Friday, October 23, 2009

3 x Cyril Hare

I discovered that while the main library only has one Cyril Hare book, my little local branch has three, so after being so sorely annoyed at The Echo Maker I really felt that I needed a Detective Story Break, which means not a break from, but an indulgence of, so to speak. I promptly skedaddled over and managed to involve all the two staff there into looking for the books since I couldn't find them myself (I was scanning for hardbacks, but they are slim little Penguins that were hiding on the paperback shelf they keep beside the English language section). Anyway, three Cyril Hares - three! Imagine my delight. I meant to ration them, but I didn't. Hare has, according to Wikipedia, written ten novels, one collection of short stories, a play (probably based on one of the books I've just read, An English Murder) and a children's book (I'm particularly intrigued by that). So if I only count the novels then I've now read 40 % of his works. They seem to be surprisingly scarce - admittedly I've only looked briefly on E-bay. However, I think I'm going to start looking for vintage crime more devotedly. There are several authors I really enjoy that are most easily found through Internet shopping, and I think I can afford to now and then buy a few second-hand books that way. One of my more modest dreams is to have my own little crime fic book shelf somewhere in the house (this dream needs a less modest dream to be fulfilled first, namely that of a larger place to live, but hey).

So, the books then, which I read according to age, oldest first:

Tenant for Death: The first Hare I read, Tragedy at Law, is according to the biography on the back of this Penguin edition, probably Hare's most well-known book, but Tenant for Death is his first, from 1937. It introduces Inspector Mallet of Scotland Yard as the hero - I believe his other hero, Mr Pettigrew, appears first in Tragedy at Law. In this book a well-known business man and man of finance is found dead in a house in London, a house that for a month has been let to a mr James, who is now nowhere to be found. Not only that, but mr James seems to have not really existed, he has left no paper trail and seems generally suspect. There are a load of other suspects too, and a few red herrings. I did guess some of the final unravellings correctly, but I admit it was more gut feelings than logic at work. It's a pleasing book, but possibly still a bit raw in style, you know? One thing I was struck by, that I liked especially, is that just like a lot of authors in the genre Hare has included the "young couple" - but with a slight twist. In detective stories there often seems to be a young couple, or at least a young person, included to provide a sort of backdrop of innocence and freshness to the sordid affair of murder. At the end, they will come up roses and walk hand in hand into the sunset. Ngaoi Marsh often has a young girl - an aspiring actress or poor relation or friend - as a main character - obviously innocent, the only one who can be innocent, and so to speak the eyes of the reader. Hare has a young couple alright, but they are not as nice as I usually find them to be. Indeed, the young man has several flaws in his character and some growing up to do, and Hare clearly includes him among the suspects. I quite like that, that no-one is "the good one". Oh, and I also especially liked that The Young Lady's adored dog is called Gandhi, which exasperates her military father, because she should be ashamed to name a pet after that menace to the British Empire. Nice little period flavour there!

An English Murder: From 1951. Christmas is being celebrated at Warbeck Hall, and a slightly motley group of people are assembled for the holiday. At first we think that the English murder referred to in the title is going to be the one that is classic in vintage crime fiction - there is a house party, and one among the party is killed, and the rest are all suspects - you know the drill. But there is a fabulous twist here that I could not have seen coming since I lack the expert knowledge that would have been required  - which in a way is a pity but not really. It's fun to see the classic formula re-worked like this. The Hall is dilapitaded and almost all servants gone, the Lord is dying, his brother (or was it cousin?) is a politician of the new welfare state, responsible for financial decisions that contribute to his brother's (cousin's?) inability to keep up the former glory of the place, and the detective of the story is a foreign historian, Doctor Bottwink, who delights in the little quirks of Englishness he comes across. Lovely. As usual with Hare the solution of the mystery hangs on law, and not so much on alibis and such. It's very informative as well as entertaining.

He Should Have Died Hereafter: From 1958. I liked this one the least (but all is relative, remember!), because it seemed to leave more loose ends.. it just wasn't quite as fluid. We're back with mr Pettigrew, who has retired from practising law and is on holiday in (on?) Exmoor with his wife. On the day of the hunt he sees a dead man on the moor, but when he returns with help the body is gone. Inspector Mallet is also retired and living nearby, and together they string the facts together to figure out what crime has been done and why. Lovely scenes from the courtrooms, fantastic. Grisham can feck off, this is a lawyer who writes about what he knows! Anyway, one of the loose ends is that Pettigrew as a child found a dead body in the exact same spot, and has suppressed that memory ever since, but this just peters out into nothing, and I don't really see the point of it being there at all.

Unexpectedly I can write this AND POST IT at work since somebody left a computer on. Naughty person. I'm thrilled though and not in the least ashamed of taking advantage of it.

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