Sunday, 12 October 2014

Penguin no. 1476: Hide My Eyes
by Margery Allingham

     'I never let anything tear the skin. I've never been faintly fond of anything or anybody in my life.' He spoke lightly but with satisfaction. 'I'm deadly serious about this. I spotted the plain mechanical truth of it as a child. You could almost call it the Chad-Horder discovery. Any kind of affection is a solvent. It melts and adulterates the subject and by indulging in it he loses his identity and hence his efficiency. By keeping myself to myself in the face of every conceivable attack I have remained successful, bright, and indestructible. It's a simple recipe for a hundred per cent success. I hand it to you gratis, Richard. Consider it a token of my esteem. Ah, here are the crumpets.'

The title of Hide My Eyes is a reference to one of the themes of this novel, being the idea that evil can be abetted by well-meaning people reluctant to contemplate a possibility which might appal them, or which might imply that their view of the world is naive. Rather than face a truth which seems terrifying, a few of these characters seek their solace in appealing fictions which serve to explain their fears away.

But as the truth with which Polly Tassie will be forced to contend through the course of this story is appalling, it is perhaps no wonder that she shies from it for as long as she can. The reader is aware from the beginning of something Polly cannot know: that this caring elderly woman has been supporting, in her kindly way, the actions of a man so self-concerned and lacking in principle that he will kill without the slightest qualm if it will help him avoid a problem, or if it will result in a financial reward. This is a murderer who has been quietly supporting himself for many years on cash and assets lifted from those he has killed.

The story begins with Gerry Hawker, variously known as Horder and Chas-Horder, driving an old country coach, curtained and dimly-lit, into London's theatre district and then parking it carefully in Goff's Place. Only the two passengers seated at the front are visible from outside and though it is odd that they fail to alight, and that they are never seen to move, they are the kind of elderly folk who excite little interest. And this is all to Hawker's plan; he intends to commit a murder and he has taken some fairly elaborate precautions to  make sure that he blends with his surroundings and so passes unnoticed.

But Polly Tassie knows nothing of this. She has cared for Gerry Hawker as dearly as she would a son of her own, even though he is no real relation, although lately she has felt some disquiet on his account. She is aware that he has stolen from her by altering the amount on a cheque she had given him, and although she prefers not to confront him with this knowledge, she believes he must be held to account for his own good. She deals with it by asking a friend to have a quiet word, unaware of the peril her friend now faces, for in her most fevered imaginings she couldn't conceive the true depths of Hawker's depravity.

She clings, instead, to the idea that everything will be fine if Gerry can just settle down with the right woman, and she sets out to secure a suitable one for him. Her actions are well-meaning but naive, and she brings a world of trouble to herself and to the young woman she invites into her home in pursuit of this plan. Through these well-meant actions, Polly inadvertently initiates a series of events which ends up having both terrible and beneficial consequences. Her friend is murdered and the young woman she selects for Gerry is placed in serious danger, but a murderer who has never made a false step finds himself under pressure and gets something wrong. Everything begins to unravel for him.

The murderer's steadfast confidence in his own invulnerability is the novel's other theme. Gerry Hawker holds an unshakeable conviction that he has the measure of the police, and that the main secret to success, even with respect to murder, is careful planning. His outlook is naively deterministic: he extrapolates from his small sample of successes and assumes that what has worked this far will work always, and he fails to allow for chance. The murderer, in effect, hides his eyes from the possibility of making a mistake.

This all plays out over the course of a single day, the one on which both Polly Tassie and Gerry Hawker are forced to contend with the mistakes they have made and the consequences of their erroneous beliefs, and to find ways to deal with the altered situation.

There are elements in this story which seemed a little too convenient and on which the sequence of events was overly-conditioned, and yet it hardly mattered at all. The story is so cleverly structured, with a narrative which switches between the various strands of the story through the course of the day, one following the actions of the murderer, another the dawning awareness of Polly, and the final following the investigations of the police and their incremental successes in identifying and tracking the murderer, that I found it completely engrossing and difficult to put down.

First published by Chatto and Windus 1958. Published in Penguin Books 1960. Reprinted 1961.

Reviewed elsewhere (and just as favourably):
The Passing Tramp
Past Offences


  1. The US title of this one is Tether's End, which I don't think is as good or evocative. I really enjoyed this one as well.

  2. Great thoughtful review, really enjoyed it. Glad to see this book getting some attention too, along with The Tiger in the Smoke. Agatha Christie had a high opinion of this one too. Don't know what the American publishers were thinking with the title change.



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