"I want to seize fate by the throat."- Ludwig van Beethoven
Alfred A.G. Clarke is primarily remembered under his chosen alias, namely "Cyril Hare," which appeared on the cover of several works of popular detective-fiction, but the often overlooked legal career of the author functioned as an obvious repository of inspiration for those stories – having served as both a barrister and a judge.
There are nine novels and a volume of short stories, published over a span of three decades, beginning with Tenant for Death (1937), which introduced Inspector Mallett.
A second series-characters is introduced in Tragedy at Law (1942): a disillusioned barrister, named Francis Pettigrew, who prefers not to clad himself in the mantle of Sherlock Holmes. Luckily for the reader, "Cabot Cove-syndrome" wasn't a diagnosable condition in Pettigrew's days. So he does not have much sway in the matter.
There is, however, an upheaval in the personal life of Pettigrew in the opening of Hare's sixth mystery novel, When the Wind Blows (1949), having transitioned from a middle-aged bachelor to a married man and settled down to "a life of domesticity in the country" – which include being the honorary treasurer to the Markshire Orchestral Society.
It had begun fairly innocently. Pettigrew was called in as a consultant, of sort, to help settle an absurd dispute, but reluctantly became fully involved as a prelude to murder began to softly play in the background.
The first quarter of the plot consists primarily of planning, compiling and squabbling over the content of a concert programme for their annual performance at City Hall, which is done in Hare's elegant, literate style and keen eye for characterization.
You're almost lulled into believing you're actually reading a "novel of character," instead of a detective story, but for an altercation between the solo violinist, Lucy Carless, and a Polish clarinetist, Tadeusz Zbartorowski, which makes the latter bow-out and leaving them to find a last-minute replacement. A substitute is found and the concert does take place, but never reaches its final crescendo. The concert is prematurely cancelled when they stumble across the strangled remains of Lucy Carless backstage!
The task of snarling the responsible party in the death of the solo violinist is basically divided between two "teams" of detectives.
|The U.S. title of When the Wind Blows|
First of all, there's Detective-Inspector Trimble of the City Division of the Markshire County Constabulary, a young policeman who's "well aware that he had yet to prove himself," accompanied "by an elderly, skeptical sergeant of the old dispensation" named Tate – who are officially in charge of the investigation and they perform most of the legwork. However, Francis Pettigrew is reposed in an armchair and is reluctant "to be drawn into the inquiry," despite having "stumbled on something that had helped to uncover a crime" in the past, but finds himself cattle-probed into action by Chief-Constable MacWilliam.
I really enjoyed the interaction between those two and they're reportedly reunited in That Yew Tree's Shade (1954), but back to the book at hand.
The chapters in which the investigation is being discussed between Chief-Constable MacWilliam and Pettigrew or Trimble show the simplistic complexity of the case, because there aren't any sub-plots to distract from the main problem – which includes such perplexities as an unknown substitute clarinetist taking the place of first substitute during the concert. Who was stranded in a different town by an unknown driver in a stolen car. It's obvious someone slapped together an alibi, but how it was pulled off and by who is different question altogether.
It makes for a trim, streamlined plot with barely an ounce of fat on the story. However, When the Wind Blows suffers from a particular kind of weakness that appears to be a hereditary trait in Hare's work, which is basically grossly overestimating the intelligence of his readers – as the motivation in his books usually hinge on obscure points of law, history or literature. You basically have to be a polymath to solve those aspects of the books, but it's hard not to admire a writing who can tie-together Mozart's Prague Symphony, Charles Dicksens' David Copperfield (1850), a personal specialty of Henry VIII and a question of tempo.
So, all in all, I wouldn't place When the Wind Blows in the same league as Hare classics, such as Suicide Excepted (1939) and An English Murder (1951), but there was a definite effort made to place it there and its author sure came close in doing so.
Finally, in my review of Cold Blood (1952) by Leo Bruce, I commented on the gloomy, post-War atmosphere of the book and "D for Doom" responded as follow: "They still had rationing until 1954" and "the Labor Party wanted rationing to continue forever," which would mean the "future was going to be gray and bleak and dull."
Coincidently, I came across a couple of interesting lines in When the Wind Blows pertaining to these post-war rationings, which I had to share coming so close after reading Cold Blood.
Upon visiting Pettigrew, MacWilliam remarks, "in these days of shortages and rationing, it should be considered perfectly proper for guests to bring with them morsels of tea and sugar and disgusting little packets of margarine for the benefit of their hosts." There's a report on "the fatal stockings" that "had been destined to choke the life out of Lucy Carless," but tracing their purchase proved completely impossible, because "the stocking-starved maids and matrons of Markhampton and the surrounding countryside" had "stampeded into the shop and cleared the place of the first fully-fashioned sheer, superfine nylons that had been seen in the city for many a long month."