Tuesday, October 13, 2009

School for Murder

"I write only to entertain," said Robert Barnard.

After reading School for Murder, and enjoying it immensely, Miss Lemon could hardly quarrel with that assessment.

The novel has all that a connoisseur of the British mystery could hope for: an insular setting (this being Burleigh, a third-rate boys' school in a remote corner of the county of Swessex), a poisoning, a cast of shady characters and a quirky detective -- all served with a dish of delightful satire.

Mr. Barnard, it seems, is known for his incisive observations and dramatic wit. The Burleigh School, with its penny-pinching headmaster (the superbly named Edward Crumwallis), substandard boarding annexe, out-of-date texts, grubby gamesmaster and hated head boy, makes the perfect stage on which he can exercise his skills.

One need look no further than the opening gambit to see that one is in for a treat: "A fly buzzed in the Staff Common Room of Burleigh School. It provided a fitting accompaniment to the voice of headmaster."

Mr. Crumwallis is busy bewailing newfangled curricular standards. Why Golding, when one can just as easily have Black Arrow or Westward Ho, he fulminates.

Dorthea Gilberd (Junior English, Junior History) isn't snowed. "Or, to put the matter more honestly, thought Dorthea Gilberd, tearing her glance from Tom Tedder, why don't they prescribe books that Burleigh School has already got copies of?"

Events take a more serious turn when a series of misfortunes befall the boarding annexe: an ill-placed razor blade, strong booze in the fruit squash ... and then much worse.

In all, it's a school-days satire cum detective mystery that keeps one guessing -- and laughing along the way.

Mr. Barnard, an alumnus of the Royal Grammar School in Colcester, Essex, and longtime university lecturer in English knows well of what he speaks. Miss Lemon is pleased to have discovered him -- and she hopes you will be, too.

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