An English Murder is a classic whodunnit for cold December nights. When a mysterious death takes place on Christmas Eve, snowed-in guests at a country house must uncover the killer.
I’ve been collecting festive detective stories to read throughout December and this novel was at the top of my list. I’d recommend it to anyone who loves golden-age-style mysteries.
Published in 1951, An English Murder pays homage to all the stock-characters, from the deferential butler to the fainting socialite. It comes across as a gentle, post-war satire.
The story begins with Dr Wenceslaus Bottwink, a European academic and holocaust survivor. He’s visiting Warbeck Hall, deep in the English countryside, to analyse historical documents belonging to the owner. When the work takes longer than expected, he finds himself trapped by snow and part of an unsettling Christmas house party.
The other guests are a strange mix of characters from across the political spectrum. The elderly, ill aristocrat, Lord Warbeck, has summoned them to his crumbling ancestral home for one last holiday surrounded by family and friends.
It’s the political theme that helps An English Murder stand apart from other country house mysteries. I enjoyed the way it shines a spotlight on post-war opinions and attitudes.
The reader learns that Warbeck’s nasty son and heir is the leader of a fascist group. His jovial cousin is on the other side of the political spectrum; as the Chancellor of the Exchequer for the left-wing government, he’s accompanied by a police bodyguard. They’re joined by the loquacious wife of a politician and a naïve, young aristocrat, who wants to rekindle her romance with Warbeck’s heir.
When a murder takes place, Dr Bottwink is left in a difficult position. The only one without a motive, he’s also the most at risk; the other guests may accuse him – a stranger – to avoid upsetting the English class system. As events unfold, we’re given a gentle parody of the UK’s social prejudices.
About the Author
Cyril Hare, the supposed author of this novel, doesn’t exist. Hare is pseudonym used by the lawyer Alfred Alexander Gordon Clark, a key figure in the world of the whodunnit (he’s much admired by P.D. James). A helpful mini-biography at the front of the book reveals that he was an Oxford-educated barrister-turned-judge who used his legal background as inspiration for his mysteries.
Gordon Clark didn’t write An English Murder as a novel – it was adapted from a radio play. Possibly because of this, the number of characters is small and the book itself is a quick read, at around two hundred pages. Compared to many lengthier mysteries this has a simple plot with a fun final twist.
Verdict: Short enough to fit between other festive fun, An English Murder is a book you can polish off in an afternoon. This is an interesting, tongue-in-cheek alternative to the standard country house mystery.