DCI Tom Barnaby
by Caroline Graham
288 pages, Headline
Review by Pat Black
True story: A few years ago, my then-girlfriend moved into a nice block of flats in a pretty market town.
She hadn’t yet got her parking permit for the site, but left her car in an unmarked open bay the night before moving in. She wanted to quickly double-check everything was in order on the itinerary – you know, no bodies sprawled in the lounge, no gold bullion packed into the cupboards, no ancient burial chambers lingering under the bed. This task took her about 10 minutes.
When she got back to her car, she found that someone had placed nails underneath the front tyres.
No parking permit, you see. Not the done thing, dear. If you should get a double puncture, crash and hurt yourself, why, that’d be your own bally fault, wouldn’t it?
Malice in pleasant, even twee settings is a staple of the English murder mystery, and Caroline Graham’s first Midsomer Murder is absolutely packed with it. The Killings At Badger’s Drift introduces us to DCI Barnaby and his sidekick, Troy, as they investigate the suspicious death of an elderly lady who was out looking for a rare bloom in the woods around the titular village.
The lonely eccentric, Miss Simpson, stumbles upon something naughty in the great outdoors that the two participants would rather she hadn’t.
Barnaby’s initial suspicions are proven correct when the post-mortem shows that Miss Simpson was poisoned with hemlock.
We are introduced to a full cast of suspects, all with deep and sometimes deadly secrets. There’s a local rich bloke in a big house, preparing to marry a beautiful young woman far too hot for him; there’s a louche, snobby artist who lives in an unlocked cottage out in the woods; and there’s a bizarre mother-and-son duo who creep everyone out. Could the late Miss Simpson’s friend, Miss Bellringer, a competitor over botanical curiosities, have anything to do with it? And what about the death of the disabled aristocrat’s previous wife, shot dead in a hunting accident?
It’s all connected of course, in an engaging puzzle beautifully designed to catch out people who don’t pay close attention, like me.
The story wasn’t quite as cosy as the initial murder leads you to believe. While death by hemlock is very Golden Age, there’s a subsequent murder that’s much more Video Nasty. If I was Barnaby I’d have checked Jason Voorhees’ movements on the day of the killing.
In fact, Jason would happily live in Midsomer (or Badger’s Drift, in this first story in the series; “Midsomer” was invented by Anthony Horowitz, who first scripted the TV adaptation). A peaceful, bosky setting would suit Jason to the hem of his hillbilly killer dungarees, and his distrust of strangers and barely concealed psychosis would also fit like a glove.
A leather glove, unscrewing a lightbulb, in the middle of the night.
Like the first Morse mystery, this story is grubbier than expected. It seethes with lust, infidelities and sleaze. Even the sober, no-nonsense DCI Barnaby finds himself in a local brothel as part of his inquiries – complete with a classic “he made his excuses and left” gag.
Barnaby is from the Adam Dalgleish stable of sturdy, reliable and somewhat priggish English policemen. You can trust him; he commands great authority and lets his temper escape now and again, and you can bet the hapless uniformed coppers around him jump to the beat, on the double.
He seemed more like a former military man, a good Tom who attended Sandhurst or similar and blusters through life, expecting everyone he encounters to snap to attention at his every utterance. I can’t be sure I liked him, or at least, I can’t be sure I’d have a pint with him. I’d have a pint with Morse any day of the week, and I can see myself sharing a mint julep with Poirot somewhere smart and shiny, my collars clean and my hair slicked into a brutal centre parting. But Barnaby’s a perfect fit for the series; the type of guy you would want guarding you as you sleep.
Not literally, like. You know, standing over your bed, and that. That’d be odd.
The most interesting element in the book was how Barnaby and Troy interact. The sidekick role is a thankless one in detective stories, probably starting with Dr Watson. They get their time in the spotlight, and the odd chance to save the hero or shoot the bad guy, but they are doomed to live in the shadow of their intellectual superiors. This can be done in a subtle fashion, with give and take between the principals and even a sense that the underling might be the better man (like Morse and Lewis), but it’s overt in this story.
This was refreshing – similar to how Barnaby appraises a frank, opinionated woman he interviews in this story. He likes a bit of that. It can be energising to meet someone who doesn’t mince words or motivations, every now and again, Barnaby muses.
But not all the time.
Troy is young, naïve and actually quite thick. He’s not bad in a tough situation and he’s an excellent driver, but Barnaby can barely conceal his contempt and basic dislike for the detective sergeant. Troy tries to impress his more senior colleague, but quite often makes the wrong call or leaps to the wrong conclusion – giving Barnaby a chance to play a stronger hand and show him up.
I pitied Troy. He was every greenhorn who ever tried to flex their muscles, only to be swatted aside. Most of us have been there…
Here’s hoping he gets a better crack of it in later books.
Like many fictional detectives who made a successful transition from the page to our tellies, it’s difficult to dissociate Graham’s Barnaby from the one who became familiar to millions, played by John Nettles. The actor – who first found fame as another TV detective, Jim Bergerac – even provides a foreword to this story. You can probably find Nettles’ performance as Barnaby somewhere on the schedules to this very day. Although he’s long left the role, the show goes on (Tom Barnaby retires, and is replaced by his cousin – John Barnaby… how Parish Council can you get?). It’s been running for 20 years, there’s a new series on its way, its popularity is undimmed, and it will most likely overtake Taggart as the longest-running detective drama on British TV.
There is much cosiness in the setting – perhaps that intriguing blend of sweet and sour is Midsomer’s secret recipe? We’ve all wished we lived in a chocolate box village at some point in our lives, usually after we hit 30.
During a tough time in the past, I once surprised myself by blurting out: “Ye know, just one night, I wouldn’t mind sitting in my jammies with a takeaway and watching Midsomer!”
Despite the bodies hitting the ground every 200 yards or so, you’d settle for life in the village. There’s something comforting in Barnaby’s return home to his beautiful house after a tough day interrogating suspects. He has some comfort food, and rests his head on the bosom of his super-nice/bad-cook/perfect-homemaker/amateur-dramatics-every-Tuesday wife. I can relate to that.
Er, I’m not saying I want to nuzzle his wife, I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea… I guess some couples are cool with it, though, strange things can and do go on in nice quiet villages, you better believe it… but you see what I mean.
Midsomer’s also a big hit around the world. It’s shown in 200 countries. Do they watch it in China? Iran? Borneo? Lapland? What is it they like about it?
I reckon people dig that clipped, precise, calculated English malice. It’s so proper. Evil, but perfectly-presented.
A self-diagnosed cultural expert with lots of unsolicited opinions on writing once said to me: “Don’t waste your time writing detective stories. Everyone writes them.”
Correct. But everyone reads them, too.