December! Snow on the ground, presents under the tree, mince pies stacked in every cupboard, a body in the library. Sorry, what? That’s right – for me nothing says Christmas like a little festive murder mystery! Honestly, I realise that it makes absolutely no sense to be reading about such dastardly deeds over such a joyful holiday but I do love me a Christmas murder mystery to curl up with once the presents are all wrapped and the cat has been wrangled out of the tree for the seventeenth time. So imagine my delight when the lovely folk at Faber & Faber offered to send me ‘An English Murder‘, a golden age classic by Cyril Hare that’s set in a snowed-in country house on Christmas Eve.
With the snow thick on the ground outside and a roaring fire in the grate, Warbeck Hall should be the perfect place to celebrate Christmas. But as the bells chime midnight, a murder takes place and, with the phone line down, no one is getting in or out. Who is responsible? The scorned lover? The cousin passed over for inheritance? The long-serving family butler? The social climber? The history professor? And, more importantly, will any of them survive long enough to tell the tale?
First published in 1951, the novel is a classic golden age mystery of the very best kind and all the standard tropes are present and correct: country house setting, limited number of suspects, cuttingly acidic conversation, strained English politeness, cyanide in the drinks cabinet etc etc. So far, so Agatha Christie. Hare, however, is playing with these well-known stock characters and situations to create a mystery that, when you really start to think about it, has a little more nuance than your average Christie pastiche.
For a start, this is not a mystery in which the detective comes along, interviews the suspects and then grandly unmasks the murderer in the middle of the parlour. That honour goes instead to Dr Bottwink, a Czech history professor with a dry sense of humour and an outsider’s ability to accurately assess the nuances and undertones of an English social gathering. Bottwink is a fantastic character – on the surface an addled history professor, more interested in books than people, but in reality a witty and observant man who swiftly realises that the past may have a significant bearing on the present.
Also unusually for a golden age novel, Hare tackles politics head on – one character is a founding member of a fascist organisation and another (Bottwink) a Jewish refugee who fled the continent during WWII. Hare uses the other characters’ reactions and responses to this to take swipes at the posturing of the various post-war political factions and at general attitudes towards the English sense of national identity – much of which seems worryingly familiar in our own charged political climate. I won’t give away the clever twist at the end of the novel but, suffice to say, I don’t think it’s coincidental that Hare has his only non-English character be the only person with enough knowledge of English constitutional history to be able to solve the murder.
There’s also a few gentle pokes in the direction of the English class system, the conventions of the traditional country house mystery and at Christmas traditions themselves (“It’s Christmas, let’s gather together 8 people who’ll hate each other and force them to make merry, it’ll be fine!”). The mystery itself is sufficiently absorbing and the clues are present without being obvious. The limited cast of characters doesn’t make the guessing of the murderer too difficult and, in truth, there isn’t a huge amount of meat on the bones of the central premise but the dry wit and incisive social commentary more than make up for the slightly shallow characterisation and occasionally thin plotting.
So a clever festive mystery with a golden age skin but something a little more developed going on under the surface. Definitely one of the better festive re-issues I’ve read over recent years, I would certainly recommend ‘An English Murder’ to classic crime fans over this Christmas season.
‘An English Murder’ by Cyril Hare, published by Faber & Faber, is available now in paperback and ebook from all good booksellers. My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy in return for an honest and unbiased review.