Having FINALLY finished Death Is No Sportsman, I think it’s time for a post summing up my findings and feelings about its author. Being still somewhat of a newcomer to his work as I have only read three of his books so far, I don’t claim in-depth knowledge of it and maybe some of my reflections will appear trivial, incomplete or downright erroneous to those better read than me. If so, please let me know; that’s what the comments section is for.
Let’s start with some words about DINS. It was my first introduction to Inspector Mallett and while there’s no denying his puzzle-solving abilities I found him a rather colourless detective in the same vein as E.C.R. Lorac’s Inspector MacDonald. He is very much a humdrum detective, which is fitting since DINS is basically a humdrum detective story – much emphasis is put on physical clues, time-tables and alibis; I was often reminded when reading of Sayers’s Five Red Herrings and I wonder whether it’s coincidental. The plot is more complex than usual with Hare and for once doesn’t rely on arcane legal knowledge and while I had spotted the villain early it kept me doubting until the end. I am less enthusiastic about the characters as only a handful of them actually materialize in the course of the story, the rest remaining sketches in the service of the plot. Let not these caveats give you the wrong impression, however – it is overall a very good mystery and my slow reading was not due to it being a bore.
Hare’s books are not quick reads anyway. While rather short by modern and even contemporary standards, they require an unusual amount of attention from the reader, lest they miss important information but also some pithy line or elegant turn of phrase. Everything is sotto voce in a Hare novel; you have to prick up your ears and listen carefully. Most GAD writers were snobs, but Hare is something else – an elitist writer aiming at a « sophisticated » audience able to understand without needing too much explanation. Hence his frequent relience on knowledge or disciplines that may seem foreign and even obscure to the lay reader. I have often seen people dispute the fairness of the solution to An English Murder as very few people know English law well enough to work out the motive on their own but that’s the point – these few people are the readers Hare primarily writes for.
Stress « Writes » as Hare is one of the greatest prose stylists in the history of crime fiction, and maybe one of the reasons why his output is so small is that it was really, really hard work. While a casual look may make it appear to be nothing more than serviceable, the connoisseur can’t fail to notice the elegance and discreet yet biting irony of his writing and above all the amazing conciseness that allows it to drive his point home and convey the intended effect with far fewer words than your usual Golden Ager. The man could write – and the best, if paradoxical, proof of that is that it seems so easy when it’s not. No bravura descriptions, no long-winded phrases, no abuse of similes and metaphors… Always the right word in the right place and nothing more. Hare is the anti-Allingham.
This refusal of the spectacular also shows in his choice of detectives who are either bland professionals (Mallett) or unassuming, reluctant amateurs (Pettigrew, Bottwink) drawn into crime-solving in spite of themselves. Hare obviously didn’t believe in the Great Detective mythos nor it appears in most conventions of the genre, starting with the sacrosanct « restoration of order » that any self-respecting traditional mystery is supposed to be about. Order is emphatically NOT restored in the end of An English Murder – its disruption is actually the book’s whole point – and only mildly in DINS and When the Wind Blows.
Hare is not a depressing writer, however. His books are rich in humour, though in a typically understated fashion. The overall mood is less one of gloom than skepticism, especially when it comes to society and mores. I have frequently written here about how unfair and reductive is the charge of conservatism and conformism often levelled by critics against Golden Age writers, and Hare is a case in point. He often pokes fun at authority, especially as represented by aristocrats, judges, police officers and even clerics. Also noteworthy is his treatment of sex, which nearly always plays a role in his plots and is discussed frankly and in a comparatively non-judgmental way. (DINS has an unseen single mother character whose behaviour is never explicitly condemned, Hare and most of the cast treating it as a fact of life.)
Traditional in approach but modern or almost so in outlook, Hare is one of those writers whose early death and/or smaller output are both saddening and frustrating as one wonders what they might have done had they lived. There is also an element of mystery about him as his books reveal a much more complex character than his well-documented public and private lives suggest. The paucity of critical and biographical work is thus surprising, as what little there is tends to focus almost exclusively on his most famous work, Tragedy at Law, and ignore all the rest so that Hare is arguably one of crime fiction’s best-known « one-hit wonders » despite not being a one-hit wonder. Everything about Alfred Alexander Gordon Clark is filled with irony, even his legacy.