No Tears for Hilda by Andrew Garve
Andrew Garve is one of those 20th century mystery writers who solidly produced titles on a regular basis, but has somehow slipped out of the public eye. I first stumbled across his work back in 2013 when I tracked down a copy of his “Murder in Moscow”, which I enjoyed very much. And not knowing what to follow up “The Master and Margarita” with, I picked up “No Tears for Hilda” which I came across while clearing out one of the offspring’s rooms (as you do).
“No Tears for Hilda” is one of several titles brought back into print by Arcturus Crime Classics (including authors like Margery Allingham and Francis Iles, as well as one by a certain Roger Bax…), and several of them turned up reasonably priced at my local branch of The Works. It’s a series that deserves our support as there are some excellent books in the range. But I digress – back to Andrew Garve.
The Hilda of the title is Hilda Lambert, found at the start of the book with her head in a gas oven. Suicide? No, murder, because Hilda left no fingerprints on the gas taps. The instant suspect is her husband George who fails to produce a convincing alibi, and then when forced, reveals he was with another woman. And Hilda initially seems a harmless, nondescript woman with no particular life of her own and certainly no enemies, so George is arrested and charged and the police obstinately refuse to investigate any further because there seems no-one else who could possibly be a suspect.
Enter Max Easterbrook, George’s friend and our sleuth for the novel. George and Max were together in the War, surviving a camp and escape attempts together – Max only hints discreetly at events, but it’s enough to see that the men have a bond. Max finds it impossible to believe that George could be a murderer and sets out to investigate. But initially finding out anything about Hilda seems impossible, as the received wisdom is that she was quiet, stayed at home and did nothing. Max continues to dig and gradually cracks start to appear. The Lamberts’ daughter is in a psychiatric hospital – why? Hilda had her hair done on the day of her murder, which is unusual because she *never* went to the hairdressers. The char woman lets out more than she realises when describing Hilda. When Max tracks down family members they reveal a side to Hilda that was unknown. And gradually Max starts to find out a lot more about what might have caused the murder and who might have killed Hilda.
NTFH ended up being an excellent read, one of those murder mysteries you just can’t put down (and in fact I read it a couple of sittings over the day). Max is an appealing detective – straightforward, dogged and determined not to let his friend be punished for something he didn’t do. The supporting cast of characters, from the emotionally damaged Lucy Lambert to the stolid-looking but actually quite astute Inspector Haines. But the real triumph of the book is the way that Garve portrays Hilda. Initially, she’s something of a cipher, an ordinary post-War suburban housewife with no personality and we don’t feel we know her or that there’s much to her. However, Garve (through Max) gradually reveals a very different woman as the book and Max’s investigations proceed, and it’s a masterly piece of writing. You find yourself thinking, with Max, that it will be impossible to find out what the real Hilda was like and who might want to kill her, but Garve’s writing and plotting are superb and keep you on your toes till the end. The denouement is excellent and I’m deliberately saying as little as I can about the plot because the joy is watching it unfold and watching Max’s investigations and deductions.
If I had any quibbles, it would be that the sub-plot of a love story was perhaps not really needed, but that’s just me. “No Tears for Hilda” is a brilliant piece of detective story writing, very unjust neglected (as is Garve’s writing) and I’d highly recommend this book to any crime fiction lover!