[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…”
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.”It’s also very witty – I liked this mention of the very 50s (and very Agatha Christie) phrase 'Displaced Persons':
“That wasn’t very sensible.”
“No, of course it wasn’t. Everybody knew it was like locking Billy Bunter up in the tuck shop…”
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.