Sunday, 2 February 2014

Penguin no. 1162: Suicide Excepted
by Cyril Hare

     'Stephen, this is all very ridiculous. I'm sorry about last night, if that's what you want me to say. Why on earth should this horrible thing have made us squabble like two children?'
     'Because we look at it from two different angles, I suppose. Not that I admit for a moment that there is anything in the least childish in my behaviour, at any rate. So far as you are concerned-'
     'Oh very well!' Anne exclaimed, and flounced out of the room. A moment later she opened the door again, and did her best to repair the anti-climax by the sarcastic tone in which she asked: 'Will your lordship be good enough to indicate where he is going to prosecute his inquiries, and whether he expects to be home to lunch?'

My interest in any randomly-chosen novel flags the moment I encounter bickering, and it is only pages before you encounter it here. It seemed interminable - and despite the suggestion in the passage above, far worse than the squabbling of children. Perhaps the author believed such quarrelling would be entertaining, or perhaps he wanted to suggest that his characters have been sampled from the real world and have the same dull concerns and tendency to behave as irrationally as anyone alive; in my less charitable moments I suspected it was being used to pad out a story which was really rather slight. But then I came to think that the bickering had a function in the story: it was intended that we should dislike the protagonist from the start.

And to continue disliking him, for there is little that he does which is appealing, and the rapacity with which he covets the proceeds of his recently-deceased father's estate, a greed which provides the momentum for the plot, is disquieting. Stephen Dickenson is the kind of man who is inclined to find others wanting, while never really considering his own flaws; he has gambled away whatever wealth he possessed and he avoids paying for his drinks whenever he can. His father Leonard was found dead in a single room in a mediocre hotel forty miles from London. And it is like son, like father, for no one seems to have been overly-fond of Leonard either, Stephen included.

Leonard Dickenson's death was the result of an overdose of a prescribed medication. He had spent his final evening in conversation with Inspector Mallet of the London police, also holidaying at the Pendlebury Old Hall Hotel, and he had spoken of his boredom with life and hinted at recent thoughts of suicide. And so when Mallet is called as a witness at the Coroner's Court, the jury's verdict of death by suicide surprises no one. But this is apparently an example of extrapolating from too small a sample - Mallet drew his conclusions because it was the only night on which he had talked with Leonard Dickinson, and he was not to know that death was his very favourite topic of conversation, amounting almost to an obsession. Stephen Dickenson maintains that in working from an incorrect premise, the Coroner has reached an erroneous conclusion.

This is a story about the quest for money. Almost all of Leonard's assets reverted upon his death, and so he had sought to provide for his family through a life insurance policy. But the policy is only eight months old, and payout on account of suicide is excepted in the first year. The insurance company rely on the Coroner's finding in offering the return of the premium with interest in lieu of the sum assured and give the family a fortnight to consider the offer. On Stephen's insistence, they spend the two weeks investigating their father's death, in the hope that they can find some way of demonstrating that it may have been murder, irrespective of the truth, so that an insurance claim can succeed.

They set about tracking the whereabouts of anyone present in the hotel that evening, only to find that, apart from Inspector Mallet, almost every guest has both given a false name or address and had known the deceased some time during his life; at the very least, there is always some tenuous link which can be found. And these apparent linkages exist within a group of people who had randomly chosen to stay at the hotel on the night in question. It all seemed fairly ludicrous.

Suicide Excepted is a Cyril Hare story without Francis Pettigrew, and I found it unsatisfying. There is one interesting moment, quite close to the end, where the central idea is revealed: and it is a clever one. But I don't think it has been realised at all well, as Suicide Excepted features far too many coincidences, far too many unlikeable characters, and far too much bickering for the story to be enjoyable.

By the same author:
Penguin no. 897: Tragedy at Law
Penguin no. 1007: With a Bare Bodkin
Penguin no. 1064: That Yew Tree's Shade


  1. I actually really liked it and didn't see the twist at the end coming....

  2. In general I quite like a bit of bickering in a book - our positive and negative trigger points are all different... But I do remember finding this one rather dull.

    1. Moira, you are right that trigger points are different. I suspect that living with five children has permanently undermined my tolerance of bickering, because I think of reading as my haven, and so squabbling is the last thing I want to read about.

  3. I quite liked this one. The last two chapters reminded me of John Dickson Carr, one of my top mystery writer's: the double ending.



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