(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Cyril Hare’s first two novels are solid, workmanlike detective stories. Well plotted and convincingly structured, they are typical of British detective fiction in the late 1930’s but are not remarkable for any innovations.

Tenant for Death

The first, the rather ordinary Tenant for Death (1937), introduces Hare’s first series detective, the burly Scotland Yard man Inspector Mallett. Mallett has a lively intelligence, but he is no supersleuth and sometimes admits to being baffled. Yet unlike some of his near contemporaries, such as Anthony Berkeley’s Roger Sheringham and Nicholas Blake’s Nigel Strangeways, he does not confidently assert mistaken conclusions only to have them subsequently disproved. Hare took some pains over the characterization of his detective, and in Tenant for Death and his next two novels, Death Is No Sportsman (1938) and Suicide Excepted (1939), there are numerous references to Mallett’s enormous appetite, his extensive knowledge of food, his excellent memory, and his ability to appear suddenly and unexpectedly before someone.

Death Is No Sportsman

It was Death Is No Sportsman that, despite its conventional format (including the murder of a thoroughly unpopular man; a larger-than-usual role for the official detective; and a limited group of suspects, the least likely of whom turns out to be the criminal), first showed Hare’s talent for creating a microcosm of society (in this case, a weekend fishing club) with accuracy, loving care, and gentle mockery of the characters’ human weaknesses and idiosyncrasies. There is also an ending that surprises, inasmuch as both detective and reader are cunningly persuaded to be skeptical of all evidence save the false. On the other hand, once the falseness of the evidence in question is perceived, only one person can possibly be guilty: Indeed, because the evidence rests on the unsupported word of one person (the murderer, in fact), the alert reader may well penetrate the mystery before Hare intended. That may constitute a structural weakness, one found in much of Hare’s later work, which, if it should be anticipated by his regular readers, may dilute some of their enjoyment.

Although in this respect the influence of the ingenious but dull Freeman Wills Crofts is perceptible, there is more to Hare’s novels than the mere construction and demolition of a seemingly unbreakable alibi. Although Suicide Excepted and Tragedy at Law are notable for their inclusion of perhaps the most unlikely murderers in Hare’s work—though not necessarily the best surprise endings—they also constitute two of the five major novels that he produced in the period between 1939 and 1951.

Tragedy at Law

Many of Hare’s stories feature some technicality of civil or criminal law that would not be immediately obvious to the layman. In Suicide Excepted, a clause in an insurance policy causes three amateur detectives to seek to overturn the verdict of a coroner’s jury, though the underlying reason still comes as a surprise. Tragedy at Law involves a little-known legal technicality relating to the timing of civil proceedings. What is most striking about the five principal novels, however, is the feeling of tremendous human warmth they generate, their constant demonstration of Hare’s ability to provide deft, well-observed, authentic, and affectionate portraits, laced with inoffensive humor, of particular professional and social milieus—a bereaved family coping with the gathered relatives and the legal complexities arising from the dead man’s estate, a county court judge and his entourage on circuit, government officials conducting their business, a local musical society with its triumphs and petty musical jealousies, and a dying peer’s house party and his butler’s struggles to keep up standards despite the restrictions imposed by an unsympathetic, egalitarian postwar society.

In many of these novels, Hare drew on his personal experience—of the wartime civil service, amateur music associations in his home county, and the law and its workings. In an article published shortly after his death, he told of an incident involving the head of the chambers in which, as a young man, he had first practiced law. On learning that Hare was convinced that a prisoner he was defending had been wrongly accused, his principal remarked skeptically, “On the whole, it is sometimes not a bad thing for a young man to believe in his client’s innocence.” Readers of Tragedy at Law will recognize that as a remark made by “a sarcastic senior” to Pettigrew when Pettigrew was a young man. One can only wonder how many other similar comments and situations found their way into his writing, which also shows the precision of expression and accuracy of effect that one might well expect of a lawyer pleading his case or a judge summing up the...

(The entire section is 2031 words.)