Friday 24 February 2023

Forgotten Book - To Die Like a Gentleman

When Robert Barnard published To Die Like Gentleman in 1993, he did so under the pen-name Bernard Bastable, and so he inscribed a copy to me: 'The start of a new life!' He'd moved to a different publisher (Macmillan) for this one, and he'd also moved into the early Victorian era - the events of the story take place in 1842. So he was seeking to differentiate this book from his other work, although naturally it displays his trademark wit and crisp, economical characterisation. There's even a good joke involving Charlotte Bronte - and Bob was a lifelong devotee of the Brontes.

In fact, his new life as Bastable wasn't particularly extensive. As far as I know this book never made it into paperback.The next Bastable title was published by Little, Brown and featured Mozart as a detective, and although there was a follow-up Mozart title, the books didn't make a huge impression. The fourth Bastable, A Mansion and its Murders, was another historical mystery, at first published only in the US. I believe it was turned down by Little, Brown. Some years later, when Bob had moved to Allison & Busby, they published the book, but I think by then that he'd become frustrated - understandably - at the relative lack of interest in the Bastable titles. This just goes to show that even a leading writer can find the going tough at times.

I enjoyed reading To Die Like a Gentleman the first time around and did so again on a second reading, having forgotten the story completely after a thirty year gap. Bob may have been trying to emulate Julian Symons' Victorian mysteries and he adopts the epistolary style, with letters and documents supplementing a multiple-viewpoint narrative. A homage to Wilkie Collins was perhaps in his mind, though this book is a fraction of the length of The Moonstone and The Woman in White.

This is a readable and entertaining piece of fiction. So why didn't it make an impact? I think there are two connected reasons. First, like all Bob's novels, it's short (very short, in fact) and snappy, but although the characters and situations are interesting, the mystery element is relatively thin. Bob didn't like to over-complicate his books - 'second murders are always vulgar', he liked to say, not that I agree! - and so he didn't manage to match Agatha Christie, whom he admired so much, in terms of ingenuity, even though clever ideas abound in his work. And second, in this book, the ending is far too abrupt - almost as if he'd passed a deadline and needed to wrap everything up sharpish. This doesn't do justice to the leisurely build-up. But his books are fun and I was glad to read this one again. 


Ted said...

I read this one seven years ago and also found it very enjoyable. But somehow I never got around to reading the other Barnstable books.

Martin Edwards said...

I preferred this one to the Mozart stories, Ted, but then Bob was more devoted to classical music than I am!