By Cyril Hare
First published: UK, Faber & Faber, 1937; US, Dodd, Mead, 1937
Mr. Hare settles into his stride. His third novel confirms the hopes aroused by his first and second. Unquestionably he joins the select few who can ‘keep it up’; and in Suicide Excepted he shows himself master of one of the most difficult arts in detective fiction – the art of surprise.
As the title shows, the story turns upon the ‘suicide clause’ in a life assurance policy. Did Mr. Dickinson put an end to himself or was he the victim of foul play? The police were satisfied with the verdict of suicide. The dead man’s children were not – family pride apart, they stood to lose heavily if their father took his own life, since the Insurance Company would not pay up.
Inspector Mallett was sufficiently impressed by Stephen’s arguments to open a special file. But if it hadn’t been for Stephen’s determined pursuit of the unknown murderer, the file would have remained empty. The combination of amateur and professional is becoming a popular feature in modern detective fiction. But Mr. Hare uses it in a peculiarly effective and unexpected way.
Hare’s third novel surpasses expectations — more complex than When the Wind Blows, and as skilful (in a different way) as An English Murder. An elderly pessimist apparently commits suicide at the third-rate hotel that was his ancestral home, and the insurance company refuses to cough up the cash. The deceased’s son, daughter and her fiancé set out to bring about a verdict of murder, and so inherit the money. Characterisation is spot-on. The son, who leads the investigation into his father’s death, is clever but unpleasant, a self-centred and greedy prig; and the fiancé, whom he despises, is a likeable and agreeable type. The story is very well-plotted; and, despite a surfeit of hotel guests with motives for murder, a very clever and shocking triple solution.
Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Percy Ashley, 7th October 1939):
It is rare for a detective story to be written which provides clues enabling a solution to be reached and yet leaves readers who do not spot the clues completely at sea about the identity of the murderer. Hence authors are generally obliged to introduce a number of minor mysteries into their tales in order to explain the otherwise unaccountable behaviour of their alternative suspects whose object is to draw away the reader’s attention from the real murderer. One of the essential arts of the detective story writer is so to distribute his red herrings that the reader is not unduly irritated by an excess of them.
In Inquest [Percival Wilde] and Suicide Excepted, which are under review this week, we have two instances of the better-class red-herring school so well done that even the experienced reader is encouraged to shift his suspicions from one character to another, and only the very strong-willed will observe the indications which are there to give him an idea from an early point in the story who the villain is… In Inquest … the red herrings are plentiful but they do not irritate until towards the end.
A HEAVY SHOAL
The same thing may be said of Mr. Cyril Hare’s new book. With each new novel Mr. Hare goes steadily forward towards the top ranks of detective story writers and it is perhaps ungracious to draw undue attention to his heavy shoal of red herrings. His approach, like that of Mr. Wilde, is original. An old man commits suicide at a hotel which used to be his family home. Since he has only just taken out a very big life insurance policy and the policy was nearly all that he had to leave, his heirs express great disappointment at the suicide verdict by the coroner’s jury. The dead man’s son sets out with the help of his sister and prospective brother-in-law to prove that the death was due to murder, and the three amateur detectives proceed to examine the credentials of all the persons who were staying at the hotel at the time. They duly come across some startling facts, but it is Inspector Mallett, who also happened to be staying at the hotel that fatal night, who at last intervenes, finds the murderer, and saves the insurance money.
The Times (14th November 1939):
We know the means, an overdose of medinal. But was Mr. Dickinson’s death at Pendlebury due to accident, as his daughter believed, suicide (the police theory), or murder, as his on, Stephen, hoped to prove? A large sum of insurance money hangs on the success or failure of Stephen’s investigations, but it needs Mr. Cyril Hare’s usual detective, Inspector Mallett, to bring Suicide Excepted to its logical, but surprising, conclusion. The author has an eye for character and writes with a quiet humour that is a pleasant change from the hell-for-leather type of crime story.