OUT OF THE BLACKOUT by Robert Barnard


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Having pretty well conquered the traditional British-mystery form (Death by Sheer Torture, etc.), Barnard now offers a different sort of sleuthing--a man's 25-year quest for the secrets of his own war-orphan past--in a downbeat novel that's reminiscent of the two other (somewhat more compelling) departures by British masters of detection: P.D. James' Innocent Blood and Peter Dickinson's The Last Houseparty. Simon Cutheridge--his adoptive name--grows up in the West Country village of Yeasdon, having arrived, in 1941, as a five-year-old evacuee from blitzed London. What was Simon's real name? How did he come to join that busload of evacuated children? He can't remember--and doesn't much care--until chance visits to London's Paddington area fall him with feverish d‚j… vu and lead him to grim childhood haunts. By 1964, in fact, when Simon takes a scientific job at the London Zoo, he has tracked down the pathetic remnants of his real, Anglo family--and, incognito, he moves in with them as a boarder. Can foul old Mrs. Simmeter be Simon's grandmother? Can her creepy son Len (racist, anti-Semite, bygone Nazi sympathizer) be his father? Is cold, blowsy Connie his aunt? So it seems--as Simon uses snooping, sly chat, and library research to fill out his speculations on Simmeter family history. Worse yet, Simon soon becomes convinced that his mother (a supposed blitz victim) was actually murdered. But, though much family ugliness is exposed in a shrill showdown with the Pinter-ish Simmeters, it's not till 1979 that Simon at last understands the ironic secrets of his parentage. . .and how he could end up, semi-amnesiac, in 1941 Yeasdon. Barnard's cool, detached narration, so effective in his satiric mysteries, is more of a mixed blessing here: Simon's sporadic, rather low-key confrontations with his past don't generate much warmth or intensity. Still, though lacking the passion (and peril) of Innocent Blood and the chilling complexity of The Last Houseparty, this is a crisply effective study in family-skeleton rattling: intriguing, seedily detailed, and rigorously unsentimental.

Pub Date: June 25th, 1985
ISBN: 1933397322
Publisher: Scribners