To the extent that circumspection and reserve are English traits, the setup of this novel certainly matches the spirit of its title. Not until about one-third of its pages have passed does the identity of the first murder victim become known. Before then, Hare conducts a leisurely survey of his dramatis personae and the stereotypically English situation in which he has placed them. Lord Warbeck, aged and sickly, has invited a small set of actual and honorary family members to join him for a Christmas house party at Warbeck Hall, a venerable edifice in the (fictional) county of Markshire. The party may be the last such gathering before Lord Warbeck, and with him a certain way of life, pass away. Attending the party are his son, Robert Warbeck, who leads the League of Liberty, a group loosely based on Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists; Sir Julius Warbeck, a cousin who serves as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the historic postwar Labour government; Lady Camilla Prendergast, a relative of the late Lady Warbeck; and a certain Mrs. Carstairs, the daughter of the local parish rector. In a sequence of early scenes, various tensions—personal, familial, and political—simmer in the interaction among these characters. As midnight approaches on Christmas Eve, they gather in the drawing room at Warbeck Hall for a traditional holiday toast. Even then, a trace of suspense lingers over the question of who will receive a dose of cyanide in his or her celebratory glass.
The matter of Englishness runs as a persistent undercurrent through the story. Another guest of the party—Dr. Wenceslaus Bottwink, an historian of somewhat murky central European origin—throws that theme into high relief. Either explicitly or simply by embodying a foreign counter-example, Bottwink poses the question of what makes a given attitude or habit or turn of phrase unique to his host country. In some instances, the theme emerges in discussions of time-honored (and mostly innocuous) customs, such those associated with afternoon tea: how to prepare it, how to drink it, how to savor the eminently English experience of it. In other instances, however, the theme becomes manifest in ways that involve obdurate class distinctions and dangerously hidebound institutions. “I am well aware of the importance in this country of knowing one’s place,” Bottwink says at one point, and the statement resonates beyond its immediate context. Somewhat later, he laments that “modern England is … riddled with antiquarian anachronisms.” In one fashion or another, he and his fellow guests are reckoning with the very live issue of whether a fixture of national life such as Warbeck Hall will survive in a postwar world. That issue is highly salient for Briggs, the butler at Warbeck, and the book gives considerable attention to the mores and rituals by which Briggs organizes his life and work. Like a naturalist who avidly studies a dwindling species, Hare shows a keen interest in documenting a vocation that is fast disappearing from the English scene.
Alongside robust servings of clever social observation, An English Murder offers a slight but thoroughly satisfying puzzle. The book has just one notable defect: The ability to solve the core mystery hinges on knowing a point of English history and law that will elude even many English readers. Yet that feature, too, evokes a defining aspect of English life—a clubby sense of exclusivity, which can seem at once pleasantly cozy and forbiddingly insular. That Bottwink is the fellow who ends up cracking the puzzle adds a note of suitably English irony.