It has been a while since I have read a novel by Cyril Hare (the last being When the Wind Blows (1949)). Hare was the pen name for Alfred Alexander Gordon Clark and the crimes in Hare’s stories often have a legal aspect, which probably came about due to Hare being a judge.
An English Murder (1951), a title whose full meaning is only fully realised at the end of the story, begins at Warbeck Hall a couple of days before Christmas. The Hall is owned by Lord Warbeck, though it is feared he does not have long to live due to his aneurism, but he hopes to have one last Christmas where he can see family and friends. The guest list includes his first cousin Sir Julius Warbeck, who is also Chancellor of the Exchequer, his son Robert Warbeck who is in charge of the League of Liberty and Justice (a Fascist Organisation), Lady Camilla Prendergast, who was the niece of Lord Warbeck’s dead wife’s first husband, Mrs Carstairs, whose father was a rector in the area for many years and Dr Bottwink, a European historian, who is researching the historical manuscripts at the Hall. An additional personage is Special Branch sergeant James Rogers, who is detailed to give Julius protection. Within the guest list though there is unsurprisingly a number of antagonisms and dislikes. Arguably all of the guests and even the butler have a reason for disliking or hating Robert. Both Julius and Mrs Carstairs abhor Robert due to his fascist beliefs, whilst Dr Bottwink is not keen on meeting Robert due to his anti-Semitic views and you can hardly blame him considering the way Robert treats him. Lady Camilla is equally out of sorts with him because although in love with Robert, he has lately been avoiding her and when she tries to find out what is bothering him he responds in a repulsive way. The butler’s dislike of Robert is ambiguously revealed early on, hinting that Robert acted dishonourably towards his daughter, Susan. Moreover, there is also a discord between Mrs Carstairs and Julius due to political rivalry, as Mrs Carstairs who is obsessed with her spouse, earnestly thinks her husband should be the Chancellor of the Exchequer rather than Julius.
Consequently with such opposing guests put together it isn’t surprising that even through afternoon tea, the tensions between them are bubbling beneath the surface, barely supressed by the need to not upset Lord Warbeck, whose final Christmas this is. There is a glimmer of a nicer character within Robert when he is being attentive to his father, but this does not last for long. The evening gets progressively worse and culminates in death. No prizes for who cops it. As he announces he has a piece of news to deliver, Robert begins by toasting the beginning of Christmas Day at midnight, yet within seconds of drinking his champagne he is dead. Out of all the guests Bottwink is the only one who rises to the occasion, whilst the other guests stand in horror unsure what to do. Bottwink is convinced Robert has died as a result of potassium cyanide poisoning and insists the police be called. Yet it is at this moment that they realise not only are the telephone lines down, but they are snowed in. Fortunately though there is Sergeant Rogers, who says he will handle the case until the local police can arrive.
Characters such as Julius and Mrs Carstairs are keen to have the case hushed up as a suicide. Yet neither Bottwink nor Rogers are satisfied by this theory. The case seems wide open as inconveniently a number of people went in to the butler’s pantry where some potassium cyanide was kept for killing wasps, the afternoon prior to the murder. The way the different characters react to the awful situation is interesting, with Bottwink being the most realistic, fully aware he could easily be made a scape goat. Moreover, he has the foresight to see that the killer is far from over: ‘The question that is exercising my mind is whether we shall, all of us, live to see the end of it.’ And the answer to that is assuredly no as further death follow, along with startling family revelations. Although the guests look to Rogers to solve the case it is in fact Bottwink who manages this, with the nub of his case centring on a book about William Pitt and the year 1788-89, a seemingly bizarre clue which he compares with one of Sherlock Holmes’ in ‘The Adventure of Silver Blaze’ (1892): the dog that didn’t bark in the night.
The Role of Doctor Bottwink
Despite being overlooked, snubbed and insulted by many of the other guests, Bottwink is probably one of the most important and interesting characters in the book. Firstly he is the one to solve the case and he is also one of the few characters who faces the reality of the situation. Moreover, due to not being English, Bottwink is able to look at the country house and the old class system with the eyes of an independent outsider. He is also able to see the ridiculousness of some of it:
‘He was sufficiently familiar with English customs to know that even today a butler does not normally give his reasons for serving tea to a guest in the house. It was precisely because he was not quite on the footing of a guest that Briggs found it necessary to explain why it was no trouble to climb a flight of stairs Dr Bottwink savoured the delicate social situation with a certain wry pleasure.’
Though at times even he feels like he ‘shall never understand England’ as he seemingly commits further ‘social faux pas’.
The State of the Nation: Out with the Old, In with the New
An underlying theme in the novel is one of social change, the dwindling power of the old order, the old traditions which ruled the country and the rise of a new more seemingly liberal system. Warbeck Hall and some of its inhabitants in contrast become ‘pitiable anachronisms,’ especially Lord Warbeck and the butler. Though to be fair to them they do realise it is the end of an era and that their way of life is dying out, which is mirrored in the fact that when Lord Warbeck dies, his heir won’t be able to afford the Hall and will have to sell. It is this changing of things which partially fuels Robert’s dislike of Julius and Robert sees him as responsible for their own financial difficulties, viewing Julius as ‘a traitor to his class, a traitor to his country…’ It is Bottwink who perceives that although a new political/ social system is emerging, the country and its inhabitants are ‘still under the power of the dead hand of the past,’ a phrase which can be applied to many of the characters, even Bottwink himself.
In my last post on holiday and travel themed Golden Age novels, I said that such mysteries can be used to satirise the West, in particular some of the attitudes and behaviours of Western people. But having this read this novel I also think the same can be applied to the later country house mystery, as in this particular country house mystery does exactly that. Another example is arguably Joanna Canaan’s Murder Included (1950). In An English Murder, there are moments where English customs are gently laughed, such as when Hare is describing the reunion between Robert and his father:
‘In any other European country, a reunion in such circumstances would have been signalised by an embrace. That was obviously out of the question. Robert, naturally had given up the practice of kissing his father since he first went into long trousers. When they met they shook hands as English people should. But there is something rather absurd about shaking hands with a man who is lying down. Eventually he compromised by placing one hand lightly on his father’s shoulder.’
And Lord Warbeck’s response is to feel ‘a little shamed at his son’s display of affection.’ However, this novel also exposes the unpleasant racist attitudes English people could (and some still) have. This is epitomised when Bottwink asks Julius about fly fishing (a topic Bottwink knows Julius is interested in) and Julius responds by ‘look[ing] at him with undisguised surprise. The funny little foreigner, his expression said, might almost be human.’ But the way Hare includes these in the narrative suggests they are not ideas he agrees with and the characters who are the worst offenders are characters the reader are not supposed to like. Moreover, in a way Bottwink by solving a mystery no one else could, gets the last laugh.
I really enjoyed this book and it is probably one of my favourite Cyril Hare novels to date. The killer was a good choice, which fooled me as I was thinking along different lines. The reason behind the crimes was also really clever. This is an interesting novel due to the time it is set in, as it straddles old traditions and changing times. Furthermore, this is not a mystery set out of time of its publication, as from the very first page, Hare hints at the troubles Bottwink underwent in the preceding decades: ‘It had been cold in his student’s lodgings in Heidelberg, colder yet in Prague in the winter of 1917, coldest of all in the concentration camp of the Third Reich.’ Although the majority of these characters are not ones which you warm to or identify with, they are still fascinating to read about as Hare’s characterisation skills are on top form, especially at showing how different characters respond to a crisis or stressful situation. For example when Mrs Carstairs and Lady Camilla enter the library it is said that this was ‘a new disturbing element, made up of feminine scents and sounds’ and ‘Robert felt he and his father had dwindled into an insignificant minority.’ In particular Hare describes Mrs Carstairs’ arrival as an ‘invasion of Lord Warbeck’s library,’ saying ‘she overran it like an occupying army, distributing her fire right and left and reducing the inhabitants to a stunned quiescence.’ One thing in retrospect that intrigued me about this book, is that the Robert never gets to fully explain his actions or behaviours and even Bottwink’s solution does not fully explore them, so in a way Robert is silenced twice in the novel. This is definitely a novel I would recommend and in terms of the country house mystery I think Hare does well at updating it to the times he was writing in, reflecting the changes that had and were happening.