Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. When many people think of Golden Age crime fiction, they think of names such as John Dickson Carr, Agatha Christie, or perhaps Ellery Queen. The name of Cyril Hare doesn’t always get as much ‘press’ as some of the other authors of the era get. He was, however, a much-loved and prolific writer, mostly of short stories, but also of several novels. Let’s take a look at Hare’s work today, and turn the spotlight on Tenant For Death, the first of his Inspector Mallett series.
The real action in the story begins when two estate agent clerks, Harper and Lewis, are sent to one of their firm’s properties, 27 Daylesford Gardens. The tenant, Mr. Colin James, seems to have vacated the premises, and the firm wants to protect the interests of their client, a Miss Penrose. The two clerks duly go to the property and begin their task of documenting the contents and noting any ‘dilapidations.’ To their shock, though, they find the body of a man. And it’s not Mr. James.
Scotland Yard Inspector Mallett and his assistant, Detective-Sergeant (DS) Frant, take the case and open up the investigation. The dead man is soon identified as Lionel Ballantine, a very successful business executive, who had a posh Belgrave Square home, as well as a welcome at the home of his mistress. So, why would he have been at a somewhat disreputable place like Daylesford Gardens?
As Mallett and Frant look into the murder, they have to unravel several mysteries. For one thing, they very much want to know whether Colin James knew Ballantine. He might have had a motive for murder, or at least might know something about the victim’s last days and weeks. But James has gone missing. Another avenue they want to explore is Ballantine’s personal life. After all his wife might not take kindly to his having a mistress, and his mistress is married to someone else. All of that complication could easily lead to murder. And then there are Ballantine’s business affairs. He had some tangled, unethical (possibly illegal) financial dealings, and there could very well be people who would have wanted to kill him.
Slowly, Mallett and Frant follow the trail of the victim’s last days. As they do, they follow the money, as the saying goes. They also try to trace everyone’s alibi and account of themselves. It’s a complex web, but in the end, they find out who killed Ballantine. They also learn how his death is connected to the disappearance of Colin James.
This is a Golden Age novel. There’s a lot of focus on how the crime was committed, and what everyone’s alibi was. And following all of the leads does get complicated. Readers who enjoy ‘matching wits’ with the author will appreciate the opportunity to keep up with everyone’s account, everyone’s history, and so on. Mallett and Frant also spend time on working out what everyone’s motive was. There’s more of a focus on those issues than there is on, say, either Mallett or Frant’s home life.
There are also elements of the police procedural in the novel. Readers follow along as the two detectives interview witnesses, compare notes, and so on. The book was published in 1937, so the police don’t have access to today’s forensics technology. Rather, they do the ‘legwork’ needed to find out everyone’s backstory, and they get to the truth.
The story is told mostly from Mallett’s point of view (third person, past tense), and sometimes from Frant’s (also third person past tense). We get to know the detectives, but we learn nearly nothing about their home lives. Every reader is different with respect to how much information about a sleuth is ‘too much.’ But there’s very little about either detective’s personal life here. What there is, is solid co-operation between the two. Mallett is Frant’s superior officer, so the relationship isn’t equal. Still, Mallett respects Frant’s opinion, and doesn’t demean him. For his part, Frant respects his boss, although he isn’t blind to the fact that Mallett isn’t perfect. Readers who are tired of police teams that can’t get along will appreciate that.
There is some wit in the novel, although it’s not really a light romp. For instance, Harper and Lee don’t get along very well, and their relationship is handled in a witty way. There’s also a scene where Frants comes back to the police station with some important news, only to find his boss asleep:
‘It was an embarrassing moment for the sergeant, whose genuine respect for Mallett reinforced the dictates of discipline in constraining him to do his best to look as though nothing unusual had happened. But Mallett remained genially unashamed.
‘Do you know,’ he said with the air of one imparting a deep confidence, ‘I was almost asleep when you came in? I was tired,’ he added, somewhat unnecessarily.
The agreeable smile had not left his lips, and this emboldened Frant to ask, with a touch of malice, ‘Did you have a good lunch?’’
The wit is subtle, but it’s there.
The solution to the mystery is complex. Readers who enjoy ‘howdunits’ as well as ‘whodunits’ will appreciate keeping up with the characters, the small, casual clues, and so on. Everyone’s different about what ‘counts’ as ‘playing fair’ with the reader, but the clues are there.
In keeping with other Golden Age mysteries, this one doesn’t have one of those endings where the ‘bad guy’ is led away in handcuffs. We know who the killer is, and what the motive is. But readers who prefer endings where the ‘bad guy’ is sent off to face justice will notice that that doesn’t happen here.
Tenant For Death explores the world of high finance, and the kinds of ‘dirty tricks’ that go on in that world. It tells the story of a murder within that community, and of two determined detectives who won’t let the murderer get away with it. But what’s your view? Have you read Tenant For Death? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 11 June/Tuesday, 12 June – The Lost – Claire McGowan
Monday, 18 June/Tuesday, 19 June – Plugged – Eoin Colfer
Monday, 23 June/Tuesday, 24 June – Involuntary Witness – Gianrico Carofiglio