Given that Cyril Hare is the subject of one of the talks at the Bodies from the Library conference, I decided that a Hare re-read was an apt choice for this month. Whilst this is Hare’s third novel, it was my first experience of his work, read at a time when I was relatively new to vintage mystery fiction. It was a very apposite time to read such a book, as although the solution is a simple one, it had me completely fooled and I was certainly bowled over when I read it the first time. But would I still love it as much when I re-read? That is indeed the question…
Suicide Excepted (1939) commences at Pendlebury Hall, but don’t be fooled by the aristocratic sounding name, as it is in fact a hotel and not a luxurious one at that. One such guest who was duped by outside appearances, was Inspector Mallett, who is trying to enjoy the final day of his holiday. But his luck seems to worsen when he is latched onto by the hotel bore, Leonard Dickinson, who has been on a walking tour. He pours out his woes to Mallett, sharing about his poor relationships with his two grown up children and his much younger wife. He even goes as far as hinting that he would be better off dead. It is said of him that, ‘he seemed to carry an aura of calamity about him. And Mallett, who was hardened enough to calamities of all kinds, did not like auras.’ And sure enough the next morning Leonard is found dead of an overdose and the inquest’s verdict is suicide; Mallet’s evidence having been quite influential on this matter. This puts his inheritors into a serious pickle though, as their inheritance was mostly comprised of a life insurance policy, which the suicide verdict has invalidated. This is the news Anne and Stephen, Leonard’s two children, are faced with when they return home on the day of the funeral, having been abroad at the time of his death. So for a medley of motivations, these two and others band together to re-investigate Leonard’s death, to find out what the truth is, suicide excepted of course…
I think my feelings towards this book fluctuated and varied a lot. Initially my interest was held by spotting the clues I missed the first time round and by the misdirection Hare cleverly uses. The misdirection is particularly adept in the way that it does not hamper presenting a plausible solution, as the solution when it arrives does not feel in any way like an afterthought, or like a series of ideas drawn out of a hat.
Hare also has an enjoyable prose style, with some delightful flicks of humour, such as when he describes George Dickson, Leonard’s brother. Hare writes of him that: ‘What was for him an unusually bad temper was something quite beyond the range of the average adult. It belonged rather to the type of the ungovernable rages of the three-year-old. Unfortunately, it could not be dealt with in the same way.’ It is only a few sentences, but it presents the reader with a real sense of what George is like as a person.
It is also interesting seeing some role reversals in this book, as although we start the book with Mallett, he soon disappears off the page and only appears at the end of the book. Yet before he does pop off, Stephen goes to question him and I think Hare plays this scene well, having Mallett see the irony of the policeman being the witness, rather than the asker of questions. The investigation which follows is a mostly amateur sleuth affair and I enjoyed the rivalry which crops up between Stephen and his sister’s fiancé, with their sleuthing becoming a game of one man up-man-ship.
I have to admit that my attention wavered a little in the middle, but despite knowing what the solution was, I still found the ending to have a lot of force and impact, which is only slightly lessened by knowing it is coming. Such an ending would work well in a TV adaptation. I suppose you could say there are a trifle too many coincidences in the solution, but I don’t think they mar the reader’s enjoyment of a detective novel which has a slight Iles/Hull twang to it. So suffice to say I am glad that this book is still one I really enjoyed and would definitely recommend others giving it a go.
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): During a vacation
Calendar of Crime: August (9) Summer holiday setting