Croydon, 1940, and terror stalks the skies as German bombers make their first raids over southern England. Terror stalks Saltdene School for Girls too as a heartless murderer first bumps off Spanish-teacher and Nazi-sympathizer Alice Everett on her way back from a trip to Paris, then accounts for her best friend, 'Leafy' Green. Not everyone is preoccupied with the murders though: Hatchett and Lycett, once schoolboy friends and now fellow-masters at the local boys school, each have their eyes on Norma. Which one will she choose? And what difference will it make when she discovers the terrible childhood secret that the two men share?
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Despite its binary title Nigel Williams' immensely entertaining comic novel Hatchett and Lycett, like the classic Truffaut film Jules et Jim, is dominated by a ménage à trois. As the book is set (mainly) in Croydon at the beginning of World War II, the threesome is of the staunchly English stiff-upper-lip, platonic variety; although any novel whose subplots include the mysterious disappearance of an adulterous cleric, a lecherous chemistry master and a Sapphic murder at Mallory Towers, is hardly likely to disappoint the prurient.
The eponymous (Dennis) Hatchett and (Alec) Lycett, old school chums and now schoolmasters at Crotchet Green's Kirby Grammar are both "sweet" on the same woman: childhood friend Norma Lewis, who teaches at the neighbouring "gels" school, Saltdene. Squaring their initially unacknowledged romantic triangle is not the only problem. A Saltdene/Kirby trip to France results in the death (in distinctly suspicious circumstances) of the rather butch Franco-admiring Spanish teacher, Miss Everett. Hatchett asks Norma (if on this occasion only humorously) to marry him and Norma finds herself smuggling Rachel, a Jewish-German girl with an astonishing grasp of nuclear physics, into England as her niece. The moment war is declared Alec enlists and becomes engaged to Norma. However, the reappearance of Alec's long-banished twin brother Lucius and the continuing decimation of Saltdene's fascistic, lesbian, Spanish department by poisoning and strangulation prove almost as alarming as the increasingly omnipresent exploits of the "heartless Nazis".
In places Williams relies too heavily on the Curse of the Comic Capitals (there are a tad too many "The Boy With the Peculiar Ears" and "The Question of the Tomato Sandwich" type gags) but this book is littered with fragments of absolute comic genius--a magnificently rambling vicar's sermon just before Chamberlain's immortal speech is hilarious. There are also touches of astonishing pathos. The Agatha Christie-style murders, while often very funny, feel like an ingredient too many; even Williams himself seems to forget about them halfway through. The unmasking of the murderer at, an unsurprisingly farcical, funeral-cum-wedding is something of an anticlimax. By then Williams has made the unravelling of a darker secret from Hatchett and Lycett's childhood far more intriguing. Its resolution, together with the settling of the bizarre love triangle (more of a love hexagon by the end), provides the book's real, and much more satisfying, dénouement. --Travis ElboroughReview:
Hatchett and Lycett is a delightful comedy, a novel of war and secrecy and an unexpectedly touching exploration of the complexity of love and desire.
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