An enjoyable Golden Age mystery with some uncomfortable parallels to today…
Readers who are familiar with (and like) the Sir John Appleby series by Michael Innes will be happy to see Hare Sitting Up come out in ebook, courtesy of Agora Books. For others, it may a little harder to figure out just quite how they feel about this book, which has a serious underlying theme with an uncanny resemblance to conditions today, but also has many fun Golden Age mystery characteristics.
The unusual title tees up the theme, both in the opening quote from DH Lawrence, and in the first chapter, where a wide-ranging train-compartment conversation between one of the main characters, headmaster Miles Juniper, and a number of recent Oxford graduates showcases the students’ and Juniper’s concerns about biological warfare. It’s worth remembering that at the time Hare Sitting Up was first published, in 1959, the world was at the height of the Cold War, and many people felt that the end – whether from nuclear warfare or biological warfare, might not be far away. And this tension provides an uncomfortable fast-forward to today, when many folks feel that the end may come from climate change or a pandemic – more slow-rolling, perhaps, but not that different than biological warfare.
Attentive readers will note that Juniper mentions during the train-compartment discussions that he has a brother working in the biological warfare field, and that provides the link to the rest of the story. That brother, Howard, turns out to be not just “working in the field”, but actually one of the top researchers in Britain, or even the world. And he has disappeared. And it’s possible that some unspeakably lethal stuff has disappeared with him. Thus begin some of the enjoyable (but slightly over-the-top) classical mystery elements, as Sir John makes an improbable visit to Miles’ school while posing as “Mr. Clywd from Wales”, complete with Rolls motor-car; and readers find out that Miles and Howard are actually identical twins, known for pulling “switches” in the past. Things continue equally fancifully from there, with Lady Appleby’s undercover visit to the school, a bird-crazy (or maybe just crazy) peer, rumors of an extinct Great Auk on a remote military island, references to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and more. In the end, of course, Appleby figures out what’s going on, and arrives just in time for a rather spectacular denouement.
Overall, Hare Sitting Up is a quick and enjoyable read, but also a bit of a mixed bag, so it gets four stars rather than five. It’s worth giving a shout-out to Agora’s excellent cover for the book, with its two hares sitting up in mirror image, rather than one – a nice nod to the identical twins motif which runs throughout the book. And finally, my thanks to Agora Books and NetGalley for the advance review copy!