A Stranger in the Family: yet another winner from the pen of Robert Barnard

July 24, 2010 at 10:54 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Kit Philipson grew up as the cherished only child of a Glasgow couple. But scarcely had he attained adulthood than a startling revelation alters his perception of himself. His mother, lying desperately ill, tells him that he was adopted.

No sooner has he taken in this new truth about himself than Kit is visited by confusing and disturbing memories. Researching his past, he comes upon a newspaper article that describes the kidnapping of a three-year-old English child. The abduction had occurred while the family was vacationing in Sicily. The Novello family, to be more precise. The Novellos of Leeds.

Straight away, Kit presents himself at 35 Seldon Road. He rings the  bell. No answer. He tries the door and, finding it unlocked, lets himself into the house. He passes through the front hall into the kitchen. Family photographs in the hall, cooking smells…everything is faintly familiar:

He was so rapt in the past that he jumped when the door handle was pulled down. through the frosted glass he could only see a shape, but he thought it was a woman’s, and was glad.

‘What are you doing in my kitchen?’

There was only a slight quaver in the voice. He said the first thing that came into his head.

‘I thought you wouldn’t mind.’

Isla Novello quickly forms a notion of the identity of the youth facing her. Kit confirms her surmise. They embrace.

And yet…

This welcome home is not quite the effusive gesture Kit had anticipated. Something is missing. Something is not quite right.

And so, what should have been the happy conclusion of a quest is actually the beginning of a larger mystery. Kit’s search for his true identity is agonized and relentless. Who were his abductors all those years ago, and how did the abduction happen? Just who is he – Kit Philipson or Peter Novello? Or both…

A Stranger in the Family is really about the search for home, for a place where one belongs unequivocally. Kit Philipson is a wonderful character, and this is a wonderful book.

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When Ron and I were in England in 2007, we had the pleasure of hearing Robert Barnard speak at the Bronte parsonage in Haworth (pronounced, I was told, “Howwith”). Barnard has served as chairman of The Bronte Society, and he is passionate about scholarship and preservation issues. In addition, he has written a biography of Emily Bronte.

Robert Barnard at the Bronte Parsonage in 2007. He spoke without notes and was riveting.

In the Spring issue of Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine, editor George Easter praises thriller writer Andrew Garve in the following terms: “And like Robert Barnard, he never wrote the same book twice.” I’ve been reading and enjoying Barnard’s crime fiction for years, and I concur with Easter completely. (Wikipedia’s entry includes a comprehensive list of Barnard’s oeuvre.)

In 2003, Robert Barnard was honored with the Cartier Diamond Dagger from the Crime Writers Association of Great Britain. This award is  bestowed on writers in the  field who have achieved excellence over a period of time. I can think of few authors more deserving of this accolade.

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I’ve reviewed the following Barnard novels in this space: Death by Sheer Torture, A Fall from Grace, and Last Post.

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