Death by Sheer Torture, by Robert Barnard

May 29, 2007 at 6:18 pm (Book review, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural, Travel)

I have the great good fortune to be going on a Smithonian tour in September entitled, “Mystery Lover’s England and Scotland.” Last year, a similarly themed tour, “Classic Mystery Lover’s England,” took us to Torquay on the South Devon coast, then to Dartmouth, Dartmoor, Chipping Campden in the Cotswolds, the Welsh border country, Oxford, and London. That trip was so fabulous – we had tea at the Randolph Hotel in Oxford with Colin Dexter! – that my husband and I decided to re-up, as it were, for this fall’s offering. The details concerning these trips are too numerous to go into at the moment, but I will say that one of the main reason we’re going again is that the trip is going to be run by the same incredibly dynamic and knowledgeable trio of women who ran the first one. If you’d like further information, here’s the link:

The list of recommended reading has been one of the special pleasures of these journeys. (These lists are available on the Smithsonian Journeys website.) On the list we just received, I was delighted to see an early title by Robert Barnard. Barnard is one of those highly respected veteran authors of crime fiction who are not nearly as well known in this country as they ought to be. I have read and enjoyed Barnard’s books for years, though I had never read any in the Perry Trethowan series, of which Death by Sheer Torture is the first. Turns out, the library owns but one copy of this gem, a poor beaten up little thing in library binding. I was in luck, since, like so many early numbers in worthy series by good writers, it’s out of print. The larger publishing houses, alas, seem more interested in snagging the next Da Vinci Code style blockbuster. By the way. if you have not read New Yorker writer Anthony Lane’s piece on Dan Brown’s magnum opus and the film made from it, you should:


[Robert Barnard receives the Cartier Diamond Dagger Award from the Crime Writers’ Association of Great Britain in 2003.]

Written in 1982, Death by Sheer Torture is in the mode of the classic English country house mystery. Scotland Yard enlists the help of their own Inspector Perry Trethowan when his father is murdered at the family’s estate, Harpenden House, in Northumberland. While Perry himself cannot head up the investigation, he can act as a spy, interacting with family members in a way that the “officials” on the case would not be able to do. Perry’s family is a trip; there’s no love lost on either side. In fact, it had been years since he had seen or spoken to his father. I admit that I was dismayed when I first began reading this book; I felt that the family was being painted in strokes so broad as to suggest caricature rather than characterization. That irritation receded, however, as Barnard’s sparkling, literate prose and witty dialogue gradually won me over. In the end, I found it an altogether delightful read.

Adddendum Number One: How to obtain out-of-print mysteries:

1. Try your local public library. If they don’t own the book you’re looking for, they may be able to get it for you via interlibrary loan.

2. Try a used bookstore in your area. Better yet, try a mystery bookstore, if you’re lucky enough to have one that’s relatively close by. Here in the Baltimore/Washington area, we had several up until a few years ago. We now are down to one: the venerable Mystery Loves Company in Baltimore’s Fells Point neighborhood. Sometimes even if such stores sell mainly new books, they’ll still be able to help you locate an older title.

3. Buy online. You can do this on some of the websites of mystery bookstores. If that doesn’t work for you, try a more general site like ABE Books ( ) or Amazon. A good online site for purchasing used mysteries is Grave Matters .

Addendum Number Two: All hail the small publishing houses! There are several that are working hard to bring out quality mystery and crime fiction. Two of my favorites are Poisoned Pen Press ( ) and Soho Crime ( ).


  1. Bon voyage to us! « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] take in the glories of Yorkshire and Edinburgh. We’ll be meeting some of my favorite authors: Robert Barnard, Martin Edwards, Ann Cleeves, and Ian Rankin. Should be great […]

  2. Literature leads the way, Part Two « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Scotland” consisted of eleven titles. I have blogged five of them in the past several weeks: Death by Sheer Torture by Robert Barnard, The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, Knots and Crosses by Ian Rankin, Dr. Jekyll and […]

  3. Haworth and the Brontes « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] but in fact, I got much more out of this particular visit. This was partly due to the presence of Robert Barnard, one of my favorite mystery authors. For Barnard, the family history of the Brontes and their […]

  4. A Fall from Grace, by Robert Barnard « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] is the third mystery by Barnard that I’ve read this year. His novels are set in Yorkshire; Death by Sheer Torture and The Corpse at the Haworth Tandoori were on the reading list for the trip to Yorkshire and […]

  5. Last Post, by Robert Barnard « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] You’re Killing Me for the complete rundown.) An early title in the Perry Trethowan series, Death by Sheer Torture, is a riff on the country house mystery tradition, at which Barnard pokes exhuberant fun in the […]

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