Best Detective Stories of Cyril Hare
Cyril Hare, with an introduction by Michael Gilbert
First published in the UK by Faber and Faber Limited, 1959
This edition, Faber and Faber, 1986
He was profoundly thankful to Aunt Agnes for what she had done. He was even fond of her in a way. She was a good sort, really, though incapable of understanding what a young man really wanted in this world, as pious widows who live in the country are apt to be. But he had by now endured three years of this thraldom, and as he climbed the final ascent which led to the house he caught himself wishing that she were dead.
I picked this up at the ever-reliable Ellis Books on Norwich market, but it can be bought new from Faber Finds. I had a bit of a Cyril Hare phase a few years ago – Tragedy at Law being his best, I think – but wasn’t aware that he was also a prolific writer of short stories.
The book opens with a charming introduction by Hare’s fellow lawyer-novelist Michael Gilbert, who first encountered Cyril Hare’s books in an Italian POW camp, and later came to know the man himself at meetings of the Detection Club.
There are 30 stories, roughly divided into Law, Murder, and Other Crimes. Usually, says Gilbert…
The narrator is Cyril Hare himself; standing, as I have so often seen him stand, in front of the fireplace at Kingly Street, hands in pockets, head thrust forward – or prostrate in one of its unspeakable leather armchairs – demonstrating to its hearers that law and life, humanity and inhumanity, probability and improbability, were alike grist to one careful observer’s mill.
The legal detail in the first set of stories is reminiscent of Rumpole of the Bailey, but Hare soon reveals a more varied command of the genre.
‘The Tragedy of Young Macintyre’ is an absurd romp, reminiscent of Chesterton at his most whimsical, concerning a young barrister suing his voice coach, in a case complicated by the selection of a popular dancing-master as a juror.
In ‘Weight and See’, a locked-room case of the unbreakable alibi type is solved by the fortunate attendance at the scene of a rather hefty policeman.
Gilbert in his introduction praises ‘The Rivals’ as a fair play mystery, and it is cleverly set up as a puzzle. Two suspects have almost identical stories about the killing of their mutual girlfriend, with the exception that each accuses the other of the crime. The clue that unravels the case is revealed in the very final paragraph. I didn’t feel too bad about missing it – it’s very much a period detail; something which also complicates finding a solution to the preceding story ‘The Heel’.
There is a creepy ghost story – in ‘A Life for a Life’, a WWI gas victim is saved from a relapse by a long-dead pharmacist – and a modern-day ‘Miracle at Markhampton’ with a very down-to-earth outcome.
However, the overwhelming majority of the book consists of Tales of the Unexpected-style stories of revenge gone wrong, lovers shot in error, blackmailers coming to sticky ends, and murderers’ alibis broken by over-confidence – all tinged with a Dahliesque black humour.
Two of the tales feature Hare’s lawyer-detective Francis Pettigrew, and his stamping-ground Markhampton is the setting for many more.
Considered as a collection, the stories are competent rather than earth-shatteringly brilliant, but they are entertaining and deserve to be better known.
See also: Michael Gilbert’s Smallbone Deceased. Nick Hardcastle, the cover artist, also provided the line art for Detective Stories Chosen by Philip Pullman.
I am entering this book in the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge, in the Old Bailey category.
Final destination: A keeper
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
I have read quite a few of Cyril Hare’s full-length novels, but have missed out on his short stories. I always enjoy the books as good satisfying reads that don’t ever actually make you sit up straight or catch your breath – it sounds as though the stories might be much the same…
I feel like I’ve damned them with faint praise. They’re good examples of their type, but a little bit ‘build-up… build-up… twist’ when read en masse. It’s probably not fair reading them all at once.
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I love good short stories. I’m going to have to try and find this book.
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