Untimely Death by Cyril Hare

You might be forgiven for thinking, with all the brouhaha that surrounds them, that no publisher had ever done reprints of classic crime novels before the British Library. However, back in the 1980s, I spent many a happy hour reading some lovely purple-covered volumes from Hogarth Crime, and in fact I’ve rediscovered some of these recently – with authors as excellent as Gladys Mitchell and Anthony Berkeley. However, when I was last up in London for a day out with my old friend J., she picked up one of these volumes from Any Amount of Books on the Charing Cross Road, and after reading it passed it on to me to have a look at too – so kind!

Hare has an intriguing back-story; his real name was Alfred Clark and his day jobs included practicing as a Barrister and a Judge! Clark/Hare wrote a number of crime novels, the most famous of which is probably “Tragedy at Law” (1942), and this book introduced his regular character Francis Pettigrew, a not very successful barrister. Pettigrew and his regular sidekick Inspector Mallett appeared in several books together and this novel, from 1958, was their last outing. Originally published as “He Should Have Died Hereafter”, it was called “Untimely Death” in the US and also for UK reprints (like this one!)

The novel opens with a retired Pettigrew and his somewhat younger wife, Eleanor, taking a holiday on Exmoor; the area has long-buried memories for Francis, who suffered some kind of childhood trauma there and is hoping to bury the ghosts for once and for all. Cleverly, Hare doesn’t reveal straight away what this was; instead, we learn about it gradually as Francis goes through a similar present day experience – which involves coming across a dead body on the moors which has a tendency to disappear and reappear…

And there are plenty of other elements stirred into the interesting and absorbing mix. For a start, there’s the fact that Francis feels he’s getting old and unsure of himself which tends to throw a lot of doubt on the things he *says* he’s witnessed. Then there’s the Gorman family, a local clan with familial links so complicated that no-one seems to want to attempt to explain them, and who all seem to have some kind of interest in the murder and an inheritance. There is Mr. Joliffe, the local butcher and also landlord of the Pettigrews’ holiday home, whose behaviour is a little odd and who seems obsessed with money. There’s even an entertaining court scene which Hare clearly had fun with, as it was a setting with which he was obviously familiar.

An Exmoor pony…

And the book *was* entertaining, though I do have a few caveats. For a start, there was the fact that the Pettigrews were visiting Exmoor at the time of a stag hunt, and that was an element I had to skim over when it appeared in the storyline – I’m very much *not* a fan. However, more substantially, I did feel that the book was a little undercooked; I would have liked more development of the background and characters, particularly the Gormans who seemed to have been sketched in rather than fully realised. And although there is a very satisfactory resolution, with a little twist I didn’t see coming, there were loose ends: Francis succeeds in laying his ghost but we’re left with the unresolved issue of his childhood experience, and perhaps a more skilful novelist would have developed this aspect more, tying the two strands together.

However, there’s plenty to love about the book: Francis and Eleanor make an appealing central pair, with his endearing woolliness being balanced nicely by her practicality. Mallett was great fun, as was Eleanor’s old school friend Hester Greenway, and there was some lovely wry humour, mostly at the expense of Francis. In particular, the whole sequence of his ride on a recalcitrant pony and encounter with some hunting types was very funny. And Hare conjured up wonderfully the bleak setting of the moor, making it a rather spooky background to Francis’s scary childhood experience.

As this was Hare’s last book and he died the year it was issued this may have some bearing on my niggles. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the book – I did, reading it through in two sessions – but I couldn’t help feeling that it had the potential to be so much more if it had been expanded and developed. Nevertheless, I think this is my first Cyril Hare book and it’s left me keen to explore more of Francis Pettigrew’s adventures; I think I shall definitely keep my eye out for “Tragedy at Law” (which I’m sure I’ve seen knocking about as an old Penguin….) πŸ™‚

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