26 June 2009

Mystery review: An English Murder by Cyril Hare

Genre/sub-genre: Country-house mystery
Year of publication: 1951
Type of investigator: Amateur
Setting & time: A country manor, England; mid-20th century.

Story:
A man is murdered in a snow-bound country house at Christmas, and it is up to a rather unusual sleuth to put together the pieces of the puzzle of a murder with a peciliarly English motive.

Review:
This is one of only a handful of books that have really surprised and delighted me this year. The story is well written, light, sparkling and excellently plotted and the characters, while all more or less based on certain stereotypes readers of Golden Age mysteries are familiar with, nevertheless are realistic enough to satisfy the literary critic’s demand for rounded characters. What delighted me most, however, was the playful combination of the familiar with the unexpected.

Hare showed with this novel that he really knew the mystery genre inside and out and could manipulate its conventions to produce a novel that is at once both thoroughly traditional and that breaks – or rather broke – with the tradition. The setting could hardly be more traditionally Golden Age English: a country manor house isolated by bad weather, a small number of suspects who all had reasons to want the victim (and in some cases each other) dead, high drama (or melodrama), hidden secrets, and a genteel, bloodless murder.

Then there are the untraditional, unexpected aspects. For one, the crime might actually have been committed by a servant (whether it was or not, I will not reveal). As I have mentioned before, I have never come across any evidence that the "butler did it" rule about the crime not being committed by a servant or other "socially inferior" person is based on a common plot element. I think it is merely based on what the rule-makers, generally middle class or higher placed socially, saw as common sense, so there right away is one unusual aspect. Another is the breakdown of the class order that becomes apparent as the story unwinds. Then there are the motive, the sleuth, and the manner in which he uncovers the motive. Depending on how you look at it, these points might be considered either quite unexpected or entirely predictable. Certainly the motive is, as far as I know, quite unique.

All these points come together to produce a delightful and entertaining mystery.

Rating: An excellent story that twists the traditional cosy country manor mystery into something rare and interesting. 5 stars.

P.S.: I have another Cyril Hare mystery lined up in the Top Mysteries challenge. It will be interesting to see how it compares with this one.

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