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Political Suicide

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Corgi, London, 1988
(price: 2.50; 176 pages)
(originally published by William Collins, 1986)

The blurb on the back:

'Superintendent Sutcliffe gets his dentures into sticky murder when he sits in on the hustings. Volatile Mr Barnard gets it all together, this time in a wickedly funny hatchet job on the mother of parliaments' - The Observer

When the MP for Bootham East was fished out of the Thames, it looked like a clear case of suicide. But as the by-election for his successor got under way, some very murky political waters were stirred up. The local Labour party had been hijacked by the Looney (sic) Left, the Tory Party had a most unpleasant young candidate (with dubious City connections) foisted upon it, and the Alliance candidate had something nasty in his past he was trying to conceal.
By polling day it was very obvious that the political suicide was no suicide - but murder.

'What makes this a star turn is Barnard's sharp, often hilarious picture of the hustings. An irresistible party piece' - The Guardian
'Stylishly above the norm for detective stories' -

Unlike many of the political novels here, this is no vision of the future. Published in 1986 and set in the present (the gender of the Prime Minister is carefully unspecified, whilst the Leader of the Opposition is 'a red-haired, smiling man, whom everybody seemed to like, but nobody much wanted to vote for') Political Suicide is somewhere between a detective novel and a comedy. On the one hand, a police detective is trying to investigate what he is convinced is the suspicious death of a Northern Tory MP; on the other, there is the story of a by-election: the selection procedures of the candidates, the campaigning, the media coverage.

The first of these strands doesn't amount to a great deal - the story rolls along easily enough, but you never quite care enough to worry whodunnit. The by-election, however, is nicely done, like Barnard had been there and seen the stupidity of the process. (This, you've got to remember, is the mid-1980s, when by-elections seemed to mean something - there was no chance of overthrowing the massive Tory majority in the Commons, but the struggle between the SDP and Labour was quite genuine, and each result was pored over to read the runes of Labour's decline.)

Along the way there are plenty of swipes at the cynicism of contemporary politics in both the major parties, and at the amateurism of the SDP, together with some accurate descriptions of the face of modern Britain. I particularly liked the architectural account of the Northern city where the action is largely set:

The Anglican church was a neo-Gothic construction, ponderously uninspired, the work of a Victorian architect who had sold virtually identical designs to Catholics in Bolton and Congregationalists in Bristol. (pp.29-30)

Can't see it making any sense to anyone who wasn't paying attention to the political scene of the 1980s though.

Pointless pedantic rant: The Observer's reference to the 'mother of parliaments' is one of those misquotes that really annoy me. John Bright (1811-89) actually said: 'England is the mother of parliaments'. That's England. Not Westminster. Not the English Parliament. The country is the mother of parliaments. You'd have thought the Observer at least might get it right.


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