Driving through the Yorkshire Dales, car trouble forces Scotland Yard detective Perry Trethowan and his wife Jan to stay the night in the village of Hutton-le-Dales (presumably a mix of Hutton-le-Hole and Thornton-le-Dale). Seeking refuge in the local pub, they encounter retired teacher Miss Edith Wing, who eagerly tells them of a manuscript that has turned up in her family papers and which has the hallmarks of being a lost Brontë novel.
Although interested enough to do some research into the Brontës once they have arrived home in London, Perry and Jan remain sceptical about the manuscript’s authenticity. That scepticism has to be revised when Miss Wing is almost beaten to death in her cottage. Real or forgery – someone believes in the manuscript enough to attack an elderly woman.
Trethowan is assigned to the case and travels back to Yorkshire to immerse himself in a mare’s nest of wrong’uns consisting of a multimillionaire from the US, an ambitious academic from the local redbrick university, an eccentric archivist obsessed with Yorkshire’s literary heritage, a grimy evangelical preacher, and some Norwegian thugs. Someone has the manuscript – but who?
Robert Barnard, considered a crime writer’s crime writer, published more than 40 novels between the much-loved Death of an Old Goat in 1974 and A Charitable Body in 2012. It also looks like he was something of an authority on the Brontës, having written a life of Emily and (jointly with Louise Barnard) A Brontë Encyclopedia.
One of his series characters is Perry Trethowan, who appeared in seven books between 1981 and 1987; this is the third. He’s a Scotland Yard detective with the build of a rugby player, an aristocratic heritage, a competitive wife, and a down-to-earth world-view, possibly coloured by Death by Sheer Torture, in which his eccentric father dies in extremely embarrassing circumstances.
He investigates by stirring up trouble and seeing what happens, and he doesn’t trust many people – especially academics, collectors, multimillionaires and evangelicals – so he has plenty of opportunities to exercise his dry wit in the course of this novel. The Revd Amos Macklehose of the Tabernacle of the Risen Moses, for example, is described as ‘All in all… as unattractive a specimen of clerical gentleman as you’d be likely to meet’ and his wife is ‘a hard-featured, doom-ridden sort of woman, predestination breathing from her nostrils’.
This is a good quick read, reminiscent of a Lovejoy novel (collectors in search of a macguffin, culminating in an explosively violent final scene), and recommended as a light literary mystery.
The Case of the Missing Brontë
First published (as The Missing Brontë) in the UK by HarperCollins, 1983
This edition Pan Books, 2016
176 pages in print
Source: Publisher review copy
Final destination: A keeper
Harriet Devine’s Blog: All in all, the book is a bit of a romp, in the nicest possible way. It’s crammed with entertaining characters, including the barking-mad librarian of a local library, the very dodgy head of a local pentecostal church, and a couple of terrifying Norwegian thugs. Perry stumbles rather blindly through it all, getting himself into some tricky situations along the way and having to deal with Jan’s charmingly bossy phone calls into the bargain.
Robert Barnard’s obituary in the Guardian: Although his fiction was better known and more widely appreciated in the US, Robert Barnard, who has died aged 76, was one of the leading exponents of the traditional English murder mystery, firmly in the cosy school of crime writing. It was a term he never denied or disparaged as he felt strongly that the goal of the crime writer was simply to entertain.