A Question of Tempo

"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."

Is it just a coincidence I came across these lines so soon after reading Cold Blood or did I always ignore this late-part of the British WWII mysteries? Anyhow, I'll probably back sooner than later with a new review and/or post.


  1. One of the main reasons why I enjoy vintage mysteries are the little insights into history that they give! There's often references to pre-war quality wool or the difficulties of cooking with rationing. It's also interesting to see how society changes from the say 20s to the 50s, with the welfare state being built and the labour government taxing property heavily. My fave bits. :)

    1. For me, these historic pieces littering classic mysteries are a bonus on top of the stories themselves. However, I'm disappointed in myself that I never really noticed these rationing bits before in the British mysteries from the post-WWII stories.

      I guess I was too preoccupied with WWII-set mysteries (with its blackouts, rationings, uniforms in the streets etc) that I sort of stopped paying attention to them in works written after 1945. But then again, it's kind of impossible to miss all the references about the difficulty the upperclass has in getting domestic servants after the war.

      It's sad that the old, European empires died off after the war, because the Angelo-Dutch alliance never got a proper opportunity to control the entirety of the globe. It would've been better for everyone if we did, including France and the US. ;)

    2. General Groves had something to do with it.

  2. Yeah I agree that you have to be a genius in a lot of fields to interpret some of the clues given in this story, though I also found when reviewing this book in August, that I preferred Inspector Trimble to Pettigrew as his role is so minor that it barely features at all. I didn't pick up so much on the historical context of the novel your points on that were interesting. Think Suicide Excepted is probably one of my favourite Hare novels though. An interesting nugget is that the dedicatee of the book was the organist at Hare's wedding. If you are interested my review can be found at:

    1. If it weren't for An English Murder, Suicide Excepted would probably be my undisputed favorite among Hare's novels. It's so great and highly recommended.

      Funny you mentioned the dedicatee, because the name sounded familiar to me and looked him up, which brought me to this site. You might find it interesting.

      Thanks for the link to your review!

    2. I've never read An English Murder but it's definitely on my list of books I want to get hold of. Glad to know it's a strong Hare novel.

  3. I have come across several Hare books over the decades, but never one. Am really interested in finding it now - thanks TC.

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    1. Ah, we Americans love to hype up stuff. I do like our title better, but strictly from a marketing perspective. I must search out this Hare guy now...

    2. It's true. Americans have a long-standing tradition of blooding up literate sounding titles from British mystery writers. Even the Rue Morgue Press did it with Maureen Sarsfield's Green Decembers Fills the Graveyard, which they changed to Murder at Shots Hall.