Untimely Death by Cyril Hare – Or “He should have Died Hereafter”?

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This is a fairly unusual book originally published in 1957, now available from faber and faber. Written by a vastly experienced barrister, the law is at least as important as the detection of crime in this novel. Not that it features a detective keenly searching for clues or suspects; for a while there is a denial that there has indeed been a murder or indeed a death. The circumstances in which Francis Pettigrew even becomes involved in the situation is circumstantial and seemingly accidental; the beginning of the narrative relates to childhood memories revisited. A brief novel in many ways, a clue may be in the original title: “He Should Have Died Hereafter”.

The novel opens with retired barrister Francis Pettigrew’s admission that the holiday with his wife Eleanor is all her idea, financing and eventual passing of her driving test. They find rooms in a farmhouse in Sallowcombe, where he had spent his childhood. He further discovers that a Hunt is on, and he remembers his childhood fears as he was not a natural horse rider. The farmhouse in which they stay is run by a Mr Joliffe, a widower, who lives there with his apparently widowed daughter and her two daughters. The relationships within the family seem to be complicated, as Francis witnesses a clandestine visit. A picnic ends with a sizable walk for Francis, as he revisits old haunts and discovers dramatic changes. Bolter’s Tussock is a special place in his memory, as he discovered a body there as a child. His experiences there as an adult leave him bewildered and baffled, as well as in pain as he has another enforced attempt at horse riding. This is quite a funny section of the book, as his riding is unpractised to say the least. When there is no body to be seen, Pettigrew becomes more agitated as he wonders if he has imagined everything. The women in the novel are frank and blunt, even when life becomes complicated. This is almost a book of two halves, as what Francis thinks he has seen is later extremely relevant to an inquest and a large civil case. As Francis returns to his old workplace, the lawyer is reminded of his life’s work and old friends, and the peculiarities of the law which confuses other people.

This book really worked for me on several levels. It is a fascinating mystery as no logical explanation seems possible to what Francis thinks he has seen. There is sadness as the revelations of the novel emerge. The obscurity of the legal point is not unique to this book, but it is well handled here and a satisfactory conclusion is reached. The characters are honestly described in all their complexity, especially the women. It is a little confusing at times, and the police do not emerge in a great light. It is a reasonably quick read, logical and always interesting, and the author’s own legal background makes it reliable on the legal points. There is a fair bit of humour, and in some senses it is a psychological mystery. A most enjoyable book, and having also read “An English Murder” I am keen to find others by this author.

Lots of books to review at the moment, fortunately the weather is still too hot to do a lot more than read! (Not that I’m complaining!) The plants are looking a bit sad at the moment, despite Northernvicar’s attempts with the hose. Still, we are getting lots of cherry tomatoes. There is also the Vicarage Tea Party to look forward to, so I hope that isn’t the day when we have a sudden downpour.

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6 thoughts on “Untimely Death by Cyril Hare – Or “He should have Died Hereafter”?

  1. I’d love to know why the title was changed. Ought to be illegal! It was the “Tomorrow tomorrow and tomorrow” speech, wasn’t it? Really useful for crime authors – eg The way to dusty death”. Anyway, I’m tempted to look for the novel in my library now, thank you.

    1. Yes apparently this one has been around in this edition for a while. Pan brought out “An English Murder” which I have really enjoyed (and reviewed here ) as well as recommending it for our book group. The Scottish play is really good for titles!

  2. Other than An English Murder, my two other favourite Hare novels are Suicide Excepted and With a Bare Bodkin, for the latter has a really good WW2 setting. Would recommend both. Though if you enjoy the legal point aspect of Hare’s work you might enjoy Tragedy at Law.

  3. I have read and enjoyed all of Hare’s novels. He didn’t fall into the trap of making his novels fit a pattern. Each is unique. A skillful and thoughtful author, under appreciated. I do think he work improved a bit with age and experience, but all are above average in my view.

    1. I really enjoyed this book, partly because my first degree was in Law, and I worked as a lawyer for a while after graduating. Sadly, the obscure points of law are not what earns the money today! Apparently Hare was a notable judge as well as writer, and he died tragically early while producing his best stuff. I have a copy of “When the Wind Blows” so I’ll read and review that sometime.

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