Monday, 28 September 2015
The Skeleton in the Grass by Robert Barnard
They took the Wolseley to the Wadhams’ party because they were all rather decked out. Not exactly in fancy dress, because it wasn’t that sort of party, but not normally dressed either.
They had all rummaged around in the trunks and attics of Hallam to come up with something in the clothing line that would appeal to the Waddies…
Helen found a long drapey woollen dress, immediately post-war, three-quarter length and a rather slimy green, and said she intended to be a Bloomsbury lady…
Elizabeth found a costume which had been used in amateur theatricals, and which was labelled “Prince Orlofsky”. She made a handsome prince. Sarah decided on a weird and wonderful black and purple flowing dress that must have been left behind by some exotic visitor late in the last century.
observations: This was Tracy K’s choice for a 1987 book (see Rich’s meme over at Past Offences, Tracy’s review is on her blog, Bitter Tea and Mystery, my 1987 choice is here.) Her review made me go and look for it straightaway.
The book is set in 1936: Sarah is around 18 and has come as governess to a young girl: the setup is familiar. The family lives in a big house in an Oxfordshire village, her charge is 6 but there are older brothers. There are other posh families nearby, there are relations, there are rough and respectable people in the village. The subjects under discussion include fascism, the Spanish Civil War, and King Edward VIII and his female friend.
But Barnard makes something very unusual out of all this – this is nothing like, for example, the Angela Thirkell books set in (and written in) the same era. I found it a refreshing change that Sarah’s story is not bound up in snobbery, social awkwardness, puritanism. She likes the family, they like her. She meets someone and they start seeing one another.
The host family are left-wing intellectuals, and also committed pacifists. This is very unpopular with some people in the village, and there are some pranks/horrible violent acts (depending on your point of view). Eventually this ends in a death.
I have varied reactions to Robert Barnard books: there are a couple I loved, and I admire his book on Agatha Christie as the best one I have read. But I found some of his murder stories over-simple, full of broad satire and ridiculous characters. This one is completely different from any of his others, the ones I liked and the ones I disliked – it is much more like a straight novel, and is immensely clever and nuanced. Not because of its plot, but because of the way Sarah watches what is going on and tries to decide what she thinks about people. It reads as though written by someone completely different, tbh - although the local family the Waddies, the party-givers above, do seem to have wandered in from one of his other books. But just reading through the party scene to write the blog entry made me realize yet again how carefully plotted it was: Barnard planned it out beautifully.
There is a tour de force later in the book where Sarah starts looking at things differently, and the clues to this are planted perfectly, including in the scene above. It’s not that it is a crime-solving revelation, or a giant twist, but it is a great piece of writing.
The book isn’t perfect – would the people of the village really have reacted quite like that? Some of the time references seem shoehorned in. And I found the final scene very confusing, I had to read it several times and get some friendly advice – see below - to find out who had died in the ambulance.
But there are lovely contemporary details – the reason the film in the village hall breaks down, the audience who will buy chocolates to watch some filmstars but not others. ‘They would not have been indulged in for, say, “that Bette Davis” or Katharine Hepburn.’ Another guest at the party above is ‘The butcher’s wife… so it doesn’t seem too unkind to talk about mutton dressed up as lamb.’
Later, the investigating policeman is asking difficult questions ‘trying on delicacy as if it were a new suit.’
Overall, an excellent and memorable read.
TracyK’s thoughts are here: my friend Sergio, over at Bloody Murder, also has a really illuminating review of this book (and answered a couple of my questions about the closing scenes by email).
The pictures are costume sketches by the great Leon Bakst, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. I don’t get nearly enough opportunities to use pictures from this beautiful collection. Prince Orlofsky, from Die Fledermaus, wouldn’t have looked at all like this, but he should do….