London's leafy Holland Park is a far cry from the dusty, outback town of Bundaroo where best selling author Bettina Whitelaw grew up. Now in her eighties she's preparing to write her memoirs in which she'll explain the reason she left Australia all those years ago. The only person who knows her from those days is old friend Hugh Naismyth, a misfit English immigrant who Bettina befriended at school and who now lives nearby in London.
When her brother and her daughter arrive from Australia for a visit strange things start to happen. After a day's sightseeing Bettina returns home and has a strong feeling that someone has been going through her desk and that whoever was there knew what they were looking for. A few days later while in Edinburgh, Bettina receives a message calling her back to London because her cleaner has been attacked in the flat. Bettina is convinced that she was the intended victim. But who would do such a thing, and why? The investigation is made complicated by the fact that Bettina had given keys to the flat to a number of people, and, given Bettina's waspish ways, any of them might have a motive; could someone be after her money, or perhaps it's something to do with her short-lived marriage that eneded many years ago, or does somebody want to prevent Bettina from writing about the sexual assault that was the catalyst for her leaving Bundaroo all those years ago?
"Cry from the Dark" is just one of a string of crime novels from the prolific British veteran author Robert Barnard. I'd read one other before, on the basis that, since it had the word "tandoori" in the title, it had to be worth a read. How wrong I was. I'd been told, however, that he had written some decent novels so, not one to bear a grudge, I gave this one a try.
There's something about Robert Barnard's novels that I find inherently funny. Perhaps it's that no matter how recently they were penned they seem incredibly dated. The characters have names that don't ring true and there's an urbanity all of them that is faintly ridiculous; you get the impression that even Bettina's cleaner attends royal garden parties when she's not scrubbing floors (not that such a thing is impossible, just that, for Robert Barnard, the working class seems not to exist).
That said I do think the picture of 1930s Bundaroo was very evocative and believable and Barnard captures the feeling of a claustrophobic inward looking town. The picture of contemporary London is less successful, painted as the cultural antithesis of Australia, as Bettina accompanies her poor intellectually starved relatives to various artistic and theatrical events in London and Edinburgh.
That Bettina is a difficult character to like must have played a part in creating my opinion of this novel; so somebody might want to shut up and irritating and selfish old crone - who cares exactly? Not I. The characters are largely one dimensional at best and mostly formed from a piece of old cardboard; dull and cliched, there's little to bring them off the page and make them feel real.
Technically the story is told well in a tight-knit plot that demonstrates why the prolific Barnard is such a popular author. Personally I'd have traded a little in the way of technical expertise for a bit of credibility; it's almost as if in creating this clever story, Barnard forgot to give it some colour. Weaving in some flashbacks to the 1930s allows the story to build and adds to the suspense. For crime fiction this is at the gentle end of the scale and needs to work hard at creating intrigue to keep readers interested; to Barnard's credit he does present the armchair detective with a few good leads and possible motives to reflect upon.
I can't see myself reading any more of Barnard's novels; I prefer my characters to be a bit more realistic in crime fiction and, to be honest, I do prefer a bit more blood and gore. It's just not Barnard's style. Or mine.