Book review: An English Murder by Cyril Hare
Born in 1900, Cyril Hare was the nom de plume of Alfred Gordon Clark, a barrister in the chambers of a London practice which handled many of the great crime cases of the 1920s.
Hare served in various legal and judicial capacities, including time as a county court judge in Surrey, and many of his brilliant crime novels draw on his legal experience. He died prematurely in 1958 at the peak of his career as a judge, and at the height of his powers as a master of the whodunit.First published in 1951, An English Murder is a classic mystery filled
with Hare’s ingenious plotting, brilliant characterisation, acute social observation and sardonic humour.
The action takes place on Christmas Eve in an ailing peer’s snowbound country house where the cast list includes the Chancellor of the Exchequer, an obsequious butler and a visiting Czech professor.
Snow is falling fast as a group of family and friends gather for Christmas at Warbeck Hall, the country residence of Lord Warbeck who is seriously ill and wants to be among loved ones.
His doctor doubted he would live to see Christmas but Lord Warbeck is adamant that ‘nothing could be more ill-bred in a host than to choose such a moment to expire.’
Among the guests are Warbeck’s son and heir Robert, a troubled young man embroiled in a fascist league, visiting professor and historian Wenceslaus Bottwink and the peer’s cousin, Sir Julius Warbeck, a politician currently serving as Chancellor of the Exchequer.
But as midnight strikes on Christmas Eve, one of the house guests is poisoned. The local police cannot attend as the snowfall has made Warbeck Hall inaccessible so the case lands with the only policeman to hand, Sir Julius’ personal bodyguard.
So who is responsible? A scorned young lover, the passed-over cousin, the social climbing politician's wife, the professor or maybe the scheming butler? And can they survive long enough to find out?
Hare employs all those traditional whodunit tricks of the trade, constantly playing with our expectations and delivering an entertaining and absorbing murder mystery with wit, elegance and empirical detective work.
An English Murder is a pitch perfect crime classic, taking aim at contemporary social mores, providing a piercing insight into the post-war period of change and yet beguiling us with all its cosy Golden Age charm.
A Christmas cracker for all whodunit fans!
(Faber, paperback, £8.99)