Untimely Death (1958) – Cyril Hare

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In last week’s The Turquoise Shop, the first body had been found shortly before the book begins. In Untimely Death (first published as He Should Have Died Hereafter), you could say the first corpse turned up decades before.

The first half of the book takes place entirely in the Exmoor area, where the Francis and Eleanor Pettigrew have decided to stay for their holiday. For Francis, the location holds many vivid memories of time spent there in childhood. We are allowed time to get to know the Pettigrew’s hosts, the tight-fisted Mr. Joliffe and his quiet daughter Mrs. Gorman, who is raising her two daughters alone. The Gorman family, a feuding local clan, are key to the mystery. Most of them only feature in a few scenes, but they are all well-sketched.

We also get to know the Pettigrews themselves. This is my first time reading about them, but it’s not their first appearance – I didn’t feel like I was missing any context, though. Although their relationship was distant in ways that seemed very of their time, I found their partnership compelling and often funny, with both of them feeling like real people. It was interesting to see where they trusted each other and where they didn’t. Eleanor gets plenty of opportunities to shine, and is even the focus of her own entertaining chapter when she goes to visit her old school friend.

Of course, Francis Pettigrew is the series detective, though, and this is his story. It’s he who gets the character arc over the course of the book. This staid retired lawyer becomes bewitched by his past, leading him to do things he would never ordinarily do, to think things he would never usually think, and perhaps even to see things he should never have seen. The first half of the book plots a downward arc, as his rose-tinted view of his past becomes darkened first by the spectacle of a stag hunt and then by a buried memory of finding a body on the moor. Things continue to worsen for him after he sees a body in the present-day, which has vanished by the time he fetches help. He ends this first section thoroughly defeated, and it was impossible not to feel sympathy for him.

That the detective figure is not impervious to the effects of the crime but is transformed by them is perhaps a symptom of this book being a late entry in the ranks of “Golden Age” crime fiction. It’s more successful as a novel exploring a character than it is as a mystery. The problem that’s set up could technically be called an “impossible crime”, since (spoilers for early on) Pettigrew sees the body well before the time of death given when the body appears for the police. While not quite going full Rim of the Pit, the writing manages to push the “unnatural” explanation fairly strongly, and had me so thoroughly involved that I didn’t even try and consider what might have happened until the second half began to explain things.

I found this first section to be fantastically absorbing. The atmosphere of the moor past and present is brought to life so well that I felt like I could have been there myself (OK, I do often visit moorland, so that probably helps. And I have seen an Exmoor pony). The sights and sounds, smells and tastes are all conjured up in almost the same way Pettigrew’s returning memories must have felt. And the writing also manages to convey the murky feeling that you can never quite be in control of your own mind.

Wild Exmoor ponies. The horse in Untimely Death,
which may or may not be called Dobbin, is a cross-breed.

The transition to London for the second half of the book, then, is a shock to the system. The writing moves away from the atmosphere and confusion of Exmoor, and transitions to what I understand is Hare’s mystery writer trademark, the Unusual Legal Situation. In the unenchanted halls of Chancery, both Pettigrew and the reader can take a clear-eyed look at the mystery. Hare portrays all the characters involved in the case very well – both those we’ve seen before, and those new to this section, such as the judge, who I particularly liked. The depiction of Pettigrew shifts as he gains more understanding of the situation and becomes more active, as well.
One disappointment I had was that clearly a lot of good detection had been done off-page; I would have liked to see it, but the book would have had a very different tone if it had been included – as it is, the story remains focused on Pettigrew throughout.

Even though it’s done well, the eventual wrap-up of the story happens very rapidly. I noticed that the book was especially short. Untimely Death was Cyril Hare’s final book he wrote before he died, at age 57, of tuberculosis. I wondered as I finished reading whether he would have expanded the novel, had he lived a little longer. Although the book was satisfying, I wanted to read more. The huge increase in pace in the second half seems like a missed opportunity – with more time to explore, maybe the book could have been truly great. I still would recommend it – but perhaps not to those readers looking for a complex puzzle. Nevertheless, its evocation of atmosphere, the character arc for Pettigrew, and its excellent courtroom scene all make it stand out. I look forward to reading more Cyril Hare in future.

Other opinions:

In Search of the Classic Mystery
The Grandest Game in the World
Northern Reader
An article covering Cyril Hare’s life and work, by Martin Edwards and Philip L. Scowcroft:

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