-Reviewed by Elinor Walpole-
Robert Barnard’s Rogue’s Gallery is a collection of dark short stories and unnerving mysteries. Although renowned for his crime writing Barnard’s tales in this offering do not feature many crime capers or detectives (except our Nordic dog-detective in ‘Where Mongrels Fear to Tread’) so rather than the thrill of the chase the focus is instead on forbidden urges and desires. The unifying theme of the collection seems to be unusual families with tales of absent parents, incest, and parricide.
Barnard’s storytelling style is to really bring out a character’s point of view in an ambivalent and precarious situation, tracking the decision making process carefully. The purposeful third person prose takes precedence over description, setting and details, working to lead you by the hand down the twisted path. However it also has the effect of blending the stories together into one homogenous mass; although the voices are different there is not much variety in the storytelling style. This has its own charm with each story having a predictable trajectory, and repeated momentum, but it also serves to make the stories feel paradoxically ‘safe’ despite the disturbing subject matter.
Those that I personally liked the most were those that dealt with discomfiting family dynamics; the other areas that were explored in the collection impressed me less. The supernatural powers of a cursed painting was fun but wound up where expected and a re-imagining of the Hamlet story and Mozart’s experiences in pre-Victorian England I found a little glib and in the case of the Hamlet pastiche, tedious. While some may find the reinvention of Hamlet as ‘Hammy’ who ‘spent most of his time in amateur dramatics…which is how he acquired the diminutive of his name’ hilarious, I found it off-putting.
There are also self-reflexive parts of the narrative that reference the writer’s dedication to his chosen form such as ‘Was it some kind of crime novel, where the reader is offered information but in a way calculated to mislead?’ And in another tale ‘This was going to be one of those in which the wrong suspect is fitted up for a murder he, or in fact she, didn’t do’.
Overall Rogue’s Gallery is an entertaining package of short stories that makes good light reading but isn’t challenging enough for my taste. My criticism would be that the stories feel burdened by twists that are just a little bit too predictable. Although in some of the stories this predictability throws over the tale a sense of wry humour, in others it feels like it weighs the story down. The collection reads like a series of playful experiments in form where some are more successful than others, but there are genuinely moving moments and passages of great pathos among them. Literary Review says ‘Barnard always makes it look so easy’ and this ease does come across in the writing, but also imbues a lack of depth.