Originally published in 1981.
Also published as Death of a Perfect Mother.
At the very moment that Lill Hodsden was describing her two sons (‘We think the world of each other: they’d do anything for me’) Gordon and his brother Brian were plotting darkly at home.
Next Saturday, on her way back from the pub, they planned a sharp blow on the back of Lill’s head and maybe a twist of rope around her throat. What a beautiful empty future they would have!
But Lill’s garrotted body was discovered two days early on Thursday night. Gordon and Brian were incredulous that someone else had got there first for a bizarre twist of fate was going to bring the mother’s boys full circle…
Lill Hodsden is regarded as common and cheap by most of the inhabitants of Todmarsh. Her husband, Fred, is oblivious to her carrying on with other men and to the presents she has received in return for her favors and seems to not care about her controlling behavior. Her sons however deeply resent it and worry that she will never let go of them and allow them to become independent.
One day Gordon, the eldest son, suggests to his brother Brian that they should kill her. Brian, assuming he is joking, plays along only to find that he is serious. After talking it over they develop a plan and test some elements. Then just two days before they were to go through with the deed she is found garrotted in the very alley they had planned to commit the murder in.
I actually picked up Mother’s Boy in error after finding a copy of the blurb that omitted the last paragraph. Assuming that this would be a straightforward inverted mystery, I got hold of a copy only to find as I was partway through that other suspects were appearing, each with their own deepset grudges against Lill. Still, even though it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting I decided to press on with it and see it to its conclusion.
I rather wish I hadn’t bothered.
Mother’s Boys is a depressing read that lacks wit and contains several depictions of various -isms that were made for uncomfortable reading, even though I perceive the author’s intent was to critique those small-minded attitudes. Certainly those opinions tend to come out of the mouths of characters who are established as nasty pieces of work. Which turns out to be just about everyone, making for some quite depressing reading at times.
Unfortunately however I think those efforts to satirize or illustrate those racist attitudes are undermined by the attempt to comically describe the fictional island that the book’s black character came from in terms of savagery (they have, of course, recently been cannibals and plump tourists still occasionally go missing) and ignorance (they have mistakenly come to believe George Eliot a Christian saint based on a missionary’s book collection). It is a frustrating choice because, if that was not there, I might well be lauding the author’s efforts to address racism, both spoken and unspoken, in society.
The book has other, more structural issues however that are evident right from its first chapter. This book has to do something that is quite difficult – convince us that two sons, who are believed to dote on their mother, would negotiate and conspire a murder plan in a single conversation. This might have been set up by an obvious pressure point on that relationship such as a particular slight given or a specific provocation but instead it is brought up quite bluntly and with no build up at all. This renders the whole conversation unnervingly neat and artificial which might not be a problem if the whole book was written in that style. The problem is that it really doesn’t sit comfortably with the social realism approach adopted in almost every other aspect of the novel. Accordingly it feels quite forced, as though the author is simply setting up the chess board to favor the moves they intend to make.
In addition the plan they devise is in no way creative or devious. It simply amounts to making it appear that they are both in a busy pub while one slips a short distance away to carry out the crime and returns. There is so little about this that is unique or interesting that I was actually relatively relieved when the author began to introduce some other suspects. My hope was that even if this wasn’t the inverted masterpiece I hoped for, maybe we would get a good detective story out of this setup instead.
Here Barnard at least sets up some promising possibilities as we see Lill manage to aggravate almost everyone in her community in the hours leading up to her murder in different ways. There is a pretty diverse set of motives to consider and by the time you get to that murder the reader will likely be relieved that they will no longer have to spend any more time in Lill’s obnoxious company.
It is easy to understand why Lill upsets so many people. Her behavior is loud, crude and overly familiar, lacking the sorts of boundaries that help people navigate social situations. Barnard seems to imply that there is some classist snobbery on display in others’ responses to her. We notice that other characters are just as forward, just as insensitive or interfering and yet they do not inspire quite the same level of ire as Lill. I think this idea is interesting and yet, because it is never directly addressed in the narration it is not clear if it is intentional or if I have simply read it into the text. I rather hope it is the former.
One aspect of the work that Barnard definitely intends is to present his detectives as impatient for results and judgmental towards the people they are speaking with. This is not unique to this work but I think it works particularly well here, especially given those other themes I found in the book. This not only adds to those themes within the novel, it also leads to the investigation developing rather atypically as the reader cannot be sure whether they will find the truth or not.
But that brings me to the novel’s biggest problems which, rather unfortunately, all lie with the book’s solution. To start with, the mystery is not exactly a carefully plotted puzzle. The detectives never really get into the matter of analyzing characters’ movements. Indeed most of the suspects are simply identified as possible based on their motive. This undermines the reader’s ability to process this as a puzzle mystery – we end the case simply without knowing much about the suspects.
At the same time, there is one solution that actually stands out as being quite obvious. I do not consider myself as being particularly brilliant or inspired for reaching it early in the book and later developments clearly seem to confirm it. It is simply that there is never any serious attempt made to make that conclusion seem impossible, almost as if the author considered it so brilliant that he assumed no one could possibly conceive of it. I might almost wonder if that was deliberate except the ending is so clearly framed as though it were a surprise that it appears the author must have believed he had hidden the signs hinting at it.
So rather unfortunately I found myself quite frustrated by this book. Barnard creates some striking and vivid characters and the themes it develops are interesting but the mystery feels unfocused and the tone feels inconsistent. I have several other books by Barnard in my TBR pile so I am sure I will give him another try but this experience doesn’t leave me excited. If anyone has any Barnard suggestions however I would be happy to receive them!
The Verdict: Unpleasant with a predictable conclusion that is clearly meant to surprise. I doubt I’ll be returning to Barnard any time soon…
6 thoughts on “Mother’s Boys by Robert Barnard”
Yes, this one’s rather sour. Barnard’s much better at waspish humour and misanthropic social observation than plotting; entertaining if you want a crime story written by Waugh or Swift. The mysteries tend to be weaker – slight clueing, solutions occasionally lifted from other writers. Easily the best thing he’s done in the field is his book on Agatha Christie.
I did enjoy Death and the Chaste Apprentice, more for the parody of Donizetti and Restoration comedy than the plot.
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Glad I am not alone in feeling that way! Thanks for the recommendation and the general description of his style.
I tend to think of Robert Barnard as a writer that I like — the smooth style, the intriguing characters, the sharp observation and humor — and then remember that I have to make a lot of exceptions to that: not that one, not when he uses that device, not when he’s trying to do X…. and definitely not the last decade or thereabouts, when (like some other eminent mystery writers) he was allowed to keep publishing a book a year despite some essential element in his writing having gone sadly awry.
But he was prolific, so that does leave a number of worthwhile titles. Besides his nonfiction analysis of Christie, I (admittedly with a music background) like the three opera-centered ones: Death on the High Cs, Death and the Chaste Apprentice, The Mistress of Alderley. And, for reasons I suppose I shouldn’t give away, The Skeleton in the Grass.
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Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Barnard. I certainly can see the observation skills on full display here. Thanks for the recommendations too. I will keep those in mind for whenever I get back to Barnard!
And he also wrote a series where an ageing, unpopular Mozart solved the murders.
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As a musicologist, I really should read those. How is it possible that I haven’t?