CORPSE IN A GILDED CAGE
Robert Barnard

 


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Penguin USA, Reissued 1996
Reviewed by Joy Calderwood

Mystery, Contemporary England

Perce Spender unexpectedly becomes twelfth Earl of Ellesmere when the tenth and eleventh earls die within days of each other. Perce and his wife Elsie want nothing so much as to be rid of the family manor, Chetton Hall, and move back to their cozy house in Haig Street, Clapham. They miss their friends, they miss their local tavern, they miss city life. It is impossible to keep food warm on the long trek from the kitchen to the dining room. Squatters could live in the far-flung wings of the huge house and no one would even notice them.

The new branch of Spender heirs, in short, are not gentry. Mr. Lillewaite, man of business inherited by the twelfth Earl along with the estate, feels himself the lone guardian of family tradition. Perce Spender wants to sell the manor and its valuable furnishings, and use the money for the good of the family. His heir, Phil, is currently finishing up a jail sentence for grand larceny. The second son, Trevor, has so far managed to dodge the law, but ekes out his income from defrauding the government by acting in porno films. Only their daughter, Joan, has made good: a school teacher married to an insurance adjuster – both sharp characters with their eyes on the main chance.

Mr. Lillewaite’s only ally in his forlorn attempts to keep the estate together is Phil’s wife Dixie. Dixie fancies being lady of the manor. Mr. Lillewaite regrets his enforced choice of ally, because Dixie is a coarse, blatant bully. Her children, presented to Phil by various fathers, are questionable heirs. When she arrives for the Earl’s birthday party, she brings along not one but two men. Please, please, let Dixie be the one murdered, the reader begs, but it is not to be. Fate has something else in store for her. Her accommodating husband Phil, due to return from jail, is about to astonish everybody.

Author Robert Barnard’s satire is in indulgent mode in CORPSE IN A GILDED CAGE. The new earls are winning scamps, their family lives amusing. The reader speeds along, frequently tickled, enjoying events as they are sprung on us and characters as they evolve. Suspense is preserved in masterful fashion, with believable red herrings and plenty of time to cheer on our favorites.

Above all, CORPSE IN A GILDED CAGE is a satire of England’s class system. As Phil points out, the early Earls of Ellesmere, the high-class ones, did the same shady things their cockney descendants do, they just did them with a different accent. Barnard pokes fun at the manors of the nobility, the British government’s dealings with the rich, the laws of primogeniture, the institution of servanthood, and what it takes to be accepted among the gentry or the common people.

Award-winning Robert Barnard has been turning out skilled mysteries for decades. Many of his earlier books, such as DEATH OF A PERFECT MOTHER and DEATH OF A MYSTERY WRITER, are brutal satires, in which the victim is horrible enough to make a reader cringe. In the course of his career Barnard has learned to engage readers with likable characters, common settings, and situations readers can relate to. Best examples are SCHOOL FOR MURDER, POLITICAL SUICIDE, and MASTERS OF THE HOUSE. CORPSE IN A GILDED CAGE stands recommended along with these witty must-reads. It has not been reissued recently, but plenty of copies are still available on the internet.

December 2005 Review

 

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