When I embarked on reading The Barchester Murders I said that prequels such as this worried me for a number of reasons including the the need, as I see it, to be respectful of the original source, particularly in marketing. I was also worried that by crossing genres into the realm of crime fiction this would detract from faithfulness to the spirit and intent of the original works. I would also like to see that such a book would stand on its own merits rather than riding on the coat-tails of the original.
So how does The Barchester Murders fare?
Forgive me but it really is a curate’s egg. (Don’t groan!)
I have real concerns that the plot requires changes which show insufficient respect for the original. A key issue on which much of the plot revolves requires Mr Harding’s daughters to be the same age (non-identical twins to all intents and purposes). Now Trollope very clearly has Susan Grantly (nee Harding) some years older than her as yet unmarried (at the start of The Warden) sister Eleanor. This gives her a very different social status in Victorian England and a degree of moral authority over her younger sibling which would be absent in twins. I really think that this is a change too far, which cannot be accepted by readers of Trollope’s series.
That said, the introduction of Trollope as a character in the book does work for me. Trollope has said that he regards his characters as old friends who are as real to him as his flesh and blood friends in the real world. The reverse situation, where Trollope becomes a character in a novel set in Barsetshire, is I think a valid and entertaining idea. Trollope is also pretty well written as a character. You get the sense of his decency and gentleness. There is also some signs of vulnerability – he is at this stage, remember, not the successful author but a Post Office official who has only in the last few years found his true worth in that role and, as a writer, has published three financially unsuccessful novels. I loved it when Susan Grantly advises him: “I’m not sure that any author would find it easy to win popularity by setting his novels in Ireland…You should have chosen a more congenial setting.”
There are times when Best’s research is obtrusive – Trollope rather unnecessarily goes into details about his unhappy childhood in a conversation with Mr Harding.
The other characters stay reasonably faithful to their originals though Archdeacon Grantly is required to be a less unbending in his stances than Trollope has him.
Indeed there are anachronistic views, mostly held by Trollope, who was more socially conservative than portrayed here. He is seen to be a little too broadminded with views on the treatment of women that are more in tune with the 21st than the 19th century.
But does the book work as a crime novel? Broadly, yes. If we accept the removal of the age gap between the sisters, then the plot hangs together. There is suspense over which of the characters Trollopians know and love might or might not be a murderer. Of course readers of Trollope will know who survives to appear in The Warden and therefore who might be vulnerable to becoming the murderer’s next victim but Best generates tension out of the situation with beloved characters featuring as the prime suspect. There is even a humourous point where suspicion falls on Trollope himself.
In fact, the book would probably work better as a pure crime novel for the non-Trollopian, unfettered by foreknowledge of who will appear in Trollope’s novels without a stain on their character, but there is the risk that the book is only of interest to Trollopians.
Overall, I could not recommend the book to a Trollope fan without the caveat that Best plays fast and loose with certain “facts” from Trollope’s Barchester but, accepting these issues, I think that it will find more favour with Trollopians who want to read more about their favourite characters, and who care about them already, than with non-Trollopians for whom, I suspect, it will not stand on its own two feet.