Classic Crime

Cyril Hare

Cyril Hare was the pseudonym used by Alfred Alexander Gordon Clark. Born in 1900 in Surrey, Clark was educated at Rottingdean and graduated with a first. He studied law, (his knowledge of law was to feature heavily in his mystery novels), eventually being called to the Bar in 1924.

Clark pieced his pseudonym from Hare Court where his chambers were based and Cyril Mansions where he lived after marrying his wife, Barbara in 1933. They had one son and two daughters.

During the Second World War, Clark toured as a Judge’s Marshal, this experience was to be used in his most famous work, Tragedy at Law. During the way years he also worked at the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions and for a short time, at the Ministry of Economic Warfare.

In 1950, Clark was appointed county court judge in Surrey and it was through this role that, combined with his time as Judge’s Marshal, that was prominent in his novel, Tragedy in Law which introduced Francis Pettigrew, an unsuccessful barrister. The first three Cyril Hare novels were cases for Inspector Mallett before teaming up with Francis Pettigrew in Tragedy in Law. Whereas Pettigrew appeared in five more novels, Mallett was to appear only once more in He Should Have Died Hereafter - not the catchiest of titles and later changed to Untimely Death. This last title was hailed by P.D. James as one of her favorite crime novels of all time.

Hare also produced An English Murder without either Mallett or Pettigrew in the driving seat. Instead, the detective work is left to Dr. Bottwink, a man of indeterminate Eastern European origins who is caught up in a series of deaths over the festive season.

Clark suffered from T.B. during the Second World War and his health never fully recovered after that. He died suddenly at the age of 57.

Review: An English Murder

It is Christmas and remote Warbeck Hall has been cut off from civilisation by a torrential snowstorm. The current Lord Warbeck nears the end of his days and soon the title will be passed to his son, Robert who is not an honourable man. The other guests include Sir Julius Warbeck, Mrs. Carstairs, Lady Camilla and Sir Julius’ bodyguard, Rogers. With Briggs, a butler of the old guard and Dr. Bottwink, a man of indeterminate origin who has been allowed to peruse and translate the Warbeck archive, this motley crew gather together for an awkward Christmas which is made worse by a violent murder on Christmas Eve. By Christmas Day another two of the residents will be dead.

What makes Hare’s novel stand apart from the normal mysteries that were in fashion during the Golden Age of crime fiction is that the author’s work here is multi-layered. Not only are we given a very clever mystery at the heart of this story, but it is a treatise of the dying days of the aristocracy. Hare casts an piercing eye over those who have been raised in the upper classes but after years of entitlement, those hey-days are in the distant past as lack of money makes these big mansions that were once palaces, now a money pit, buildings rapidly falling in to decay. Sir Julius is one who comes from a privileged background but is seen as a traitor for crippling those he once brushed shoulders with in his capacity of Chancellor of the Exchequer in the current government. His standing on both sides of the fence is another twist to Hare’s plot.

Hare decided not to feature his dtectives, Mallett or Pettigrew here, but despite Sergeant Rogers taking control of the investigation, the novel follows the outsider, Dr. Bottwink. I say outsider as he is one in all spheres, an outsider in class as well as being a ‘foreigner’. It is quite uncomfortable that even Sir Julius has a dim view of ‘foreigners’! However, as Bottwink points out, he knows more of English history than those who declare themselves English through and through! In fact, it is a Historical event that leads Bottwink to fathom out the case.

Hare’s writing is sublime and I feel this author was years ahead of his time. This is not only a Christmas mystery, but an assault on the class society and their distain of any now deemed to be an equal. If you reach for any Christmas book, I would certainly recommend this to any lover of a great story, well-told and with three-dimensional characterisation. Hare is an author that deserves to be re-discovered!

An English Murder is now published by Faber Finds

Reviewed by: C.S.

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