Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Penguin no. 1007: With a Bare Bodkin
by Cyril Hare

"On the whole, the sudden death of an unpopular member of a small circle is calculated to produce more depression that that of the greatest favourite...Miss Danville had been a butt, a nuisance, an object of ridicule. Now she had taken an unfair advantage of them all by suddenly becoming a tragic figure. Her former tormentors felt, inevitably, a sense of guilt and at the same time obscurely resentful towards her for putting them in the wrong. It was not easy to find words which would express a proper respect for the dead without at the same time sounding hopelessly false."

I think Cyril Hare's real talent was in the selection of intriguing and appealing titles for his books. This one has been taken from Hamlet; the ones I have still to read have titles like Death is no Sportsman, Suicide Excepted and He Should Have Died Hereafter. And so even though I reached the end of this one thinking it had been a little uninteresting and unusually lacking in suspense for a crime novel, and even though I sincerely wished it had ended two pages earlier than it did, so that I could have been spared the romantic subplot which made the book seem like a cheap throwaway romance,  I already feel myself tempted by those other titles. But this one I found disappointing: it begins interestingly, ends dreadfully, and doesn't really take you anywhere you don't expect to go.

Cyril Hare was the pseudonym of Alfred Alexander Clark, lawyer, judge and wartime civil servant. His amateur detective is lawyer Francis Pettigrew, who came across as weary and aloof, perhaps a little curmudgeonly, and trying hard not to take an interest in those around him. He was an unusual sleuth for a crime novel, in that he also seemed determined not to have too much to do with solving the crime or finding the murderer, content to leave that job to Inspector Mallet of Scotland Yard, and the local policeman Jellaby.  These two endeavour to solve it by interviewing the suspects, and making summary notes, and when this doesn't work they seem out of ideas; there is no real deduction involved. In the end it is Francis Pettigrew who inadvertently stumbles on the solution. But there is no surprise; there was only a single solution that made sense, and this is the one duly delivered.

The story takes place within an obscure government department established during the Second World War in a sequestered building in the remote village of Marsett Bay. The war background is well developed and there are a number of references to its impositions: bomb damage, sugar and paper rationing, the black market, and the many new and seemingly pointless rules and regulations. There is humour as well: he has a point to make about the bleakness and mindless efficiency of a government war department, probably born of his own experience, and so he emphasises the routine, the boring nature of the work, the ugliness and inappropriateness of the building, the burden of form-filling, and the ardent zeal with which bureaucratic requirements could be administered.

The first half of the novel develops a fiction within the fiction. The co-workers are all from elsewhere, forced to live and work in this isolated place amongst others with whom they have little in common, and don't necessarily like. They recognise in their situation the perfect components of a crime story, and set about devising one, casting themselves in the primary roles. They do it to amuse themselves and as a diversion from cards; it seems there is little else to do outside of working hours. The actual murder is a long time coming, not occurring until nearly half way through the book; its execution mirrors more details of "The Plot" than coincidence will allow. And so this device limits the potential suspects.

I imagine Hamlet's bare bodkin was an unsheathed knife; here it is a piece of stationery. The theme of dull bureaucracy completely infiltrates the story, extending to the location, the crime scene, the murder weapon, and the crime-solving procedures. It was probably inevitable that the book would seem a little dull itself. I hope his others offer a little more excitement, and a little less romance.


  1. I'm afraid I had a similar reaction to the one Hare I read. And Tragedy at Law didn't even have an interesting title. I was tempted by a shiny new edition on the library shel, but I found myself wondering why Hare had been reissue when so many better mysteries of the period are passed over.

  2. Karyn, I agree with your judgment on this book. Interesting beginning, but the interest drains away. I imagine you might prefer An English Murder or Suicide Excepted. Hare is quite a favorite with P. D. James and has been reprinted in U. K. his stories are naturalistic, but not exactly "fun" in the golden Age mystery sense.

  3. Hi Curt,

    I have the impression I selected the wrong Cyril Hare books to read first. Unfortunately I am still searching for the Penguin editions of An English Murder, and Suicide Excepted, but Guy (who reviews crime fiction on his blog Pursewarden) suggested Tragedy at Law, which I do own, so I might try that one soon.



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