I read Cyril Hare’s 1937 mystery, ‘Tenant For Death’ as part of a buddy read on BookLikes, so I shared my thoughts as I went along. I’ve structured this review to give my overall impression and then included the impressions I had as I read through the book.
This is one of those curious books that could have been remarkable but misses by enough to make it only competent in the end.
I think the problem is that Hare undervalues the things that he’s good at and spends too much time on things he doesn’t do well.
I like his subtle, wry, always present humour. I admire the way he can draw people with a few deft strokes, like a street portrait painter.
I find his way telling his story by cutting from scene to scene with minimal exposition to be very effective in a cinematic, surprisingly modern way.
The central conceit of the plot is clever and well displayed, giving me tantalising insights that kept me guessing but not enough insight to be right.
Where the whole thing sinks like an under-baked sponge cake is in the back and forth between the Inspector and his underling. I gut the impression that Hare saw this as one of the better parts of the book, the thing that made it into a detective story of merit. ( I blame Conan Doyle for infecting detective stories with ideas like these), yet I found this endless theorising and capricious withholding of data and conclusions to be tedious, improbable and sometimes actually annoying.
There are also things where it is polite to say that the book is a product of its time – the inspectors acceptance of lavish hospitality from the brother of the Lord he is investigating, the use of the old school tie to attempt to protect the guilty, the dubious disposition of the killer’s wealth – all of these things and Hare’s unthinking acceptance of them made me grit my teeth. But then, that’s how things were and how our current corrupt, incompetent, Eton-radicalised leaders would like it to be again.
This was Hare’s first novel, so I’m hoping that he learns to value his own talent more and puts aside the clumsy find-the-lady act in future novels.
12% A very modern tone
This strikes me as being very modern in tone.
It reads like a TV thriller only without the ubiquitous and heavily sign-posted sense of oncoming doom that Nordic Noir has made de rigueur.
I like the short, quickly and deftly sketched scenes that build on one another without the heavy hand of exposition weighing on my shoulders.
The Nordic doom is replaced with a very English insouciance (how odd that the English had to borrow a French word for such a prominent national trait) accompanied by a hidden-but-almost-always-present venality and greed.
50% A TV book I think
This is running along smoothly, like a light but well-done TV episode: lots of characters presented in neat, well-visualised scenes; little hints at the bigger picture but no overt theorising; colourful characters taking the place of real characterisation and a competent everyman detective to do the digging for us without his history or personal circumstances coming to the fore.
75% Bobby on a bicycle
I loved the Inspector playing acting as a Bobby on a bicycle. That he did it to spare the sensiblities of a retired colonel and his daughter doesn’t sit so well.
Not really enjoying him and his subordinate theorising – feels too much like a delaying tactic.
What keeps me going with this book when it slips into pointless speculation is the humour, sewn like sequins into the fabric of the story.
‘Old Mrs. Bradworthy was an institution in theatrical London. She had sat, a genial fat figure in black silk, at the back of her little shop, just round the corner from Drury Lane, longer than the most elderly ingénue actress could remember.’
The little barb at the actresses flashes in the light and is gone. These remarks are like a did-you-spot-that? game between author and reader. Nothing serious but all the more fun for that.