We all know that Christmas is a time for giving and a time for family. It’s also a time for murder. Or at least it is in the literary world. There are so many crime novels set during the festive period. It’s fantastic. There’s nothing better than settling down on a cold winter night and trying to solve a murder. As far as the Golden Age of Crime writing goes, I’m a Christie girl and haven’t ventured too far beyond her work. So, it’s time to get a better view of the novels of that era. Starting with one of Cyril Hare’s more popular novels.
Cyril Hare is the pseudonym of Alfred Alexander Gordon Clark, a judge. His career allowed him to combine the traits of golden age crime novels with the real-life crimes that he came across. An English Murder was first published in 1951, which was a time of significant social and political upheaval in the UK. The novel is very much a novel of its age and makes plenty of references to the changes that were occurring in British society. Despite all of this instability, the book still has the feel of a traditional Golden Age murder mystery.
A group of guests have gathered at Warbeck Hall for the Christmas period. The once-great Hall is a shadow of its former self and Lord Warbeck isn’t long for this world. On what is likely to be his last Christmas, he requests the presence of his son, his cousin, and a few close acquaintances for dinner. By midnight, one of the guests is dead and the rest of the party are snowed in. Will they be able to work out who the killer is and will they strike again?
What is so interesting about this novel is the way that Hare builds tension. There is tension surrounding the personal relationships of the party and the tension that existed in post-war Britain. As this novel deals with a high-class setting, we see the natural decline of that lifestyle following Labour’s reelection in 1950. The socialist government is represented by Sir Julius Warbeck, cousin to the current Lord Warbeck. In contrast to his younger cousin, Lord Warbeck is crumbling just as the old order is crumbling. As a piece of history, An English Murder has an awful lot to tell us about the time.
As a murder mystery, it’s not the most memorable plot. I wouldn’t say that the final reveal is a shock or very hard to figure out. It’s not that it’s not enjoyable but you get the idea that the crime isn’t the point. The novel plays up many of the genre’s literary traits. It’s easy to compare Dr Bottwink to someone like Hercule Poirot. Thankfully, Hare manages to avoid the racism and antisemitism that taints so much of Agatha Christie’s works.
Like Christie, Hare does a good job of creating characters. Yes, they might not seem appealing to a modern audience but they are a representation of their time. Even with all of the political and social commentary, there is plenty of wit and humour to be found in this novel. Hare writes with his tongue ever so slightly in his cheek. Yet there is still plenty of serious drama. Yes, this is a cosy crime novel, so it’s not breaking down literary barriers but it’s an enjoyable read on a cold winter’s night.