Friday 25 May 2018

Forgotten Book - To Be Hanged

Bruce Hamilton was one of the most under-rated crime writers of the 1930s. I've mentioned my interest in his work several times on this blog, and today I'd like to focus on his first novel. (Incidentally, in a fit of enthusiasm allied to technical incompetence, I published a draft version of this post last week, along with a couple of other premature posts; my apologies for inundating you). While Bruce is less renowned than his brother Patrick, for the perfectly good reason that his literary gifts were of a lower order, I think that comparison with Patrick is the key reason why the quality of his work has been under-valued. I certainly accept that it has flaws, but I admire the way he kept trying to do something different, and avoided the constraints of formula.

To Be Hanged was published by Faber in 1930, and it's very different from the conventional Golden Age whodunit. A journalist overhears a conversation which leads him to suspect that a man's conviction for murder is a miscarriage of justice. He then sets himself the task (seemingly untroubled by any other calls on his time) of securing the wretched fellow's release. Which in turn means that he has to establish the guilt of someone else.

This is, therefore,  a detective story, but of an unconventional sort; at times it seems more like a straightforward thriller. The detective is aided by a barrister who again doesn't seem to have anything else to occupy his time, and together they follow an elaborate trail. Could it be that the scapegoat has been deceived by the woman he loved? The answer to that soon becomes obvious, but Hamilton has one or two pleasing plot twists up his sleeve.

Overall, I'd say that this is an accomplished piece of crime writing, especially given its date, and the fact that it was a first novel. Arthur Conan Doyle is quoted on the jacket as saying how clever the story is, and although one has to bear in mind that he was Bruce Hamilton's godfather, this is a novel that doesn't deserve to be forgotten. It should have heralded a career of distinction, but in the event, Bruce's crime writing proceeded in fits and starts before spluttering to a dead halt in the 50s. A real shame.

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