Hazel McHaffie

In praise of Robert Goddard

I’ve just had the great indulgence of three long days secreted away on trains travelling the length of the country, keeping myself deliberately out of communication by phone or email. Hours and hours lost in books! Bliss.

You may remember one of my New Year resolutions was to acknowledge brilliance when I found it. This week I want to sing the praises of one of Britain’s best mystery writers whose books were my companions on the said journeys.

Robert Goddard is one of those authors whose skill leaves you reeling. His debut novel, Past Caring, is in my personal top five. I rarely read a book twice – too many books, too little time – but this one I did. And I was riveted both times.

The hero is flawed – a disgraced teacher, a history graduate, with a failed marriage and no prospects. His help is enlisted by a shadowy figure in Madeira, to research a 70-year old mystery. The backdrop is the Liberal Government’s constitutional crisis just before the First World War and the Suffragette movement, and in Past Caring the historical context really comes alive. Fluid writing, intricate plotting with loads of twists, believable characterisation – a totally gripping read.

Take no FarewellGoddard’s fond of flawed protagonists. Take no Farewell, another favourite, features a failing architect – a deliberate ploy to enable the author to indulge his love of architecture of that period. Geoffrey Staddon has never forgotten his first important commission, to build the best house he ever designed. But when life is disintegrating around him he reads that the love of his life, Consuela, the mistress of that house, is on trial for murder by poisoning. Remorse and shame come flooding back. He absolutely has to save her from the gallows. Twists and turns, revelations and secrets, keep the reader on tenterhooks to the very end.

So what can we say of Robert Goddard overall? He specialises in suspense and intrigue, unlikely heroes, altered reality, redemption. He’s a stickler for authenticity in his locations and history. He’s the kind of author who does his research thoroughly – but he has the skill to make the topics accessible to the uninitiated. The reader is left with the choice to pursue the contexts to whatever level of detail they choose, not doing so doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the story itself. And the range of subjects this writer weaves through his varied stories is a measure of his own great interest in life in all its forms and vagaries.

But if you like simple linear plots – he’s not for you. Just when you think you’ve grasped the way things fit, he spins you back out of control again. Relationships, eras, acts and consequences, they’re all juggled simultaneously. And if you find it hard to hold names in your head, you’ll need a very large piece of paper to list all the characters and how they fit … or did, until the plot twisted for the umpteenth time. But if you love Prague or Madeira or Devon or wherever the book is set, you’ll find his narrative so evocative of the place you’ll be walking those streets with him.

Two reviews, I think, sum him up:
‘Combines the expert suspense manipulation skills of a Daphne du Maurier romance with those of a John le Carré thriller’ New York Times

‘His narrative power, strength of characterisation and superb plots, plus the ability to convey the atmosphere of the period quite brilliantly, make him compelling reading’ Books

I’ve been adding to my Goddard collection for years and was recently delighted to find several tucked away in a National Trust property bookstall, with an honesty box next to them. Pearls indeed. OK, OK, OK, I know that authors should blaze a trail for writers everywhere receiving a just reward for their labour. Of course they should! But I really couldn’t resist these. And the money did go to a worthy cause. I hope Robert Goddard would be somewhat mollified by this tribute to him.

I’ve never met him but there’s a fascinating interview with him on //www.youtube.com/watch?v=BTAXug1lJBE&feature=related
in which he explains why he writes as he does. And he interviews as well as he writes. Enjoy!

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