The Case of the Missing Brontë by Robert Barnard

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.

The Verdict: This is a lighthearted and entertaining mystery with a fun core concept.

Further Reading

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.

Mother’s Boys by Robert Barnard

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…