Who Goes Hang? A House of Commons Detective Story (1958) by Stanley Hyland

This is my second read of the year which has a parliamentary theme, having reviewed MP Ellen Wilkinson’s novel, The Division Bell Mystery (1932) this summer. Hyland begins with a dramatic opening when a labourer, doing repairs on Big Ben, puts a pick axe through a Member of Parliament’s hat, head still attached. The MP took it very well, being very much already dead. The labourer has in fact put his pick through a hitherto unknown corpse, hidden inside the walls of the Clock tower. But how long has it been there? And for that matter who is the victim? The mummified state of the corpse certainly doesn’t help matters. During the inquest a couple of clues ignite the imagination of MP Hugh Bligh, believing that they must have links to a house within his constituency. From there it is not long until Hugh and some other political colleagues form a committee to get to the bottom of the matter, but after so much time is it possible to find the truth?

Overall Thoughts

Well the short answer to the question: Should I read this book?, is No probably not. If you want to read a parliament set and themed mystery, Wilkinson’s is a much better read. At a push Hyland’s book would be useful from a social history point of view, especially for the running of parliament at that time.

Yet for this quite derisive comment, this book does have a number of good elements in its cold case plot, such as a closed set of suspects in the sense that the murderer is highly likely to have been someone within parliament. It’s just Hyland crushes them under a poorly decided upon narrative structure, along with some dire pacing skills and incredibly belated characterisation. Let me explain…

Three quarters of this book traces the dull activities of the committee looking into the history of the construction of Big Ben and the people involved. Despite the dullness a theory is created, yet any astute reader will note there is another 80 pages to go until the end. The story at this point rapidly comes to life as the narrative goes in a completely different direction, which in one sense is a good thing as the plot gets more engaging. But let’s not get carried away, it’s more like a case of reader engagement levels being sparked into life from a flat line position. This reversal of events as it were consequently felt a bit of a swizz and a cheat and the twist is not something you’re in the mood for after being bored for far too many pages. Suffice to say I have come to the conclusion that Hyland is not very good at writing a cold case mystery which requires the sleuths to trawl through historical records, books, reports etc. In his hands this type of plot is lifeless and lacking in energy, with far too much information given about the history of the parliament and the clock tower. In a way he shares a struggle Kate Summerscale came up against, (in my opinion), in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (2008) of balancing the flow of a story with the need to inject a certain amount of non-fiction, historical background information. Both authors I feel did not succeed in getting the balance right. For an author who got it right I think of Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time (1951), though it has been a long while since I’ve read that one. Hyland interestingly actually references this book in this novel. Consequently I think Hyland would have made a much more dramatic and thrilling mystery if he had shortened the events covered in the first 3/4s of the tale and given more time to the events that followed. Another reason I have for suggesting this is that actually I’m not entirely sure what is the truth of the matter of the body is, nor who the killer was. I was pretty much following everything up until the final line which seems to be indicating that not is all that it seems, yet its very ambiguity left me confused. So if anyone else has also made it to the end of this book and knows what on earth did actually happen then do let me know…

Rating: 2.75/5

7 comments

  1. The American publisher of this book (Dodd Mead, 1959) apparently thought the same as you did about the excess information. Allen J. Hubin, in his Crime Fiction IV bibliography, notes that the Dodd Mead version is “significantly shorter” than the Gollancz. Don’t know of course if even this severe editing saved it from rattling the circular files of American readers.

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