Monday, June 30, 2014

A Scandal in BelgraviaA Scandal in Belgravia by Robert Barnard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Peter Proctor boards Amtrak from Los Angeles to San Diego. In San Diego, he stays at the Ulysses S. Grant Hotel and interviews a witness in a house "with a view out to the intense blue of the Pacific". A Southern California mystery novel, right? Raymond Chandler? Ross Macdonald? Wrong. Robert Barnard's "A Scandal in Belgravia" is as British as they come, with all the British silliness about social class and "having gone to a good enough school". This is a wonderful little book. One of the better mysteries I have ever read.

Peter Proctor is a Tory ex-MP and an ex-cabinet minister, who had been sacked by (presumably) Mrs. Thatcher (she is not mentioned by name even once, as opposed to earlier prime ministers, Mr. Macmillan and Mr. Heath). The time is late 1980s and Mr. Proctor is working on his memoirs. He is obsessed by the unsolved case of Timothy Wycliffe's murder. Timothy, an aristocrat whose grandfather was the Marquess of Redmond, was Peter's best friend who worked with him in the Foreign Office in 1951. We learn that Timothy was a homosexual, and performing homosexual acts was a crime in the UK in 1950s. It is only 63 years from 1951 (the year I was born, by the way), and things have changed so much.

"The Scandal in Belgravia" is such an outstanding mystery that I could not put it away. It is spellbinding but also extremely rich in sociological observations. The issue of class pervades the novel; the middle-classness of Peter and the upper-classness of Timothy are shown with great depth. There is also a wonderful passage on why Wordsworth was wrong in saying "the child is father to the man". And the brief description of Mr. Proctor's short stay in Los Angeles, where he feels "like being part of a nightmare future" is so fitting and funny. This is the best novel by Mr. Barnard out of the six that I have read, and a really good mystery, with a chilling, logical denouement and no idiotic plot twists. Now, I am really looking forward for more Barnard.

Four and a half stars.

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