Review: Out of the Blackout by Robert Barnard

Growing up in my house was a constant refrain of “Tomayto, Tomahto.” Dad liked red wine and oysters. Mom was a teetotaler and hated any seafood but canned tuna (which hardly counts, face it.) My brother built model airplanes and read the entire Dune series (all two dozen). I made up interpretive dances to the My Fair Lady soundtrack, on roller skates.

But one thing we all agreed on was a good mystery. On the wall-to-wall bookshelves in the family room, below Mom’s Barbara Taylor Bradford and Dad’s Edward Gibbon, above the Encyclopedia Brittannica, the rows of Christie and Sayers stood at the perfect height — easy for everyone.

Mysteries read and re-read were our mental comfort food, a palate-cleanse between homework, or a morsel to tide us over those dreary stretches between library visits.
So when my dad hands me a mystery and says, “You’ll like this,” it’s a splendid gift, an invocation of our family resemblance. A while back, Dad gave me Robert Barnard’s Out of the Blackout, and I had the pleasure of opening it this month.

Out of the Blackout is a rare creature: a psychological mystery that reads like a scavenger hunt, full of subtlety and the protagonist’s inner life, but without the creeping dread or stomach-knotting darkness this subgenre so often relies on.

Barnard shows, as Hannah Arendt described, “the banality of evil.” The prevailing attitude of our age that normal people are basically good and wickedness is pathology, fuels a fascination with twisted minds and sick (and sickening) behavior. But people needn’t be sadistic or insane to do very bad things. The callous, the venal, the arrogant, and the selfish perpetrate more wrongs every day than all the world’s psychopaths combined.

Our story begins in the London Blitz of 1941, when a trainload of schoolchildren arrives in an English country village with one extra passenger: a little boy named Simon Thorn. Simon isn’t on the list of evacuees. A patchwork investigation, hampered by communication breakdowns and bombed-out archives, can find no record of him at all.

Vague but terrifying snatches of memory convince Simon that his mother died violently, and not from a bomb. His peaceful and nurturing upbringing in the country wipes out the specifics of his past, but can’t erase the central question: who is he, and what really happened to his mother?

As an adult, Simon pursues the truth — at first reluctantly, then doggedly, through the devious alleys of his own mind and the fractured neighborhoods of postwar London. Barnard traces Simon’s story across decades and miles, driven by the power of a child’s primal need to find Mother.

So much of Simon’s story is interior, it could easily bog down in emotional digressions. Instead, Barnard sketches Simon’s life with deft strokes. His growing-up, his best friend, his marriage are revealed in a few telling details while the focus remains on the trail of clues.

The delight of a good mystery is the reveal, the mental “loop the loop” that reverses our view of everything. A great reveal feels surprising and inevitable at the same time. It’s terribly hard to get right. If the key evidence is obvious, there’s no surprise, but if it’s hidden too well the solution becomes an unsatisfying deus-ex-machina.

Robert Barnard gets it exactly right.

It looks like Scribner has issued a new edition of the e-book. (And I must say, I love the new trend of simple, colorful mystery covers.) If you download the sample, this is the cover you’ll see.

I read the paperback 2006 edition shown at the top of the post, issued by Felony & Mayhem (one of my favorite mystery publishers). They kindly include “If you like” matchups on each book. They recommend Out of the Blackout to fans of Ruth Rendell and John Lawton. I recommend it to everyone.

By request, I’ll be including a “squick factor” rating on new reviews, to give tenderhearted readers a heads-up on graphic or disturbing material. Naturally, anything to do with war and murder addresses ugly topics. However, in this book the protagonist’s distance from actual events and the author’s light touch in conveying the story make Out of the Blackout‘s Squick Factor = Nil to Meh.

For a sample of what I consider Squick Factor = Nil, you can check out my free short story, “Mister Mottley and the Key of D.”
Squick Factor Range:
0 – Nil.
1 – Meh.
2 – Kinda.
3 – Oh yah, you betcha.
4 – GAAAHHH! Nuke it from space!

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