Saturday, November 15, 2014

Death by Sheer Torture: Review

The whole thing was sheer torture from beginning to end, and if I confess that I enjoyed it now and then, you will say, I suppose that that, at least, I got from my father. Now that it's all out in the open, though, couldn't we call it a day?  You can put it out of your mind, and I can go on with my life. I do have a job of work to do.  ~Perry Trethowan (final paragraph)

It was a very embarrassing way for a policeman's father to be found dead: dressed in what Inspector Perry Trethowan's superior officer referred to as chorus girl tights and suspended from a strappado machine straight out of the Spanish Inquisition. Trethowan had long ago left his father and the family estate (Harpenden House) behind...with absolutely no regrets... and did not relish the thought of going back and mixing with his addled aunts, creepy cousins, and secretive sister. But the Deputy Assistant Commissioner thinks it would be just the ticket for the prodigal son to return to his family's bosom and get the inside scoop on the unconventional murder. For murder it was--the rope which would allow Trethowan's father to safely escape the torture device any time he'd had enough had been neatly cut, leaving the old man to die. So, he follows orders and heads home to dig up facts for his official counterpart.

Trethowan is immediately struck by several features of the murder. Why were the lights left on? Why was the rope cut precisely where and how it was? Why were the scissors hidden where they were found? More than definite motive--of which there seems to be no sign, Trethowan's father was generally disliked but, then, so are a lot of people--these questions seem to crop up over and over. When a letter referring to the family's past comes to light, all becomes clear...including motive and Trethowan gives us a grand old Golden Age gathering of the suspects in a closing scene. 

Lots of homage to Christie and other Golden Age authors--from the aforementioned gathering of suspects to the old country estate and eccentric family members. There's talk of honor and secrets and even a devoted butler (despite how short his term of service has been) as well as a "foreigner" in the shape of Peter Trethowan's Italian wife. Barnard definitely knows how to follow the classic tradition while give it a few up-to-date (for the '80s) twists. Sly humor and fair plotting add to the fun for a slightly better than average outing. His descriptions of Harpenden House's inmates are crisp and maliciously funny. Take our introduction to Aunt Sybilla:

My Aunt Sybilla had aged less gracefully. In her youth she had been known for her spry, sharp, gamine qualities--qualities which easily grow sour with age....She was now--and had been as long as I can remember--a vinegary, pretentious bundle of egocentric extravagances, a succession of ghastly, ill-fitting artistic poses. It's living with people like Aunt Sybilla makes a man take up weightlifting.

I don't know why Barnard always surprises (pleasantly) with his writing every time I dip into another of his books, but he does. I expect it's the rather dark twists he puts on a beloved genre. But, whatever the reason, I'm very pleased every time I pick up a Barnard and get settled in. ★★  and 1/2.

This fulfills the "Method in the Title" square on the Silver Vintage Bingo card--and, incidentally, completes the final squared needed to cover the card.


Jacquie said...

Read this quite a while ago and recall liking it very much. Your review makes me want to read it again. Barnard studied Christie closely and his admiration shines through in many of his books. He's one of my favorites also!

Katherine P said...

Barnard is new to me but he sounds like an author I would very much enjoy. I love the Vintage Mystery challenge!

fredamans said...

The dark nature of this book appeals to me greatly. Great review!