The Missing Bronte (1983) by Robert Barnard

This is a book which I borrowed from my sister, quite a while ago, but have at last finally got around to reading it. I’ve known of Barnard for some time, but I’ve never tried any of his work before now. This one is set in Yorkshire in the main when a car breakdown leads to Super Intendent Perry Trethowan and his wife, Jan, meeting a retired school teacher, Edith Wing, in the local pub. This may seem everyday but Wing has a big secret. She has inherited books and papers from a distant cousin and has come across what might potentially be an unpublished or early version of a Bronte novel. Perry and Jan are quite struck by the news and busily begin to research up on the Brontes when they finally get back home in London. However it is not long before Perry is called back to Yorkshire, as Edith has been badly attacked in her own home, with doctors fearing she might not regain consciousness. Of course the manuscript has gone. Perry has a number of leads to follow up; contacts Edith might have made in order to have the manuscript verified and unsurprisingly Perry finds that this potential treasure has brought the worst out in people – £ and $ no doubt looming in their minds. The cast of suspects range from Edith’s hugely unpleasant and fraudulent reverend cousin to an academic, a fanatical librarian and two Norwegians thugs.

Overall Thoughts

1980s crime fiction is not really my usual stomping ground when it comes to reading. In fact I have only ever reviewed 6 novels on my blog from that decade and suffice to say many of them were not all that great. However I think there is much to enjoy in today’s read, especially with the social history it includes for the time and the characterisation skills it deploys. The book opens with character descriptions such as this of poor Aunt Sybilla: she ‘had taken to wearing monstrous turbans in the Edith Sitwell style – except that where Dame Edith carried hers off, Sybilla in hers looked as if she had been extinguished by some enormous candle-snuffer.’ There are also Perry’s comments on the stereotype that rural inhabitants are slow to accept outsiders. He writes that ‘the landlord, was a foreigner himself, coming from close to the Yorkshire-Lancashire border, so he was broad-minded enough to welcome a pair who, coming from London, could almost be classed as Undesirable Immigrants.’ Though in fairness the pub inhabitants are more welcoming than Perry envisages.

Race relations is a sporadic theme of the book, but I think Barnard includes it in a balanced way. Negative racial attitudes are included but they are countered by Perry’s own views, which are more akin to the modern day non-racist reader. Both he and no doubt such a reader will take a strong dislike to Edith’s awful cousin and Perry writes that he would quite happily charge him with a charge more serious than breaching the race relations act, when he makes unpleasant comments about Edith’s black gardener. Though I don’t think you can say this book is entirely dated as one of Perry’s aunts supports a national front splinter group, which wants to keep England Anglo-Saxon. Given the current times I don’t think it can said this is of the past. Though one thing which is possibly the same but is of a more comical nature is found in a comment Perry makes about mechanics, in that they are the same as  ‘plumbers and electricians – [in that they] are part of the modern aristocracy, people one insults at one’s peril.’ There is also some very enjoyable satire on academics and academia and it was nice to see the university I went to, Newcastle, mentioned as well. In the book, for example, one academic from Milltown’s university has gone gaga trying to write a book on Carlyle, yet is still kept on as the head of the English department.

Barnard is also good in how he handles the theme of the Brontes and their work, avoiding an information overload for the reader, instead deftly interweaving comments on Bronte studies/biographies at the time, which fans of the Brontes will appreciate. Returning back to the issue of characterisation, one of my favourite characters was Jan, Perry’s wife, as I like the no nonsense, yet humorous relationship these two have. Jan is eager to be kept informed on how the case is going, despite Perry not wanting her to get too involved as according to him she ‘is much too prone to take on a Girl Friday role in my cases, quite unasked.’ Yet she plays a deliciously ironic role in the end events, which was pleasing. I also laughed out loud with the following line from Jan who avoids the overly sentimental and sympathetic role when Perry becomes injures: ‘Hmmmm. No woman who’s had a baby is going to be very impressed by that.’

As I have already intimated I am not usually fan of 80s crime fiction but in the main I enjoyed Barnard’s writing style, with its well-pitched humour on various topics and Perry is not above joking about himself, such as when he laments not being able to adopt disguises like Holmes: ‘But the decisive count against it was the fact that at six feet five and seventeen stone I’m a hell of a difficult object to disguise.’ I think the point at which I started to lose some interest and become turned off the book slightly is in the final quarter which becomes a much more overt 80s police mystery, in its use of violence, which does not marry up neatly with the more literary opening of the book. However if you are fan of more modern crime fiction than I tend to be, I don’t think you’ll have any issues with this and on the whole it is a good book, so still worth a read as it avoids being overly bleak, it has interesting characters, an intriguing Bronte angle and Perry is an engaging narrator to follow around. It’s also an easy book to get a hold of, which makes a change for the blog as well!

Rating: 4/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Silver Card): Outside of comfort zone

Past Offences and Desperate Reader have also reviewed this title, so do take a look at their thoughts on it.

12 comments

  1. Robert Barnard, who was his own harshest critic, ranked this as his worst book. I don’t agree, though it’s definitely not one of his best. And at his best, he was excellent. He was also a former chair of the Bronte Society, whose infighting was a source of great despair – but occasional amusement.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Bronte Society still goes in for infighting: a “supermodel” named Lily Cole – with a Cambridge degree in the history of art and an interest in the Brontes – has been given a job helping organise the bicentenary of one of the Brontes and all the members of the Bronte Society who aren’t supermodels think it’s a fix.

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  2. Thanks for the review – and oh, this is your first novel by Barnard? I’d keen to hear what you make of his other, more prominent, works. Charlotte Brontë is one of my favourite authors from the Victorian period, and ‘Villette’ was definitely one of the novels I enjoyed writing about most.

    Liked by 1 person

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