A Hive of Glass was first published in Britain by Michael Joseph in 1965 (1966 Panther paperback edition seen on the right there – unfortunately I wasn't able to find a first edition), when Hubbard was, I believe, fifty-four (he came to novel-writing quite late). The narrator is Johnnie Slade, a collector of fine glass who gets wind of a Verzelini Tazza, a sixteenth-century glass dish standing on a central stem, crafted by the Venetian Giacomo Verzelini. This priceless piece is featured in an article by noted glass scholar Levinson in the latest issue of Old Glass, a quarterly periodical edited and financed by Peter Sarrett, but Sarrett is unable to furnish Slade with either the name of the owner of the tazza or its location. Desperate to discover more about it, Slade visits Levinson, only to find him dead of a heart attack. But there is one clue in Levinson's desk diary – a single word: "Dunstreet".
Determining that the Dunstreet in question is a (fictional) country town 150 miles outside of London, near the south coast of England, Slade sets off in pursuit of the tazza. As he explores the town's verdant surroundings, there's an early hint of the environment as an entity in and of itself – something which is common in Hubbard's work:
The whole countryside was dark and green and crouched a bit... the trees filled all the valley bottoms as if they had been poured into them – as indeed, in embryo, they probably had – and the valleys ran together in a network always pointing southwards to the place where their combined streams met salt water almost between the oak roots. The air was so soft and wet you could squeeze it out. It smelt of dead wood and land-locked brine.
This sense of an enveloping, decaying, stifling landscape intensifies throughout the novel, until the rural environs become almost an active participant in events (quite violently in one scene where a stag and a hellish hound cause a car accident). As Slade inveigles himself into Dunstreet's affairs and becomes involved with a young woman, Claudia, he learns of Claudia's Aunt Elizabeth, who lives in a remote house on an outcrop of densely wooded land near the sea, which becomes cut off at high tide. It's a gloomy, forbidding, eerie terrain, all loamy ground and tangled roots and deep creeks, heavy with foreboding and symbolizing the isolated existence of the blind Aunt Elizabeth and her deaf servant, Coster. Claudia is at the beck and call of her aunt: it transpires that when Elizabeth eventually dies, Claudia stands to inherit her aunt's possessions – which might just include the tazza...
The environmental aspects of Hubbard's novels have been much remarked upon, but it was another aspect of A Hive of Glass which particularly struck me, one which Book Glutton identified in his original comment drawing my attention to the author. This strand manifests itself right at the outset, when Johnnie visits an antique shop in the Midlands and spies an eighteenth-century glass at the back of a cabinet. Knowing what it's worth, and knowing the proprietor doesn't, he manages to buy the glass at a knock-down price; realising his mistake, the dealer relents, but sees something in Slade's eyes that causes him to back off. What he glimpses is the madness of the collector.
This unhinged zeal is one I'm more than familiar with (as regular readers of this blog might have noticed). It's a compulsion to possess objects – glass, antiques, books, whatever – a need which clearly speaks to an absence elsewhere in one's life (although I hesitate to explore what exactly that might be). The collecting impulse is, for the most part, fairly benign – Johnnie's evident delight at his newly bought glass as he gingerly washes it in a nearby stream is a joyous moment. But it does have its dark side, and that unpleasant facet of collecting rears its head throughout the novel.
The first instance comes in a Dunstreet auction room, where Johnnie pinpoints the dealers in the room and remarks upon the way they bid up pieces so that regular punters don't buy them for less than the market price. But the impulse becomes more personal as the novel progresses: Slade begins to suspect someone else is on the trail of the tazza, and in time events conspire to bring him to a place where it becomes unlikely he will be able to secure it for himself. It's at this point that Slade verbalizes the dark side of collecting: "So long as nobody else gets it."
A Hive of Glass is a terrific book, perhaps Hubbard's first out-and-out classic (there's another recent and glowing review of it on the Pretty Sinister Books blog). But he was to write many more over the next fourteen years – and it's to his final novel that we turn next, a fine example of the hunter-and-hunted subgenre that weaves through British fiction: 1979's Kill Claudio.