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The teenage Merlyn Cantelo left Leeds twenty years ago at the insistence of his Aunt Clarissa, a clairvoyant, who had foreseen violent danger to him from within the Cantelo family. Shed told everyone that hed disappeared in Asia. In actual fact he was being educated in Italy. Hes not welcomed back into the family with open arms though, as his reappearance means that some who were expecting a decent inheritance will be disappointed. Merlyn has to delve into the murky history of the Cantelo family to find out who is threatening him.
Robert Barnard is one of those authors who have been surprisingly prolific but are not well known despite writing some quality novels. I first read him when I began reading the crime section in the local library at the beginning of the alphabet. He lives in Leeds and most of his novels are set there or in the surrounding towns. This may be one of the reasons why hes better known in this part of the world than others! His writing style is easy on the brain and puts me in mind of the early Wexford novels by Ruth Rendell.
Most of the Barnard novels feature, if not star, Charlie Peace, a black detective Sergeant in the local police force. In this novel he plays an incidental part with most of the investigation being carried out by Merlyn Cantelo who has returned to Leeds as an educated professional man. Although there is some progression between the novels there are no spoilers: the worst you will find if you read the books out of sequence is that you know there is a promotion to come or a child to be born. Ive read most of the books as Ive discovered them in the public library and found no problems.
Robert Barnard is good at handling a large cast of characters. The Cantelo family is extensive and dysfunctional and there are a good number of people associated with the family who are not necessarily related. I usually find this leads to confusion but it was simple to grasp who was who, particularly as theres a family tree provided at the beginning of the book. The characters were all rounded and none came across as caricatures. I found him particularly good at developing the dysfunctional side of family life how the attitudes of the parents made the children too competitive with each other and how the death of one family member sent another disastrously off the rails. Hes very good at showing that how people appear does not necessarily reflect whats going on under the surface.
The plot is excellent. I guessed the name of the person threatening Merlyn just a couple of pages before the end but all the evidence had been there for me to see. There were no tricks of producing extra facts which hadnt been known before. The ending came as a complete surprise too my eye was firmly on someone else. It was very satisfying and completely plausible.
Barnard makes good use of the city of Leeds and its suburbs. This novel is mainly set in Kirkstall and if, like me, you know the area well you will recognise a lot of street names and landmarks. I struggled with Merlyn through the traffic of Leeds city centre and I know the hotel where he was staying. This increased my enjoyment of the book, but the plot isnt dependent on the location and you can still enjoy the novel without knowing Leeds at all.
If you like crime fiction Id recommend this novel. Its one of Barnards better books. There have been low points in his writing, such as The Corpse at the Howarth Tandoori unfortunately the only book of his that Ive bought but this is much closer to the other end of the scale.
Paperback 288 pages (September 2005)
Publisher: Allison & Busby
Price: £6.99 but available from Amazon at £5.59 in November 2005