December 04, 2004

The Skeleton in the Grass, by Robert Barnard

Unlike most mystery writers, Barnard seems never to repeat himself; each book has a new setting and new characters. This particular effort is remarkable less for the mystery and more for the time period--rural England in the interval between the Wars. The main characters, the Hallams, are a well-to-do family dedicated to Peace and the League of Nations. And though this was written in 1987, I found that a number of passages resonated with the events of the last several years. Here, one of the younger Hallams has just heard of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, and is on fire to go enlist in the fight against Franco. His father Dennis responds thus:

"Will, dear old thing," said Dennis earnestly, "I know how one reacts at first to things like this: one wants to fight back. It's an almost irresistable urge. But one has to resist it! Fighting back never settled anything."

"Fighting back settled the Spanish Armada," said Will, obviously clutching at the first historical example that came into his head. "What good have all your motions and resolutions done for Abyssinia? Did they stop Herr Hitler from marching into the Rhineland? They're just impotence with a loud voice."

"That's a very fine phrase, Will," said Dennis quietly. "But is that really all your mother's and my work means to you?"

Will looked momentarily shamefaced, and Helen said quickly:

"No, Dennis, you shouldn't put it like that. This is not a personal thing. The point is that if the governments of the world put their hearts into economic sanctions they really will work. And they'll work without the terrible senseless slaughter we went through in the war."

"If, if, if," said Will impatiently. "But of course they won't put their heart into sanctions. Half of them will be hoping Franco wins. Just watch Cousin Mostyn tomorrow. He'll be positively purring at the prospect. And he's in the government."

Substitute Iraq, Saddam, and the U.N. for Spain, Franco, and the League of Nations, and you've got a conversation that could have happened just months ago...and probably.

I have my doubts about economic sanctions; from what I can tell, economic sanctions are simply a way to hold the common folk of a country hostage for the good behavior of their leaders--and if their leaders truly cared about the common folk we probably wouldn't be thinking about sanctions. But clearly they won't work if some of the nations levying the sanctions are cheating. And from what I hear about the Oil-for-Food program and the actions of the French and the Russians in the years during which sanctions were in place on Iraq, it seems pretty clear that young Will Hallam is right on the money.

Other than that bit of political observation, though, the book was rather ho-hum.

Posted by Will Duquette at December 4, 2004 09:41 PM