Cyril Hare was the pseudonym of a distinguished lawyer, Alfred A. G. Clark, barrister and later judge, who used his knowledge of the law to form the basis of his detective novels. I first came across Hare’s fiction in a superb anthology – the Oxford Book of English Detective Fiction, edited by Patricia Craig – but hadn’t read any of his longer works until recently, when Faber reissued his Tragedy At Law and When The Wind Blows, both of which featured lawyer Francis Pettigrew as sleuth.
Untimely Death begins with a holiday: Pettigrew and his younger wife Eleanor travel down to Exmoor to stay in a place called Sallowcombe. Pettigrew does not at first tell Eleanor that he had stayed there many times before as a boy, but she deduces it by their first day, when they take a picnic lunch out of the farmhouse and avoid the stag-hunting at Satcherley Way. However, after their lunch, the hunt passes nearby, and Pettigrew is reminded of something which happened to him as a child, but which he had never previously told anyone about, and which he had suppressed. He tells Eleanor that he had been at Bolter’s Tussock during a hunt, and had come across a dead man; his pony had bolted, and he had never dared tell anyone about the discovery.
Eleanor, admirable wife, tells her husband to go and exorcise the ghost by visiting Bolter’s Tussock (and work the nostalgia out of his system), while she drives to visit her old friend Hester Greenway, who lives in a tiny village called Minster Tracy. While there, she learns some family history of the Gormans, a local family renowned for their quarrels and legal actions, and her car breaks down. Mr Joliffe, the owner of the farm where the Pettigrews are staying, is luckily in the vicinity and is able to fix it for her, but she’s delayed. However, on her way back to Sallowcombe, she comes across her husband, who is revealed (in the next chapter) to have discovered a dead body in the same place. However, he’s not able to verify it, since the pony he was riding did as the pony did before, and bolted, though to join up with the hunt. His story is not taken seriously by the followers of the hunt, and he discovers, when he and the hunt return, that the body has gone, but that the owner of the pony had been thrown and has been searching fruitlessly for his mount. However, the two memories of finding a dead body are now becoming inextricably linked in Pettigrew’s mind, and he begins to be unsure that the second body was really there, and wasn’t an hallucination of the previous event.
From this rather dreamlike beginning, Hare weaves a workmanlike plot dealing with the death of Gilbert Gorman, and the shenanigans resulting from his rather odd will, which Pettigrew investigates, along with retired policeman Mr Mallett. Hare’s writing is balanced between lyricism and wryness, and he draws his characters and the landscape well, pointing out the inconsistencies in Pettigrew’s thinking, and his little hypocrisies, as well as giving the reader brief insights into other characters’ thoughts.
…Mrs. Gorman cooed as gently as a sucking-dove. Pettigrew sat up in bed and contemplated that demure, slightly melancholy face, the calm, unruffled brow, the infinitely respectable demeanour. Anybody less like the heroine of an illicit love affair it would be hard to imagine. But he knew the layout of the house too well to have any doubt as to which was Mrs. Gorman’s room. His judgement of character had been hopelessly at fault—not for the first time, he conceded. He felt at once irritated and amused. It was like living in a short story by Somerset Maugham…
Pettigrew is an ordinarily intelligent man, and in fact Eleanor is more intuitive, but he is aided in this mystery by his knowledge of the law, and Mallett’s enquiries. The book covers several months, and Hare neatly and lightly obscures the real crime under an accidental death.
I enjoyed this, the third of Hare’s Pettigrew novels I’ve read (though I think When The Wind Blows is better), and would recommend them to anyone who likes more old-fashioned mystery stories, or who likes a detective novel dealing with legal issues.