Review: Death and the Chaste Apprentice, by Robert Barnard
Scribner, 1989, ISBN: 0684190028
a review by Rich Horton
(This resurrects a review I wrote for my SFF Net newsgroup back in 1997. I don't cover the mystery writers I read often enough, so I figure posting this one would be nice. It's been slightly updated.)
I seem to read mystery writers in clumps: that is, I find a writer I like, read most of his or her output over a period of a year or two, then move on to someone else, possibly keeping up more or less with the previous favorite, possibly letting the previous favorite drop. I don't think I do this in any other genre: I couldn't say why. Perhaps it is because mystery writers tend to be somewhat prolific, and to write series of novels featuring the same characters. At any rate, in the past I've run through Robert B. Parker, Rex Stout, Ellis Peters, Anne Perry, Peter Lovejoy, Georges Simenon, and others. And my mystery writer of the moment (1997) is now Robert Barnard.
Robert Barnard (1936-2013) was an Englishman who spent time as a lecturer in English Literature both in Australia and Norway (and both locales have turned up in his books). He wrote an academic volume on Dickens. Beginning in 1974 he published some 40 mystery novels and many short stories. The novels are characterized mostly by their dryly satiric tone. They are very funny, and very biting. For the most part, he seems to have eschewed the continuing series format, although he has published several books featuring Scotland Yard's Perry Trethowan, and a couple more featuring a character first introduced in the Trethowan books, Charlie Peace. Given that the non-series books feature one-off detectives, he is more free than usual to turn his sights on the foolishness and incompetence of the crime-fighters, as well as that of the criminals, and in several of his books a main object of satire is the police.
The Chaste Apprentice of the title is also the title character of a fictional Jacobean comedy which is being staged at an arts festival near London. The arts festival is held in part in an old inn, and we are introduced to the cast of the play, staying at the Inn, a couple of classical singers who are also performing at the festival, and the manager of the Inn, a rather odious, snoopy, Australian (Barnard really seems to have it in for Australia). Barnard spends some time setting up the complex dynamics of the characters: a young actor who seems to be falling for the Russian singer, an alcoholic actress, the leading couple of the play, who are married to each other but engage in very public adultery, the incredibly self-centred Indian singer and his manager, the tyrannical conductor of the opera, the eccentric director of the play, and of course the Inn's manager, who alienates everyone with his snooping and his know-it-all attitude. Then, as the play opens, a murder occurs, and the police have to investigate. Naturally, the investigation reveals a variety of unpleasant secrets which don't have anything to do with the murder, before finally ending with a slight twist and a nicely logical solution. (Actually one of Barnard's stronger mystery plots: many of his books, while still thoroughly entertaining, have very strained solutions.)
The true pleasure of this book, as with all Barnard, is the sly sarcastic asides which pepper the descriptions of the characters and events. At the same time, the characters are mostly rather sympathetic, even when somewhat flawed: this is not always true with Barnard, as I have read books of his which feature literally no likable characters. This book is also interesting for the snippets of information about Jacobean drama as well as 19th century opera.