Robert Barnard's clever mystery might be compared with various milestones examining the trials of adolescence - among them, ''Lord of the Flies,'' ''Catcher in the Rye,'' and ''If.'' The novel is more satire than suspense, but Mr. Barnard is such a master of his craft that it is completely successful and very funny. According to one of its students, Burleigh, an English boys' school, is ''one of the 25 worst schools in the country'' - perhaps a slight exaggeration. Burleigh does suffer from the almost criminal frugality of its headmaster and a general lack of organization. When the head boy is murdered following a series of pernicious pranks, a local detective discovers how badly out of hand things have actually become.
The novel's success owes much to the skillful handling of a central point of view wherein no single character emerges as more important than the rest, and all are suspect. The riotous dialogue confirms the cynic's view that children do not after all miss very much but may interpret their findings in most unexpected ways.