The Godfather: Peter Corris on Robert Goddard
In 1986, when Jean was working as a commissioning editor for Transworld Publishing, she recommended a book to me. It was an historical novel by Robert Goddard, published that year. The title was Past Caring and the publishers, who had some of their bigwigs in Australia at the time, were pushing the book pretty hard.
I read it and was very impressed. The story concerned a youngish historian, under a cloud for sexual malfeasance, drawn into the investigation of an event in Edwardian political history.
Money was on offer, along with an intellectual and professional challenge. The book was right up my street. I was familiar with the period, had been an academic historian myself, and relished nothing more than an historical novel with elements of mystery, exotic locations and romance.
In the years that followed, Goddard continued to produce novels with similar characters and plots but set in different times and places. In Pale Battalions (1988), a novel of World War I, is an intriguing story about the true identity of a supposed casualty of the war. Painting the Darkness (1989), which I consider to be his best book and one of the best historical novels I’ve ever read, was loosely based on the Tichborne Case, about a claimant to a title and a fortune. I feel confident in my judgment about its place in Goddard’s work because over the next 30 years he produced more than 20 novels and I’ve read almost all of them. Some were better than others, of course, with such an output, but only one or two were disappointing.
Goddard’s formula was to have the seeker after truth led astray and tempted by others, but staunchly determined to peel back layers of doubt and duplicity, and it worked well to create interesting characters and situations. His subjects ranged from classical paintings, intrigues involving the Spanish Civil War, musical compositions and the origins of photography. When I questioned an audience at one of the talks I gave about my own historical novels, enquiring who had read Goddard, there was a forest of hands in the air. Librarians have told me that he is much borrowed and each book is eagerly awaited – a writer’s dream.
Interestingly, when Goddard wanted to place a character at a distance, he usually placed him or her in Australia. Once or twice this led him into error and I wrote to him pointing this out, while stressing my appreciation of his books. We corresponded amicably back and forth and I met him when he visited Australia for a writing event. We were on a panel together and got on well. He mentioned, good-humouredly, that one of his books had been adapted for a film which, when he saw it, bore no resemblance to the book he’d written. An exaggeration perhaps, but something many writers, including me, have thought about film versions of their work. Good humour is the only reaction, along with Hemingway’s dictum: ‘Take the money and run.’
Over the years I’ve bought quite a few of Goddard’s novels, got some for review and borrowed others from libraries. When recently I wanted to see what was newly available I found that only four of his books were audios – Past Caring and three from his middle period. Nothing recent. I decided to tackle Past Caring to see whether it still impressed me as much as it had 30 years before. It did. Even though I remembered the crucial deception on which everything turned, I’d forgotten the workings out of the plot and was drawn in much as before. And there was a bonus: the narrator, Paul Shelley, was a master of accents – essential to a good reading of this book. Shelley did a perfect South African accent for the villain of the piece, a charming imitation of Lloyd George’s Welsh lilt and a near perfect impersonation of the bulldog delivery of Winston Churchill. This, harnessed to Goddard’s narrative skills, helped the story to come to life. I’ll reacquaint myself with the other audio offerings but I wish his more recent works were available so I could check on how he’s holding up all these years later.