“Skeleton in the Grass” by Robert Barnard and his other excellent crime novels

Robert Barnard was a prolific crime novelist and I first encountered his books at the local library. His novels are usually considered to be at the cosy end of the spectrum but a number of them actually have quite a bite to them. Skeleton in the Grass is one of my favourites (my very favourite is Out of the Blackout which I consider to be one of the best crime novels ever written).

This story is set in 1936 when Sarah comes to work in the nursery of a large upper middle class house. The Hallam family with whom she stays are left wing and liberal and pacifist and she becomes very much part of their household and takes part in their activities. A series of practical jokes are inflicted on the family which seem to be connected with their political views and then there is a murder. The murder arrives late in the book and isn’t the main focus of the narrative which concentrates on Sarah and her social awakening.

This is a deceptively easy to read book but there’s a lot in it about social conscience and war, as one character goes to fight in the Spanish Civil War. Class also plays a large part as it does in so many of his novels. The author ties it up well at the end and what happens to all the characters seems very realistic and somehow inevitable.

Most of this author’s books actually have a social issue at the core but they are not what I would describe as “issue” books where the issues are the main thing. Books of his that I have read have main characters who are gay in a time where I had not read that in other popular novels and he was one of the first authors I read to have a black policeman hero. He also writes about old age, loneliness, child pornography and what constitutes a family.  Robert Barnard is good at characterisation and he understands how people so often let each other down. Some of his books are very amusing but the humour hides a biting wit. His books are short but no word is wasted.

If you want to read one of this author’s books then I think this would be a good start. It is short but cleverly put together and the development and maturity of Sarah is beautifully done.