Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Asking Price (1966) by Henry Cecil

This is my first attempt to take part in the Friday’s Forgotten Book meme, which is hosted by Patricia Abbott on her blog. My understanding of the meme is a little hazy, but hopefully I have grasped enough and doubly hopefully my book will count as a forgotten(ish) one. Henry Cecil is an author I have occasionally heard about in passing, but not a writer I have ever tried before today’s read. Cecil came from a legal background rising to the position of county court judge. His works often include ‘the often absurd contradictions of the legal system’ and today’s read is no exception. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but suffice to say I was on to a good read and this is definitely one I would recommend to others to try.

I know this is probably an over-used phrase (and I am probably guilty of this crime), but I think Cecil is definitely a descendant of the Francis Iles school of crime/mystery writing. The humour begins from the very first page, gentle, yet increasingly cynical and ironic. The story starts with Colonel Ronald Holbrook wanting to urgently sell his house. Why you ask? Well it is because of the 17 year old next door, who has become madly in love with him (despite him being in his 50s). Her almost near insane love for him has driven him to extreme measures and these measures seem to increase as the novel unfolds. But how far will he go to be free of her?

Overall Thoughts

I have tried to avoid saying too much about the plot. In terms of its action it is relatively simple, yet Cecil’s writing style and flair for creative character twists, means that there are plenty of surprises in store for the reader. It is also quite innovative in that it could easily have become an inverted mystery novel, yet it isn’t one. Holbrook’s guilt is never definitively decided one way or another and I enjoyed the suspense this creates and the blackmail dimension of the plot is used in a wonderfully original way which I didn’t expect.

Characterisation forms the bedrock of this novel’s strength – without it the book would fall apart. Holbrook is a complex character and your sympathies for him switch from one extreme to another. The hellish situation he finds himself in makes you begin to feel sorry for him, but then as you find out more about him you begin to change your mind at times. He is ‘excessively lazy, had no regard for the truth and was a persistent and unashamed borrower […] He could fairly have been described as a parasite, but for the fact that he made a definite contribution to the world merely by existing.’ Yet Holbrook is not the only intriguing character – all of Cecil’s characters, whether they have a big or small part, are memorable and distinctive in some way.

This all contributes to the success of the comedy of this book. For instance you have the estate agent, who inherited his professional sigh off his father and whose approach to selling houses is mildly akin to Bernard Black’s approach to selling books – though the estate agent is much more focused on making as much money out of his clients as possible. Cecil’s comedic comments on marriage are also well staged, as that sort of humour can come across as unnecessarily bawdy or tasteless. Yet this is not the case with Cecil and I still remember one husband’s advice to Holbrook on what to do when your wife forever keeps you waiting – always have a good book on hand. There is also of course Jane, Holbrook’s devoted admirer, not hugely likeable as a person, but one of her comments did stick in my mind and in a way is quite indicative of her personality as whole: ‘Do virtuous women have fun? I don’t want to be like the Albert Memorial, all stuck up and nowhere to go.’

So yes this was a wonderfully entertaining story with ever increasing irony. Cecil is adept at taking familiar plot tropes, yet works with them in a refreshing way. Whilst this is not a conventional detective mystery novel, the story still has a number of puzzling aspects for the reader to wonder about and I loved the various unexpected twists and turns, as well as the tantalising ending. Even better it is not hard to get a hold of as there seem to be a number of cheap copies available online. So what are you waiting for?

Rating: 5/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Silver Card): Has been on my TBR List


  1. Some of his books are laugh out loud funny, absolutely hilarious. I think According to the Evidence is a masterpiece of farcical humor, brilliant wordplay and outrageous fun with legal linguistics. The crime plot is also enviable in its overlapping structure. He was a master of satirizing the convoluted British legal system and the overly decorous etiquette of the courtroom. A recurring character, Colonel Brain, appears in several books and he reminds me of someone who wandered out of a Wodehouse novel into Cecil’s world.

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  2. Yes, you have the spirit of FFB down pat…reviewing a book that might’ve escaped the attention of even the relatively attentive reader. I’ve been meaning to read more Henry Cecil for about forty-five years, now, since liking his short story “Proof” more than nearly any other in the anthology THE HOUSE OF THE NIGHTMARE AND OTHER STORIES I read as a kid, but I’ve managed to never get around to it…he wrote a twisty, funny little horror story, too, when he chose to.

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    • Yeah I hadn’t quite seen it in that light, but it is unusual for the woman in this story to be so young, usually in mystery male characters are being harangued by much older women. Glad you like the blog. Hope to participate more in the FFB, great way to find out about a lot of unusual books.


  3. I read this not long after it was published and enjoyed it – I remember the comment of the central character to the estate agent that it seemed to be a buyer’s market for his house and a seller’s market for everybody else’s!
    Frank Muir in his autobiography said that Cecil’s plots were ingenious and amusing, despite his having almost no sense of characterisation.

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  4. When I was a teenager my library had many Henry Cecil books, and I must have read literally dozens of them. Loved them. Never owned one, and haven’t read anything by him since. But I could tell you the plots of several of them, and some of his excellent short stories too. I always reckon I learned a lot about the law from reading them – I occasionally find myself quoting some legal fact or quirk (probably incorrectly, but still…) and realizing it is based on his books. You are making me think I must read one again.

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