Friday, December 20, 2013

Book Review: Political Suicide by Robert Barnard

The Friday’s Forgotten Books folks are featuring Robert Barnard today, so even in the middle of my holiday hoopla, I knew I had to drop everything and review one of his books. The question was—which? What helped answer the question was the realization that, while I enjoy his more traditional mysteries (like The Bad Samaritan, which manages to be wicked and witty even in an English church setting), it’s his novels that depart from that formula that stick with me the most.

I briefly reviewed Political Suicide back in 2006, when I used to post round-ups of my favorite recent reads on MySpace. (I went there to retrieve my post and the site still exists, though it’s something of an urban ruin). My pseudo-review didn’t say much—just a few lines—but mentioned that it was a fun satire “for fans of Yes, Minister and its ilk.” That’s not a lot of information, but if you know the BBC sitcom that skewered the British political system in the early ‘80s, you know something of the milieu of Political Suicide. Just add a (possible) murder.

Political Suicide by Robert Barnard (1986)


The book begins:

''It was a quiet Friday morning in Downing Street. The Prime Minister was stewing over a draft bill to privatize the armed forces, many of the aides and secretaries who normally cluttered the place were already off for the weekend, and in the kitchens the cook was preparing a light lunch of staggering ordinariness.''

It’s only seconds later that the body of Jim Partridge, MP for Bootham East (“a frightful hole”) is fished out of the river, an apparent suicide. A flurry of activity ensues—but it’s not the usual kind for a mystery. It’s the political kind, as factions from every party begin their machinations to jockey their favored replacement candidate into position. Others hurriedly try to keep the media at bay, and sweep anything that might appear even slightly unsavory about Partridge’s death under the rug. Only Partridge wasn’t unsavory—in fact, he was rather dull and normal, with no motive for suicide—which causes Superintendent Sutcliffe of New Scotland Yard to suspect murder.

I’ll confess that everything I know about British politics is cobbled together from Yes, Minister, The Thick of It, and some references on I’m Alan Partridge. (Someone from across the pond will have to tell me if my sources are reliable ones.) Barnard finds the same kind of humor in political monkey business, and the result is a book that’s considerably more satire than murder mystery. It moves breezily along, helped by the fact that most of the book is in the form of dialogue. We meet all the candidates from the major parties involved, and Barnard can’t help but poke fun at all of them.

“And then,” Barnard writes, “there were the rest.” He goes on to name the other candidates on the ballot.

“Taking them slowly, one by one, they were: the Home Rule for England candidate; the Women for the Bomb candidate; Yelping Lord Crotch, the Top of the Pops candidate; the Transcendental Meditation candidate; the Transvestite Meditation candidate (Ms Humphrey Ward); the John Lennon lives candidate; the Bring Back Hanging candidate; the Britain Out of the Common Market candidate;the Richard III Was Innocent Candidate; and Zachariah Zzugg, the I’m Coming Last candidate.”

I tend to like my mysteries dark, and humor is something I generally like to keep separate. Political Suicide has just enough bite to keep me interested, though. It’s never too dark or too light, but something in between. I suspect it won’t be for everyone, and the ending even more so. Without spoiling the outcome of the murder investigation, I will say that Barnard makes it very clear that this is satire. As far as whether you will like it or not, I stand by my 2006 MySpace post: it may depend entirely on how you feel about Yes, Minister.


Read the rest of the reviews for Robert Barnard week. 

12 comments:

  1. Now I know which Barnard novel to seek out first. (I'm a political junkie. Well, a lapsed one.) Thanks Kelly!

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    1. I'd be curious to hear what you think of it. It's hard to know how much of my fondness for it is due simply to its Britishness, which wouldn't affect you in the same way.

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  2. Great choice Kelly - and realise that I really want to go back and re-read so many of his books now (and re-watch YES, MINISTER too!)

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    1. YES, MINISTER is streaming on Hulu now. I'm about to watch them all again.

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  3. You're right about not everybody getting Barnard's dark humor. I appreciate his ability to create convincing settings for his mysteries: government, religious institutions, academia, etc.

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    1. Yep, his settings are all over the place. It's his dark with that ties them all together.

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  4. With each FFB review that I read, I find Robert Barnard more versatile than before. As John said, I'm a political junkie too and continue to be one. I'll be reading this book as the one book I read has sufficiently aroused my curiosity about this fine writer.

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    1. I like everything I've read by him, and so far none have been anything alike.

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  5. I have this one on the shelf, Kelly. I think I might pass on it as I wasn't too fond of Yes, Minister. Up it goes on paperbackswap!

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    1. Glad I could be of assistance. I'm also glad you took my recommendation on OUT OF THE BLACKOUT.

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  6. Might be a bit too Brit for me, since I'm unfamiliar with all those shows, but I'm adding it to my TBR list anyway.

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  7. I read this one a couple of years ago. I have a hard time being critical of Robert Barnard no matter what he is writing, but I agree, this is not for everyone. I liked it a lot (although being more familiar with British politics might have made it even more enjoyable). I have read a lot of his books, but have many more to go.

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