When readers first meet Station Sergeant John Barlow in The Station Sergeant, he’s peddling his bike through the countryside of Northern Ireland in a raging downpour on the way to visit one of the farms in his Ballymena constituency. It’s a wonderful image, and one that sets the tone for what’s to come.
Barlow is a man not easily deterred, by nature or his fellow man. As a wily veteran of both the military (World War II) and the local constabulary, his hardheaded nature is a quality that serves him well and sets his direct supervisors—who are not quite comfortable with Barlow’s rough edges and rule-skirting approach to policing—on edge.
As The Station Sergeant opens, Barlow rides into a storm both literally and figuratively.
Mixed in amongst the crashing thunder, Barlow hears the distinctive sound of gunfire. Pushing on to the farm the shots appear to be coming from, Barlow happens upon the body of farmer Stoop Taylor. Given that Stoop was not the most popular man, the list of suspects is initially somewhat daunting.
The case would be challenging enough in itself, but adding to the uphill battle is the fact Barlow’s recently been saddled with a new District Inspector, one who appears ready to stop at nothing to see Barlow busted down in rank and transferred, if not outright booted from the force. Add into the mix the Dunlops, a local family of ne’er-do-wells and aspiring criminals, and Barlow has his work cut out for him. And that’s just on the professional front.
Barlow’s also having problems on the home front. His wife, Maggie, has long been struggling with mental illness. Recently, however, what used to be merely distracting and eccentric behavior has become more and more erratic, bordering on violent. It’s something Barlow is having a hard time wrapping his arms around, and the increasingly inhospitable home environment is taking its toll on both Barlow and their teenage daughter, Vera. Despite bringing his considerable policing skill and hardheaded determination to bear on both fronts, Barlow will discover some battles are just too big to be won.
Picking up shortly after the events of The Station Sergeant, Barlow By The Book finds Barlow once again facing challenges both at home and the station.
Still at odds with his immediate superiors, Barlow finds himself saddled with an unwanted sidekick, Constable Frank Wilson. Scuttlebutt around the station has it that Wilson is a rat who’s been strategically placed to dig up dirt on Barlow and report back to the big bosses. Sensing the young man has the potential to be a good officer, Barlow takes it upon himself to try and teach Wilson the ropes…without managing to hang himself in the process.
Easier said than done when a series of robberies turns violent, culminating with the murders of two citizens making an evening bank deposit, an outburst of violence Barlow’s daughter, Vera, is caught up in as a bystander. Despite having more reason than anyone to bring the thieves/killers to justice, Barlow is not convinced well-known local petty criminal Geordie Dunlop is to blame, despite his bosses’ determination to pin the crimes on him. Barlow served with Dunlop during World War II and just doesn’t believe Dunlop has it in him.
Meanwhile, Barlow is dealing with the fact his daughter, Vera, is now an independent young woman, one who needs more space than their cramped, decades-old little house presently affords. Realizing he’d been neglecting Vera’s needs while trying to keep his mentally ill wife, Maggie, placated, Barlow pledges to finally do right by Vera—a plan immediately derailed when Maggie is unexpectedly released from the mental hospital she’d been confined to following a violent outburst.
And because the deck isn’t already stacked enough against him, Barlow soon finds himself suspended from duty and under threat of being brought up on serious charges for his alleged mishandling of a series of minor crimes involving prominent members of the community. Hardheaded to the end, Barlow continues his investigations off the books, even managing to coax young Constable Wilson to tentatively straddle both sides of the line in the process. It’s a race to the wire to see if Barlow can solve the crimes and clear his name before he’s drummed off the force for good.
Station Sergeant John Barlow is one of the most wonderfully drawn characters I’ve had the pleasure of reading. Author John McAllister’s decision to set the stories in late 1950s/early 1960s semi-rural Northern Ireland with a World War II veteran protagonist makes for a refreshing change of pace from big city mysteries and jaded modern police and PIs. And though Barlow is clearly the engine who drives the stories, McAllister has surrounded him with an incredibly colorful supporting cast. From the higher-ups on the force out to get him, to current town drunk and Barlow’s longtime friend and wartime superior, Major Edward Adair, to the group of “usual suspects” and petty criminals who pop up in both books, McAllister has given each member of the town a distinct personality and role to play.
McAllister also doesn’t shy away from tackling issues that while unlikely to raise much of an eyebrow in today’s climate, were decidedly foreign and taboo during the time of the books’ setting and, as such, make for a bit of a sticky wicket for Barlow. Specifically, Maggie’s schizophrenia is looked at not only in terms of how it affects the family dynamic and atmosphere, but in the second book McAllister also delves into Maggie’s family history and reveals disturbing events that may well have contributed to or exacerbated her illness. Barlow also inadvertently walks in on some members of the community engaged in same-sex relations, something explicitly against the legal code, and has to decide how to handle that knowledge—use it to his advantage given one of the individuals is married to one of the people causing trouble for Barlow, or show compassion and not break up that person’s family and bring pain, and shame, onto them and their children.
Through it all, McAllister’s stripped down, straightforward prose exquisitely captures the feel of a bygone era and the down-to-earth people who inhabited it, and Station Sergeant John Barlow is a welcome throwback to a time when people in a community understood that for better or worse, all their differences aside, they were in things together.