I recently talked about how I enjoy getting to grips with some Christmas reads at this time of year, and An English Murder was the first of my planned reads. A commenter on that previous post reminded me about this book, which had been on my mental wish list for ages. I think I had meant to buy a copy last year but either couldn’t find a copy or didn’t get around to buying it. So, this year I snapped up this Faber Finds edition. It was exactly what I was in the mood for last weekend, getting my Christmas themed reading off to a flying start – I raced through it.
Cyril Hare was the Pseudonym for English judge and crime writer Alfred Alexander Gordon Clark. The only other Cyril Hare novel I have read is Tragedy at Law, which I can’t remember a thing about – but which has apparently never been out of print. Of that novel P D James wrote that it ‘is generally acknowledged to be the best detective story set in that fascinating world’.
Warbeck Hall in the fictional county of Markshire is the setting for this well plotted Christmas mystery. The snow is falling thickly as the guests begin to gather at Warbeck Hall, soon the house will be cut off completely from the outside world.
“At ten minutes to eight Briggs carried a tray bearing a decanter of sherry and glasses into the drawing-room. At eight o’clock precisely he sounded the great Chinese gong in the hall. It was an entirely unnecessary piece of ritual, for he had already seen for himself that all five guests were present; but as a piece of ritual he enjoyed it. The deep brazen notes pulsated through the great half-empty house, penetrating into the dilapidated spare rooms where no guest had been since the First World War, rousing echoes in servants’ quarters where no servant was ever likely to be seen again.”
Lord Warbeck is the ailing proprietor, spending most of his time in his bedroom now, where he is attended to by his faithful butler; Briggs. Lord Warbeck has chosen a small group of special people for what he firmly believes will be his last Christmas. There is his son Robert; leader of a small fascist organisation called The League of Liberty and Justice, Sir Julius; Lord Warbeck’s cousin – who as an M.P and chancellor of the exchequer for the new socialist government is of an entirely different political persuasion. Mrs Carstairs, a family friend and the wife of another rising politician, whose husband is away over Christmas. Lady Camilla, the niece of the late Lady Warbeck’s first husband. Lastly, Dr Bottwink, an academic from Heidelberg conducting some exhaustive research in the Warbeck archives, who has also been invited to stay.
The house is run with far fewer staff in this post-war world, where houses like Warbeck Hall can no longer exist as they once did. Joining Briggs who must now run things single handed is his daughter Susan, who has her own reason for spending Christmas at Warbeck Hall. Sir Julius’s close protection officer – Rogers is also installed below stairs. So, the scene is set as the guests settle in to afternoon tea on Christmas Eve and the snow piles up outside.
At midnight on Christmas Eve a sudden death occurs, a death by poisoning, a murder, which must have been committed by one of the people in the house – which is now completely cut off, even the phone lines have been brought down by the extreme conditions. It falls therefore, to Rogers; Sir Julius’s close protection officer to begin investigations, until he is able to hand the case over to his better qualified colleagues.
For those who – like me – find themselves wincing at the racial slurs and dreadfully outdated language that seem to creep into many of the Golden Age mysteries that we still enjoy reading – this novel will make a refreshing change. The fascist character is not portrayed well – he is viewed by the others gathered as someone who has lost his way, his organisation as a joke. The ‘foreigner’ in their midst serves to remind the reader of the terrible toll fascism has already taken, he is accepted by everyone (except Robert) on his own merits, a man of intelligence and great sense. Bottwink (a Hercule Poirot type – minus patent leather shoes) ably assists and advises the reluctant detective in his duties. The British class system and the changing times in post-war Britain are also highlighted.
“Absolute stillness surrounded the rambling old house. Not a breath of wind rose to stir the dense fog which had settled over the snowbound countryside. Not a sound penetrated through the freezing air. Peering from the high window of Lord Warbeck’s bedroom, Camilla Prendergast looked out into a world featureless, colourless and, to all appearances boundless. It was difficult to believe that beyond that blank expanse the business of living still went on; that in crowded sea-lanes about the coast, ships crept cautiously through the murk, or swung at anchor calling dismally to one another with their raucous sirens; that all over England, defying frost and snow men and women were gathered together to keep Christmas in a spirit of love and happiness.”
Christmas itself takes rather a back seat in this mystery, it is simply the means to bring everyone together, and give us a whacking great snow storm. I really didn’t mind that. I don’t want to say any more about the mystery, expect to say it is a fabulous Golden Age style mystery which is hard to put down.
There is something about murder at Christmas that old fashioned mystery lovers like, and this is brilliantly plotted, intelligent whodunit. A snowbound country house at Christmas is the perfect setting for it.