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Eve McNabb has come back to the Yorkshire village of Crossley to be with her mother May as she died, and then arrange her funeral. May McNabb was a much-loved and highly respected member of the community. She had been Headmistress of the village Primary School for many years. Just before the funeral, amongst the many notes of condolence, Eve reads a letter addressed to May from a woman called Jean, suggesting that long ago she and May had a passionate affair which was broken up by 'the business with John' - Eve's father, who left when she was very young and who she believes has been dead for many years. Stunned, Eve receives further confirmation of the letter at the funeral, when her noxious Aunt Ada suggests that the reason she was estranged from May was on account of her lesbianism. Eve starts out on a voyage of discovery to discover the truth about her parents' marriage and early life together. The voyage leads to Glasgow and Australia, but ends back in Yorkshire where a murder related to those old events occurs.
There are a couple of commonplaces about Robert Barnard; first that he is the most-underrated British mystery writer alive today, secondly that his canon is consistent only in its inconsistency. The fact that these are commonplaces does not make them less true and they are, of course, related. The inconsistency is a matter of both content and quality. In terms of content Barnard's work ranges from the comic through social observation to the political and psychological; the only binding factor is that there is always a mystery at the centre of the book. This variation in content alone would be enough to make it hard for Barnard when added to the fact that he has no dominant series character (other writers like Hill have as wide, or wider, ranges but bind the range with series characters). However even Barnard enthusiasts, such as me, have to admit that his work is also inconsistent in terms of quality - there are some books which we have to, euphemistically, term as not very good.
On top of all this, in his last few books in particular, I have a sense that Barnard is now writing for his own pleasure and satisfaction; that a story or subject intrigues him and he writes it. This has led to some very good books (A CRY IN THE DARK, DYING FLAMES) and at least one, well 'less good' (A FALL FROM GRACE). Fortunately with LAST POST we are back to the very good. Barnard's lucid, sparse prose makes a welcome relief from the over-writing which is so abundant now, his powers of narration remain first-class, his observation keen, and his ear for a good line very evident.
But it is the tone and mood of LAST POST which really marks it out. For much of the book this is as near as one can get to a happy mystery. I do not mean comic, although there are comic touches. I mean that there is no great angst, no great pain; Eve herself is a reasonably sunny character who moves towards and finds greater happiness in the course of the book. This illustrates both why Barnard is so rare - who else, other than Hill, would attempt a book in this vein; and indeed so good - who else, yet again apart from Hill, could pull it off - because happiness is very hard to write convincingly. The plot and the mystery proceed at a gentle yet satisfying pace and although the reader may have vague inklings of the Christie-like trick which lies at the book's heart, they will probably not get the full detail until it is revealed (it should be always be remembered that Barnard has written a very good book on Christie).
However for all I have said LAST POST would fall into the very enjoyable, highly competent category, a worthy addition to the Barnard canon, were it not for the stunning trick, or development (as it is not exactly a trick) which he pulls out in the very last page of the book. This is utterly unexpected (although it is in fact another Christie trick as it relies on emotional misdirection) and leads readers to revise their attitude completely to everything that has occurred. It changes the whole mood of the book. But it is also wholly logical and in retrospect should have been foreseen. With this stunning denouement LAST POST moves from being a very enjoyable mystery to being a brilliant mystery - and a brilliant mystery which lies very firmly within the Great Tradition of mystery writing. If there is a pantheon in that tradition, Barnard proves, again, with LAST POST, that he deserves to occupy a much higher place than he does.
Reviewed by Nick Hay, May 2008
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