Who Goes Hang? (1958) by Stanley Hyland

Stanley Hyland was a British TV producer for the BBC who worked on most of Prime Minister Harold Wilson's broadcasts from 1964 to 1970 and had previously been employed as a research librarian at the House of Commons, which gave him a thorough understanding of the workings of Parliament – providing a wealth of information for his first of three detective novels. Martin Edwards praised Hyland's Who Goes Hang? (1958) as "a beautifully constructed story which boasts as many twists as an Agatha Christie" and Erik Routley suggested in The Puritan Pleasure of the Detective Story (1972) it's perhaps the last in the line of cerebral stories of detection. Who Goes Hang? received a Japanese translation over twenty years ago and secured the 8th place on the international list of the 2001 Honkaku Mystery Best 10. Although some contrarians are out there today. So let's see where this lands.

Who Goes Hang? begins on tenth of May, 1956, when a workman is carrying out renovations in the Clock Tower, "just beneath the bell-chamber of Big Ben, the Great Bell of Westminster," that uncovers a hidden cavity. Behind the Victorian brickwork, the workman finds the body of man, "shrunken in mummified stillness," dressed in clothes of "of a fashion at least a century old" and a crushed skull ("...struck with something like a sandbag..."). So a clear case of murder.

Any death within one of Her Majesty's palaces, like the Houses of Parliament, needs to be explained to the satisfactory of the Coroner of the Royal Household, even one that happened a hundred years ago – which means an inquest on the mummy. Normally, the setting for an inquest in one of these British whodunits is a village pub or school building, but in Who Goes Hang? it's the Moses Room ("properly the Peers' Robing Room") in the House of Lords with a distinguished jury comprising of everything from a Lieutenant-General of the last war to the Controller-General of the Jewel House. During the inquest, they go over the items found on the body that include a pocket watch engraved with a motto, a phrase ("Effrenate") and a depiction of two tiny masks ("the formal tragic and comic masks of the classical theatre").

Hubert Bligh, Member for the Brackwell Division of Lambeth, recognizes the engravings and links its to an old house in his constituency. A place called Roshy House which house a grotesque looking statue of a humpback.

So what could be the link between the mummified body walled up beneath Big Ben and Roshy House? Considering the time scale involved, the investigation is going to be an academic one rather than a police investigation. After all, whoever killed and entombed the man also died a long time ago. A special committee is proposed and assembled, Bligh Committee, to investigate the historical murder. Mostly, the committee do an excellent job, if like this kind of thing, in going over the historical archives with a fine tooth comb to slowly, but surely, collecting facts and snippets of information in the hope of finding satisfactory answers to all the questions posed by the body in the Clock Tower.

Not a classical, grand-style British whodunit, but an academic reconstruction of the past and a historical crime. If you're one of those people who hated history in school and spend class jabbing away at your wrist with a math compass to make it end, you'll probably find the first two-thirds of the story dry, lifeless and probably very boring. I, on the other hand, enjoyed it for the most part and especially when the time comes for the inquest to resume with Bligh taking the stand – delivering a detailed, apparently watertight account of what happened nearly a century ago. Only for a small, until then overlooked detail to upturn the whole apple cart leaving Bligh in the witness box in a state of utter confusion. Something that puts an entirely different complexion on the case, but, regrettably, the story completely deteriorates in the last quarter. A unfair, drawn out mess of a conclusion to a story that started out so promising. But even before arriving there, the story had already lost me. I didn't care anymore about the body, who put it there and why.

Even worse, Hyland overlooked a golden opportunity to salvage Who Goes Hang? There's one character who screamed out to me to be the murderer and could have been furnished with a first-class motive (SPOILERS/ROT13): gur obql vf erirnyrq gb unir qvrq n ybg zber erpragyl guna svefg gubhtug naq jnf uvqqra va gur Pybpx Gbjre qhevat gur Frpbaq Jbeyq Jne (ernq gur obbx sbe qrgnvyf). Gur zheqrere “xarj gur obql jbhyq or sbhaq naq ur ubcrq vg jbhyq or qvfzvffrq nf na vafbyhoyr uvfgbevpny zlfgrel,” juvpu vf jul gur obql jnf jrnevat 19gu praghel pybguvat naq pneelvat bgure crevbq vgrzf – yvxr gur cbpxrg jngpu naq pbvaf. Fb gur zheqrere vf sne sebz qrnq. Jul abg znxr gur zheqrere gur jbexzna, Serq Nezlgntr, jub qvfpbirerq gur obql? Nezlgntr pbhyq unir orra jbexvat ba gur Pybpx Gbjre qhevat gur jne, gb pneel bhg gur ercnvef, juvpu tnir uvz gur vqrn gb hfr gur pnivgl sbe gur cresrpg zheqre naq cnff uvf ivpgvz bss nf na hafbyinoyr, uvfgbevpny chmmyr. Fb jul jbhyq Nezlgntr erghea gb qvfpbire gur obql, orfvqr zbeovq phevbfvgl gb frr uvf cyna hasbyq? Fvzcyr, gur uvfgbevpny pbvaf va gur ivpgvz'f cbpxrgf! Ng gur gvzr, Nezlgntr unq ab vqrn gur pbvaf jurer jbegu, be jbhyq or jbegu, n cerggl craal hagvy gur obql jnf nyy frnyrq hc. Erzrzore, gur fgbel gnxrf cynpr qhevat gur cbfg-jne znynvfr bs gur svsgvrf naq univat fhpu na vanpprffvoyr arfg rtt zhfg or znqqravat gb na beqvanel jbexzna. Jura gur bccbeghavgl svanyyl neevirf, Nezlgntr creuncf ibyhagrref gb qb jbex (onfrq ba uvf cerivbhf rkcrevraprf) ba gur gbjref, oernxf njnl gur jnyy naq gnxrf nyy ohg bar bs gur pbvaf. Bayl pbva ur zvffrf vf gur ohz craal gung raqf hc qrfgeblvat gur pbzzvggrr'f snyfr-fbyhgvba.

Yes, it's a rough, unpolished idea, but (ROT13) yvxr gur gubhtug bs gur crefba jub qvfpbiref, jung rirelbar vavgvnyyl nffhzrf vf, n 100-lrne-byq zheqre ivpgvz gheaf bhg gb or gur zheqrere nsgre nyy. Now that's an Agatha Christie-style rug-puller from the least-likely-suspect category that would have given the book a claim to the status of a minor, post-war classic of the British detective novel. Unfortunately, for us, Hyland didn't write that kind of detective novel.

So, all in all, Hyland's Who Goes Hang? has a great premise, hobbles along to a splendid, midway twist upturning everything before going to pieces in the most unsatisfactory way. The historical details and color aren't enough to carry the last part of the plot. No recommendation this time and I'll try to pick something good for the next one.

A note for the curious: if you find the idea of "an academic investigation" into a historical mystery fascinating, you might fare better with Katsuhiko Takahashi's Sharaka satsujin jikes (The Case of the Sharaka Murders, 1983). It's not the best or most well-known Japanese mystery novel to be translated, but the plot is full of historical interest and concerns the search for the identify of an 18th century woodblock print artist, Sharaka – who was only active for ten months. Again, it's not the best or most typical of Japanese detective novels, but better and clearer plotted than Who Goes Hang?


  1. Barzun & Taylor admired this one:
    "A good sign to anyone who knows the House of Commons ritual phrase 'Who goes home?' The book under this label is an unusual story about a mummified corpse found in the fabric of Big Ben when repairs are begun. Murder is obvious, and it must have been done a hundred years before. Strange clues are found in a house near that of a young MP, to which attention is drawn by an inscription in the corpse’s watch. The mode of investigation is by committee, and after a brilliant twist the murder is solved without any sense of remoteness from the clear light of our own day."

    That said, I seem to remember starting this a few years ago, and not getting into it.

    1. In that case, you can safely ignore the recommendation for The Case of the Sharaka Murders.

  2. I remember finding this book a dull one.