Friday, August 29, 2008

Cyril Hare: On Home Ground


This article of mine, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of the great crime writer Cyril Hare (the pseudonym of Judge Alfred Gordon Clark), appears in The Spectator. If there are any other fans of Cyril Hare out there, I'd be delighted to hear from you.

"The best detective story that has appeared for some time and at the end of the year will undoubtedly stand as one of the class leaders in the English school" was how The Spectator described Cyril Hare’s Tragedy at Law, when it first appeared in 1942. ‘A detective masterpiece’ was the New Statesman’s verdict. Others were even more generous in their praise: the crime writer and critic, Julian Symons, included the book in his survey of ‘best, anywhere, ever’.

Tragedy at Law is a detective story like no other. There can’t be any other murder mystery in which the killer strikes so late — on the 221st page out of 252. In fact, to label Tragedy at Law a ‘detective story’ does it an injustice. It’s a wonderfully well-crafted and brilliantly characterised novel which just happens to have a crime in it. Agatha Christie presents great puzzles, but if you don’t like puzzle-solving, her books have relatively little to offer. Hare’s work, by contrast, while featuring ingenious mysteries, can be read even by those who don’t particularly care for the genre: even if Judge Barber didn’t get stabbed to death outside the Old Bailey in chapter 21, Tragedy at Law would still be a cracking read.

The book is set in that strange, twilight world of the autumn of 1939 — a world of blackouts but no bombs — and portrays in great detail wartime life on the Southern Circuit, with its curtailed pomp and ceremony, but far from curtailed rivalries and jealousies.

It was a world that Hare — or rather Alfred Gordon Clark — knew well. Clark was born into a family with strong legal traditions and after schooldays at Rugby (where he said he was ‘starved of food and crammed with learning’) and three years at Oxford (where he obtained a first in History), he made a beeline for the Bar. He learned that his first novel, Tenant for Death had been accepted while on his feet defending a larcenist at Maidstone Assizes. Living in Cyril Mansions in Battersea, and working from Hare Court, Inner Temple, gave Clark the idea for his pseudonym.

Hare, the crime writer, certainly put his day job to good use. During the war he worked as a Judge’s Marshal —- providing the inspiration for Tragedy at Law. A short spell at the Ministry of Economic Warfare spawned the wonderfully atmospheric With a Bare Bodkin. Returning to the Bar after the war, Hare reached the pinnacle of his legal career in 1950 when he became a County Court judge.

While points of law play a large part in Hare’s books, you don’t have to be an LLB to derive great enjoyment from them. Hare is no show-off, boasting of his superior legal knowledge; his style is easy and fluent, and his books are eminently readable.
Four of Hare’s nine novels feature the far from successful, but extremely likeable, defence barrister, Francis Pettigrew. When we first encounter Pettigrew in Tragedy at Law he is leaning back in counsel’s seats in the Shire Hall at Markhampton and reflecting on how little he has achieved.

Looking back at the confident — and he could fairly say it now — brilliant young man who had opened his career at the Bar beneath that self-same flaking plaster ceiling, he fell to wondering what had gone wrong with him. Everything had promised well at first, and everything had turned out ill.... Some time he was going to be successful and make money. Some time he would take silk, become a Bencher of his Inn. Some time he would marry and have a family. And now in a sudden rush of disillusionment, from which he strove to exclude self-pity, he saw quite clearly that ‘some time’ had become ‘never’.

The transformation of Pettigrew from down-on-his luck Circuit barrister, staying in budget hotels and wearing shabby overcoats, into a fulfilled and happily married man, is one of the delights of the Hare canon.

Hare wasn’t only a great novelist; he was a master of the short story. Some of his short stories are very short indeed: in ‘The Rivals’ he manages to construct an intriguing whodunit in a little over 1,000 words.

In his introduction to a collection of Hare’s best short stories, Michael Gilbert recalls his first encounter with the great man at London’s Detection Club. Hare appeared to come


straight from the pages of the Strand magazine and Paget’s illustrations of the Sherlock Holmes stories. The thin, inquisitive nose, the intellectual forehead, the piercing eye, the Oxford common room voice.

Although the description implies a certain austerity, there was nothing chilly about Hare or his writing. He was a kindly and compassionate observer of human failings his work is full of humorous insights and devoid of the snobbery which mars much of the detective fiction of the ‘golden age’. Sadly, Hare was cut off in his prime, dying suddenly at the age of 57, exactly 50 years ago this week.

While his books have regularly been republished, most recently by House of Stratus at the turn of the decade, the great mystery is that, save for a 1975 Soviet film version of An English Murder, there have been no television or film adaptations of his work. Dramatisation of his novels would, I’m sure, make for wonderful Sunday night viewing. Half a century on from Hare’s untimely death, what better way could there be to bring the work of one of Britain’s finest writers to the attention of a wider audience?

7 comments:

ematejoca said...

I don´t know Cyril Hare, but after reading your article about him, I am very much curious to read a book from him.
I will try to find one in english or German language.

At the moment I am reading Ellery Queen´s "The Finishing Stroke".
Do you know it?

Greetings from Düsseldorf.

Neil Clark said...

Hi Ematejoca:
I'm not sure if Cyril Hare's boooks have been translated into German- I'll try and find out.
I read The Finishing Stroke about seven/eight years ago- a typically ingenious EQ-I won't tell you who the murderer was...! I hope you are enjoying it.
All the very best,
Neil

ematejoca said...

Thanks a lot, Neil. But I already found 3 books written by Cyril Hare:

"Suicide Excepted"

"When The Wind Blows"

" Death Is No Sportsman"

Now I just need to have time to read them.

I am sure that I know who the murderer is by "The Finishing Stroke"

Greetings from Düsseldorf

No Good Boyo said...

I gather PD James is a fan:

http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/article4524523.ece

Neil Clark said...

Hi ematejoca,
They're all good ones (especially the first), and I hope you enjoy them.

no good boyo- thanks.

An abandoned mind said...

I think Cyril Hare may have had a spell out of print in the 1980s. As a law student in that era I was recommended to read "Tragedy at Law" on the basis that it was one of the few novels in which the plot turns on a point of law. I could not find it in the bookshops and in those pre-internet days finding books second-hand was entirely hit and miss. A few years later I was in a pub which, as was popular in the Major era, had tried to create an atmosphere by decorating itself with shelves of books purchased by the yard. Suddenly a spotted half a shelf of rather good quality hardback copies of "T-at-L". Two pints of lager later and a copy was in my handbag.

It is an excellent read, as you say, with subtle characterisation and an extraordinary atmosphere.

Charles GC said...

As Cyril Hare's son (and the current holder of the copyright!) I'm delighted by your article, Neil - my sister had heard that there was a Spectator piece but not seen it.

You'll be glad to hear that Faber, the original publisher, are re-issuing the novels. The first, out early this month, is the Exmoor based novel He Should Have Died Hereafter, under its alternative title of Untimely Death, because that's what P D James refers to it as several times in her new novel The Private Patient. The next will be Tragedy at Law - I'm very glad of this, because it was the only one not published by House of Stratus. Then will come When the Wind Blows, about the travails of a local orchestral society. All the others, and the children’s story The Magic Bottle, will be available via "print on demand".

There are also coming large print editions (from Magna Print) of With a Bare Bodkin (wartime civil service), He Should Have Died Hereafter, and An English Murder (stately home Christmas) on the way - the first may be out, I'm not sure. A large print edition of Tenant for Death, the first novel, came out this year from Dale.

An audio edition of Tragedy at Law, on both CD and cassette, was published a year or two ago by Oakhill, excellently read by Steve Hodson.

There have been recent translations into French, Chinese, Italian &c, one is still available in Japanese, and something is regularly borrowed from German public libraries, ematejoca from Düsseldorf!

Neil, if you let me have your email address I’ll send you a piece I wrote (really for “Cyril Hare”’s grandchildren) on the 100th anniversary of his birth. (Anyone else interested is welcome to it too.) It’s 8500 words, 74Kb. My address is chipgc@ukonline.co.uk.

Best wishes

Charles Gordon Clark