This is a lighthearted and entertaining mystery with a fun core concept.
Originally published in 1983
Superintendent Trethowan #3
Preceded by Death and the Princess
Followed by Bodies
Superintendent Perry Trethowan was enjoying a peaceful motoring holiday in North Yorkshire when he and his wife, Jan, had a strange encounter in a country pub. The seemingly unremarkable elderly spinster who introduced herself as Miss Edith Wing, a retired schoolmistress, proceeded to produce form her capacious blue handbag a yellowing manuscript – and claimed that it was part of an undiscovered novel by one of the Brontë sisters. Was it a clever forgery, or the literary sensation of the century?
What started out as a harmless holiday diversion for the superintendent turned into a hunt for a vicious attacker as both Miss Wing and Perry himself found themselves in deadly danger.
Today’s post marks another landmark for this blog as it is my 450th review of a novel or short story collection. That is not one of the big ones of course but I still wanted to be thoughtful about the book I would pick to discuss – it would be rather anticlimactic to pass it writing about something you were uninterested in. After looking over my shelves I decided upon this book, Robert Barnard’s The Case of the Missing Brontë.
This novel is completely new to me. While I have read one of Barnard’s novels before, Mother’s Boys, I didn’t enjoy the experience, noting that “I doubt I’ll be returning to Barnard any time soon”. That may leave you wondering what prompted me to overcome my objections. The answer is that I really like the works of the Brontë sisters, particularly Emily, and so the subject matter of this book really appealed to me. I am glad as I did as I had a much happier experience this time around.
The Case of the Missing Brontë opens with Superintendent Trethowan and his wife traveling home from a visit to see his family. Stopping in a Yorkshire village to buy postcards, they are frustrated to find that their car won’t start again forcing them to stay there overnight while a mechanic works on it. During their stay they meet Edith Wing, a retired teacher, who tells them that she has recently inherited a manuscript and that she is uncertain what to do with it. Looking at it Trethowan is struck by how the tiny handwriting resembles that found in the tiny fantasy works that the Brontë sisters wrote as children and suggests she takes it to an academic at one of the local universities for their opinion.
After returning home, Trethowan is contacted by the Yorkshire police. They ask about the nature of the conversation they had in the village pub and share with him that Miss Wing was violently assaulted and has been hospitalized. Stretched thin and recognizing that Trethowan’s knowledge of the manuscript, which is now missing, could prove highly relevant, they ask if he would be willing to head up the investigation. He agrees and heads back to Yorkshire…
One of the unusual features of The Case of the Missing Brontë is that it is a novel without a murder. While I have come across other stories that have been about the discovery or theft of a famed manuscript, those have also featured murders which are used to heighten the stakes. Here though Barnard trusts that the theft will be enough to interest the reader, perhaps relying on our sympathy for Miss Wing who is shown to be by far the nicest character in the novel.
I think that the other reason that this plot works so well is the nature of the manuscript being discussed. There is something quite fascinating about the novelist who produces just one work. If we think back just a couple of years we might remember the enormous excitement that followed the announcement that Harper Lee would publish a second novel decades after her first, To Kill A Mockingbird. A newly discovered novel by Emily Brontë would doubtless cause at least as big a stir and so it is easy to understand how the desire to own and publish that novel might drive people to terrible ends. As MacGuffins go, this must be among the most desirable.
For those who are not a fan of the Brontë sisters, rest assured that Barnard will give you everything you need to understand what is going on but also exercises restraint to avoid burdening the reader with too much needless information. It’s a well-balanced approach that I think should work for most readers.
Who desires the manuscript? There seems to be a long list of suspicious individuals, each of whom has some different specialty or angle. My favorite of these were a pair of Scandinavians who put me in mind at one point of that pair of men who took the trip to investigate the famous 123-metre spire at Salisbury Cathedral a few years ago, but all of the figures involved in the case are very colorful. It soon becomes clear that no one can be considered entirely innocent, each appearing obviously villainous, and so the question becomes one of figuring out how in what way each of these characters is involved and how they might relate to one another.
Barnard keeps the story moving at a quick trot, helped by its comparatively short length, and he spaces out his reveals well so that the solution seems to gradually come into focus. Very little material feels extraneous and I was struck by just how economical his storytelling proves – almost everything we learn will have some relevance in the case though it is not always immediately clear how its various elements are connected.
One pleasant surprise for me was how funny Barnard’s Trethowan can be, albeit often in a very dry way, in his narration. I enjoyed reading his thoughts and feelings about the various characters he comes into contact with during his investigation, finding that the somewhat biting nature of some of those remarks endeared him to me, particularly as they so often had to do with other characters’ prejudices.
I found that I really rather liked Trethowan as an investigator. I not only appreciated the way he follows his leads in this story, piecing together a picture of what had happened, but I also enjoyed that his wife Jan gets involved in the case. This reminded me a little of the relations between the Owens in several of the E. R. Punshon novels I have read and while I think it would be a stretch to call them partners in crime, I appreciated the way she is used here.
The solution to what happened is neat but may seem farcical or rompish given how colorful those various suspects are. Personally I quite enjoyed that aspect of the novel though I will concede that there are some moments in a sequence toward the end of the book that might possibly be viewed as slapstick in style, taking what could be a tense and dangerous moment in the story and playing it very lightly. Some readers may view that as rendering the piece somewhat fantastical but I enjoyed it for what it was.
I suspect that is rather the key to The Case of the Missing Brontë – you will likely either appreciate or bemoan the choice to ultimately play up some of the silliness in the solution. In my case it delivered pretty much exactly what I wanted – a lighthearted criminous romp featuring a number of references to one of my favorite authors. Essential? Perhaps not. But highly enjoyable regardless.
Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime liked it up until its final quarter where she felt the tone shifted and felt more violent, at odds with choices made earlier in the novel. Be sure to check the comments for a response from Martin Edwards giving a little more context concerning how Barnard felt about his book.