A delightful and clever cosy detective fiction a la Agatha Christie, but with a unique touch of its own.
The snow is thick, the phone line is down, and no one is getting in or out of Warbeck Hall.
With friends and family gathered round the fire, all should be set for a perfect Christmas, but as the bells chime midnight, a mysterious murder takes place.
Who can be responsible? The scorned young lover? The lord's passed-over cousin? The social climbing politician's wife? The Czech history professor? The obsequious butler? And perhaps the real question is: can any of them survive long enough to tell the tale?
I quietly read this charming little book over a cold and wet afternoon this December. There was no storm where I was, but the richly descriptive prose of one Cyril Hare placed me firmly in a snow-locked Warbeck Hall of my own.
In fact, so ensconced in the writing was I, that I could almost taste the sherry and Christmas cake, and was positively overjoyed when the clock struck midnight and our first victim drops dead in a spectacularly cosy start. Nothing says Merry Christmas more than mince pies, brandy, and a body in the library.
I am a huge Agatha Christie fan, and if I were apprehensive that Hare's offering would miss the mark, I was wrong. An English Murder is the ultimate example of traditional detective fiction done with flair. Hare follows the pattern of Christie’s And Then There Were None and Farjeon’s Thirteen Guests – quintessential manor house mysteries – but with a style of his own.
An English Murder follows the detective fiction formula, and the characters are reassuringly stereotypical. An aged Lord of the Manor, a neo-fascist party leader, a scorned lover, a loyal Butler, a high member of parliament, and a politician’s wife so adept at social climbing she may well be a wisteria. Not to mention the lovely Dr Bottwink (Jewish professor, refugee, and quite possibly a distant cousin of Poirot…) a pregnant servant girl, and Metropolitan police sergeant Rogers. Everyone has a past, and everyone has a motive - no true adherent to the Golden Age of Detective Fiction would have it any other way.
For me this familiarity is a comfort, placing me firmly in the realm of country manors, snow storms, and an arsenic-wielding murderer at large, which was right at home. Detective fiction may be formulaic, but as Hare shows it can also be innovative, novel, and highly creative.
From the moment the stoic Briggs enters Dr Bottwink's study with that first tray of tea, I was hooked. The tinkling china, the stiff British politeness, the wry and underhanded humour. I've never felt more delightfully British than I did tucked up on my sofa and fancying myself an aristocrat (even if a potential about-to-be-slain one.)
The wonderfully "alien" Dr Wenceslaus Bottwink is a delightful and astute little man who I took great pleasure in getting to know through his quirky obsession with the "Englishness" of things. His presence served not only to accentuate the Britishness of our eccentric party of Christmas guests at Warbeck Hall, but also to highlight the absurdity of our social foibles and backwards politics.
All of the characters, though stereotypical at first, are all fascinating individuals with rich histories that Hare subtly and beautifully sews into his writing. I suspected everyone (apart from Dr Bottwink) a little bit, but one person more so.
I was wrong, of course. I have read some other reviews that allude to the presence of discreet clues throughout the novel, but I must have missed them all! An English Murder is definitely a novel to revisit, especially now I know who it is, in order to find those elusive, golden little clues. A real masterful whodunit that I can’t recommend enough.
A cosy Christmas murder just in time for ... well. Christmas. An English Murder by Cyril Hare is available for Kindle and paperback from Amazon.
About the Author
The following bio is from Faber & Faber, publishers of Hare's work.
Cyril Hare was the pseudonym for the distinguished lawyer Alfred Alexander Gordon Clark. He was born in Surrey, in 1900, and was educated at Rugby and Oxford. A member of the Inner Temple, he was called to the Bar in 1924 and joined the chambers of Roland Oliver, who handled many of the great crime cases of the 1920s. He practised as a barrister until the Second World War, after which he served in various legal and judicial capacities including a time as a county court judge in Surrey.
Hare's crime novels, many of which draw on his legal experience, have been praised by Elizabeth Bowen and P.D. James among others. He died in 1958 - at the peak of his career as a judge, and at the height of his powers as a master of the whodunit.