnard's stories take place in identifiable locations: Australia (where he spent six years teaching college-level English), Norway (where he spent nearly 20 years teaching) and England, especially Yorkshire, (where he now lives). If you, as the reader, are also familiar with these places, you'll often find yourself saying, "That's what it's really like!

The villains in Barnard's stories are often characatured, over the top in their horribleness. Some are the standard characters we love to hate like the purient journalist, Cosmo Horricks, in Blood Brotherhood. Other villains are characters we'd expect to be heroes: police inspectors, clergy, and even children. But the bad guys are sometimes good, and the good guys are sometime bad --- in other words, human.

Barnard leads the reader along, introducing the characters, setting the scene. Then the murder occurs, and the reader follows the steps toward what turns out to be an unexpected solution to the crime. Only near the end, do you realize that Barnard is also making a social comment: on the church hierarchy, on class structure, on politics, on sexual orientation, on parenting. This makes the story worth rereading for the author's thoughtful views on social institutions.

Several of Barnard's stories are set among writers, as one might expect, but other settings include the Anglican church, the art world, an opera company, a youth hostel, academia, high-level politics, and the world of competitive body building. In each of these settings, he uses language evocative of the milieu. In The Cherry Blossom Corpse, which takes place at a conference of romance writers, he quotes from one of their novels: "And as they gained the top of the Cathedral tower, her petite hand somehow found its way into Hereward's brown, commanding one, and the wind brushed their hair and caressed their cheeks as they stood there in rapturous silence."

In Unholy Dying, which takes place in an Anglican monastery, he uses Biblical language not only to describe ecclesiastical matters, but also when describing suspects. "This remark earned her a furious look from Randi, who looked as if she was treasuring up such remarks to report them back to the Church authorities." In A Corpse in a Gilded Cage, there's a fine collection of working-class catch phrases.

To close, I quote from the conclusion of Unholy Dying. Father Anselm, the leader of the Anglican monastery in which the story takes place, has calmly revealed that the monastery is a place of refuge for homosexuals, drug pushers and other men who are fugitives from the law. Many stay for only a short time, but those who find life in the community attractive, are allowed to become members of the order.

Father Anslem describes his leadership. "During my period as head of the order, the Community has been a model of order and discipline. Nothing essential has changed, and the day-to-day life has gone on entirely as before. The spiritual life has flourished, peace and decency have reigned."

Responding to further criticism of homosexual activity within the order, he goes on. "For myself, I believe what I have been doing is in no way reprehensible. I hope I have made that much clear. Christ went among the tax-collectors and prostitutes and befriended outcasts. I have done the same with their modern equivalents."

I have not read all of Robert Bernard's books. I savor the prospect of reading one more, at deliberate intervals, extending the pleasure.


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