There is no doubt that the visiting Professor of English was a crashing bore. Professor Belville-Smith of Oxford University was on a lecture tour through minor universities in Australia, delivering the same lectures which had stupefied many other listeners. But surely being a bore was not justifcation for murder? It's a question considered in Death of an Old Goat, the first book by the late Robert Barnard. It's the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the complete review by clicking here.
Death of an Old Goat, first published in 1974, is a very good mystery with some astonishing surprises, but it is also a savagely comic satire on academia and on all things Australian. The story is set in Drummondale University, a third-rate (to be charitable) institution in a small Australian town, The investigation of the murder falls into the somewhat padded lap of Inspector Royle, a man who had never solved a murder in his life and wasn’t particularly eager to start now. The inspector didn’t care for the academics among whom the murder happened. He didn’t like the local upper-class swells either, but at least they paid him handsome sums to stay out of trouble. Being incurably lazy, he turns to a lecturer at the college to help him figure out who killed the professor and why.
All of which is almost secondary to the tone and spirit of the book, which is a very funny – often bitterly funny – satire on academics, on Australians, on drinking, on sex – the book goes from scene to scene, character to character, and the portraits are savage and biting. Discussing some of the local gentry, for example, Barnard writes, quote: “Their clothes were well-cut, and almost hid the fact that they were fat. Nothing could hide the fact that they were stupid.”
Or how about this description of our police detective, Inspector Royle: “He was tall, heavily built, with dull eyes and a permanent midnight shadow. The criminals of Drummondale – about twenty percent of the population – had a healthy respect for his fists and his boot and none at all for his brain.”
In the obituary of Robert Barnard, written by mystery author and critic Mike Ripley in the Guardian newspaper of London, Ripley called Barnard " one of the leading exponents of the traditional English murder mystery." That's certainly true. If you enjoy dark humor in your mysteries, you're pretty sure to like Death of an Old Goat.