Friday, 31 July 2015

A Scandal in Belgravia by Robert Barnard



published 1991



Scandal in Belgravia 1


[Narrator Peter Proctor meets the sister of his murdered friend Tim, many years later]

She was a big, untidy woman with no pretensions to fashion, in a purple dress with a shawl around her shoulders. What seized me as soon as we got into the light of the sitting room, however, was the realization that she had Tim’s charm…

[As they are eating dinner, he asks her: ] “You were close to Tim, weren’t you?...right up to the end?”

She grimaced a little, as if at some painful thought. “That’s one of the things that always nags at the back of my mind: I loved him, he did so much for me, so why didn’t I make sure I saw more of him in that last year of his life?”

“You were in London?”

“Yes.” She grinned at me mischievously. “Don’t laugh— I did the Season!”

I raised my eyebrows at her, and we laughed together. “Well, I suppose girls like you did in the fifties. Do still, come to that, though I’m glad to say my daughter never wanted to.”

“When I did it we were still curtseying to the Queen. Can you imagine it? Poor woman— the boredom of it! No wonder she did away with it all.… To be fair to myself, I didn’t intend to. I wanted to go straight from school to art school…”



Scandal in Belgravia 2


observations: When I did a list of great crime book endings, blogfriend and crime writer Martin Edwards (whose idea the list was in the first place) suggested this one. I have had a varied relation with Barnard: his book on Agatha Christie is the best one, and some of his murder stories I have really enjoyed, while others disappointed. But this was excellent – clever, nuanced, well-written.

The set-up is a retired Tory politician who is writing his memoirs: he thinks back to his friend Tim, murdered in 1956. The two had been young men about London, starting their careers in the Foreign Office -  and incidentally the book gives a lovely recognizable picture of what it is like to be in London in the summer when you are young and in your first job, discussing with your friends the dire people you have to work for, with all your certainty and knowledge (any era, any background, any job).

Back then, narrator Peter realized that his companion was (what was then not called) gay. When Tim died in a violent attack, it seemed obvious that his working-class boyfriend was the culprit. But what really happened that day? Peter is nicely portrayed as a certain kind of Tory, rather stuffy. But he wants to know what happened, so he keeps doggedly investigating.

The book is very unjudgemental on the subject of homosexuality – it’s a major feature of the book and is dealt with in a refreshingly straightforward way, with no moralizing, no prurience, no scandalizing, no special pleading. Barnard looks at different people’s attitudes and describes them fairly.

In a discussion on the 1950s response to what was then a crime:
“If you were caught you were put on trial, sent to jail.”
That wasn’t very sensible.”
“No, of course it wasn’t. Everybody knew it was like locking Billy Bunter up in the tuck shop…”

It’s also very witty – I liked this mention of the very 50s (and very Agatha Christie) phrase 'Displaced Persons':
what we today would call refugees, I suppose— one of the few instances of our language becoming less euphemistic in recent years.
The character of Proctor is an interesting one – you have to work out what you think about him between the lines. He keeps implying how dull he is, and the reader can believe it. And there are moments like this one:
I had simply ignored her feelings and wishes. I’m afraid years in government may give one the impression that one can simply ride roughshod over others. I had not thought— and if I had I probably would have done the same.
I guessed what was going on in the book a little ahead of the revelations (though perhaps because I had been tipped off by Martin to be superalert.) One clue came to me from the use of the word ‘elder’, knowing that Barnard and his narrator would both be careful in their language.

Anyway, a really good crime story, of the kind I like best – murder in the past, intriguing people, well-described relationships and very carefully-placed, clever clues.

The pictures are of 1956 debutantes queuing up at the Palace to make their curtsey to the Queen, and some of their parents dining-out during the Season. More about debutantes of the period in this entry, more about the secrets of gay life pre-legalization in this novel. The title is, of course, a reference to the classic Sherlock Holmes story A Scandal in Bohemia, on the blog here
















12 comments:

  1. Read this one when it came out, si it's been a while (ahem), but I remember liking it a lot and enjoying the ironic twist on the final page

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    1. The time whizzes by, doesn't it? 1991 feels like yesterday to me. Anyway, I agree - this one is worth reading.

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  2. I generally like Barnard, Moira; and, although I've not (yet) read this one, it sounds like one of his good 'uns. He does have a solid ability to weave a context, and the mystery sounds interesting too. I have to admit, as well, to a bit of a soft spot for those 'looking back' mysteries. Glad you enjoyed this one.

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    1. Any crime-in-the-past murder story gets off to a good start with me, and this one was a very good example.

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  3. This one sounds very interesting. Of course I haven't read a bad book by Barnard. I had been meaning to read it soonish because supposedly it is part of a two-book series with (Inspector?) John Sutcliffe. First book is Political Suicide which I read and reviewed a couple of years back.

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    1. Oh I hadn't realized that - there is a retired policeman in it who helps the narrator, that must be him. I have also got the book you read recently, Skeleton in the Grass, and hope to be blogging on that soon.

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  4. Spiffy writeup, Moira! I think I have this book somewhere, so I must see if I can find it.

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    1. thanks - it was definitely a good read. Look forward to hearing your opinion if you do find it...

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  5. I've only read Death of an Old Goat, which you wrote about a while ago - so enjoyably recognizable in its setting of a rural Australian university town. I would definitely read more based on that one and wonder why I haven't as yet.

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    1. I don't think he ever wrote anything else as funny as Old Goat, and as I said above I have had varied experiences with him. But he IS always worth a try.

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  6. I've never read him and I'm not sure if I have anything by him or not. I get a mental fog and confusion with him and Robert Goddard. Ditto a couple of Gilberts.

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    1. Yes that is very reasonable. I would be surprised if there was nothing by him tucked away in the tubs - he wrote a shedload. And I think you might quite like all three authors.

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