An English Murder, by Cyril Hare

An English Murder cvr

An English Murder, published in 1951, was written by Cyril Hare, the pseudonym of Alfred Alexander Gordon Clark, by profession a lawyer who rose to be a county court judge.  The novel is set at Christmas in Warbeck Hall in Markshire.  Confined to bed, Lord Warbeck is expecting to die at any moment from an aneurysm and his few relatives gather at the country house to pay their respects one last time.  The house is impossible to maintain because of lack of money and lack of staff so this may be the last year the family owns it.

Present is Lord Warbeck’s unpleasant son and heir Robert, the leader of an avowedly fascist organisation, the League of Liberty and Justice, and an anti-Semite.  The family seems to consider it a phase he is going through rather than a deep-rooted character defect.  At the other end of the political spectrum is Sir Julius, Lord Warbeck’s cousin and Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Labour government, accompanied by Sergeant Rogers, his protection officer.  Lady Camilla Prendergast, also present, is the niece of Lord Warbeck’s late wife’s first husband.  She and Robert have had an understanding, though she seems far too nice for him, but he had gone cold on her in the previous year and she wants to have it out with him.  Accompanying her is old family friend Mrs Carstairs, devoted (very devoted) wife of a rising young star in the government, tipped himself to be a future Chancellor of the Exchequer.  She is alone as her husband is abroad on government business.

Dr. Wenceslaus Bottwink is a surprise guest, an outsider who can comment on English society and history with a dispassionate eye.  Jewish, he has been pushed around Europe by the tides of war, and has suffered greatly.  Naturally he has little sympathy with Robert’s fascism, an ideology he has seen at first hand.  Now he takes refuge in eighteenth century English history and is in the house to conduct research among the Warbeck papers.  This has taken longer than expected and he finds himself still present as Christmas arrives.  Waiting on everybody is Briggs the butler.  His daughter Susan is also in the house, and towards the end of the proceedings she plays a key role.

The murder only occurs almost half way into the novel, allowing plenty of time for the characters and their strained relationships to be presented.  When it does, it is dramatic.  Shortly after the guests arrive the house is cut off by snow.  The occupants are stuck in the freezing building but try to make the best of it, with the ailing Lord Warbeck unable to join them.  After being unpleasant to the point of hysteria, as Christmas Day arrives Robert throws open the French windows despite the freezing temperature, says he has an announcement to make, drinks a glass of champagne at the midnight chimes strike – and promptly pitches forward dead, poisoned with cyanide.  Shortly afterward Lord Warbeck is dead, having been told of Robert’s demise by someone unknown.  Sir Julius assumes he is the new Lord Warbeck, spelling the end of his career in the Commons.

While Rogers gathers evidence, he fails to see the rationale behind Robert’s murder.  It is left to Dr Bottwink, the outsider who ironically has a better grasp of British constitutional history than the natives, to bring the past to bear to illuminate the present, specifically parallels in the life of William Pitt, and solve the crime.  Bottwink points Rogers in the right direction, but indirectly, and Rogers fails to see how what happened in a previous century can be relevant.  Hare is surely saying something here about what he saw as the British temperament in ignoring the past.  Further, the house cut off from the outside world and unable to communicate, with life going on somewhere else while here time stands still, is a metaphor for the irrelevance of the aristocracy in the new era.

The novel’s setting is very specific: the period of the 1945-51 Labour government, when Clement Attlee’s Labour government taxation policies hit the landed gentry, and allied with the staff shortage caused many country houses, which could only function with cheap labour, to fall into disrepair (a theme too in Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger).  Apart from the unseen cook, Briggs is effectively running the place single-handed.  Hare clearly sympathises with the upper classes under threat, and Labour minister Julius is cast as something of a hypocrite, posing as a man of the people but who is from a privileged background and in his 20s had ridden to hounds.  He is terrified of becoming the next Lord Warbeck and is not above lying to the police to avert scandal, as he suggests that Robert committed suicide, albeit in a rather flamboyant manner.

Bottwink is used to touch on themes of class, asking questions about unarticulated assumptions the English take for granted.  Hare can be a tease as he plays on the reader’s own assumptions: there is a hint from Susan’s conversations with her father that Robert has ruined her and she has had an illegitimate baby.  As a fascist we expect no better of him, the cad.  However, we learn at the end that he had married her, hence the baby is legitimate, and is now the new Lord Warbeck, rather than Julius.  Presumably this was the important announcement Robert was about to make before he died, and why he had been giving Camilla the brush-off.  If Mrs Carstairs had known, she would not have taken the extreme action she did and Robert would have become Lord Warbeck.  In the event her efforts on behalf of her husband to allow him to take over as Chancellor of the Exchequer were stymied, but at least the world had one less fascist leader in it.

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