Top positive review
25 people found this helpful
on 5 May 2004
As the first Inspector Barnaby novel for five years, this is a veritable literary event. No wonder they take so long to write, so rich and detailed are they in their characterisations and plotting. 2004 is turning out to be a brilliant year for crime fiction in terms of long-awaited “events”. There is this, in Feb there was Reginald Hill’s “Good Morning, Midnight”, Boris Starling has just released his four-years-in-the-writing “Vodka” (I am reading it now; it is BRILLIANT) and coming in May we have Mo Hayder’s probably wonderful “Tokyo”. So, yes, a very very good year.
These, yes, are village mysteries, but they are a lot more than that. Graham’s books are big satisfying chunks of story, full of drama and eccentrics with a foundation in a great, wise intelligence. Through her enclosed, isolated village settings, she also uses that device to say some fascinating things about human nature, not just in villages, but in all societies. Her villages are intricately detailed societal microcosms of the wider world, rather than just the walls of a murder-mystery cross-word puzzle. This is what makes her stand out. This is what lifts her above a genre writer. Oh, and the quality of the writing.
The Lawsons are going to live in the country. The village of Forbes Abbot, to be precise. Mallory Lawson’s elderly aunt has passed away, leaving her house to her beloved nephew. There, Mallory and his wife hope to satisfy a life-long dream: set up a business. A small, independent publisher of select, quality fiction. However, the quiet life they expect to meet does not automatically present itself. Shortly before the move, a resident dies in a horrible accident.
Dennis Brinkley, whose hobby of collecting replicas of old war-weapons (trebuchets, etc) was a point of great discussion around the village, meets an ironic end when he is crushed to death by one of his own machines. His body is found by his elderly friend Benny, companion of Lawson’s late aunt, and the only person who refuses to accept that Dennis’s death was an accident. She is adamant it was murder.
This scenario does not present itself until a good hundred-pages into the novel, in wonderful Graham tradition. She builds her plots excellently, putting character first and allowing them to carry it along. Gradually, she explores the story as she builds her characters, and when the scene is fully set at last, the plot really explodes. There is something so marvellous about her approach to detective fiction. Her books are intricate, detailed, fascinating, and every character is fully-formed. Not a stroke is left unpainted. And her mysteries are so…well, clever and complex and absolutely unfathomable. The story just sigh happily with a deep, satisfying fulsomeness, in an almost Dickensian way.
She also has an absolutely brilliant sense of drama. But she would, having such a background in theatre. This has been clear right from the start of her career. For example, when, in Death of A Hollow Man one of the victims met his end during a production of Amadeus, slitting his throat for real on-stage with a doctored razor. Here we have the aforesaid man crushed to death with war machines, and a “psychic” who is killed after she claims she will reveal the culprits identity at her next séance, when she gets a chance to speak again with Mr Brinkley. (It is no spoiler to reveal that he was indeed murdered; if he wasn’t, there would be no plot.) It’s all such melodramatic, entertaining fun.
And of course there is Barnaby and Troy. I have to say, I’ve never liked them much in the books (as compared to the TV series) and here we don’t, in reality, see a great deal of them, which pleased me. They are merely instruments through which she eventually lays her intricate plot bare (It must be taken note of, though, that that plot is not designed for people who like action, who like fast and pacy books; this is not one of those). Instead our characters are the villagers: Mallory and Kate and their detestable daughter Polly; Andrew Latham, Brinkley’s financial partner, and his odious wife Gilda; Ava Garret, the “psychic” and her charming daughter Karen; Doris, all-round village gossip, yet kindly; and even Brinkley himself. This is our detailed, eccentric, almost-freak-show of cast.
Graham’s books are a joy. They are big and full and luscious and marvellously theatrical. They are books you can sink into like plush, elaborate cushions. And if, as some of the hints dropped towards the end seem testament to, this IS the last time we will be seeing Barnaby, it will be a sad loss indeed.