I am very sorry to break the news that Robert Barnard, one of the most notable British detective novelists of the past forty years, has died at the age of 76. He was a winner of numerous awards, most notably the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger, in recognition of the sustained excellence of his crime writing. He was a distinguished academic, a former worker for the Fabian Society, an expert on the Bronte family and their writings, a passionate opera fan, and the author of a definitive study of Agatha Christie's crime writing, A Talent to Deceive.
Bob Barnard was also one of the first friends I made in the crime writing world. When I attended the inaugural meeting of the northern chapter of the Crime Writers' Association, I was an unknown, whereas people like Bob, Reg Hill and Peter Walker were very well established authors. But from our very first lunch together, those three men (and their lovely wives, Louise, Pat and Rhoda) made me feel welcome and part of the crime writing fraternity. They became good friends, and I owe them a great deal.
I've written about Bob's work on a number of occasions (for instance, I wrote an article about him for that fine American magazine Mystery Scene - his books were enormously popular in the US), but in this short post I'd like to focus on Bob the man - and above all his sharp and mischievous sense of humour. His wit was as evident in his writing as in his conversation, and he was unfailingly entertaining company. A good many years ago (in the mid-nineties, as I recall) someone suggested he had died, a story which he found highly amusing, as he was in perfectly good health. How this bizarre mistake arose, I simply don't know.
I also found Bob personally very generous. It was typical of him that he took me as his guest to a Detection Club dinner at the Savoy nearly twenty years ago, a memorable occasion at a time when I never dreamed that one day I'd become a member of the same Club. He did me this kindness simply because he knew how much I would love the occasion. I will never forget it.
In fact, one of the last times I saw him was at the Detection Club's annual dinner in the Temple. By this time, he was becoming troubled by memory problems. For an intellectual whose memory had always been fantastic, this was a dreadful blow,and he felt unable to continue with his public speaking, something in which he excelled. I went to visit him and Louise at their home in Leeds last year, and we had a pleasant time together, but his health began to deteriorate, and this year the decline had been steep.
For Louise, who has coped with great courage during the past difficult months, the loss is profound.
As I write these words, I feel very sad indeed that he and I will not be teasing each other again -our views diverged on a handful of issues (not least pop music!), but this never mattered a bit, as it never should in any genuine friendship; in fact, I tend to think that friendships are often all the stronger when they are between people with contrasting outlooks and personalities. Mind you, amongst many other things, we shared a great admiration for Christie, and I heard him speak with considerable insight about her work at crime conferences on a couple of occasions. I also recall a fascinating tour of the Bronte House in Haworth, led by Bob during a CWA annual conference. Above all, it was a great privilege as well as a pleasure to have known Bob, and to have been lucky enough to enjoy his company on countless occasions. He has left me many memories to treasure, and I'm sure the same is true of his many other friends.
I thought I'd illustrate this blog post with a photo that reminds me of a happy occasion we shared. It was taken at the 20th anniversary lunch of the Northern Chapter. It shows Bob in conversation with Meg Elizabeth Atkins, another friend who attended that inaugual lunch, and who also died recently, and Kate Ellis's husband Roger. Both Meg and Bob were in great form that Sunday. In fact,whenever I met either of them over the past quarter of a century, they seemed to be in great form. Bob, like Meg, will be very much missed.