Saturday, 24 December 2011

Penguin no. 1064: That Yew Tree's Shade
by Cyril Hare

Village life, with its close knit unity masking a hundred subtle social distinctions, its ramifications of blood and marriage ties, its feuds and enmities that could be as old as the parish church or as recent as last year's horticultural show, always had been and remained to him a mystery. The most that a stranger could do was to keep his eyes and ears open for the chance sight or sound that might give him a glimpse into what went on below the surface.

Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree's shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mould'ring heap,
Each in his narrow cell forever laid,
The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.

                                                                                Gray - Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

Francis Pettigrew has recently retired from a legal career which seems to have been something of a disappointment, and has moved to a new home near the village of Yewbury. Although he acts as deputy to the Judge of the local County Court, the judicial needs of the local area seem fairly slight, and he passes much of his time contemplating the view of Yew Hill from his study window, field glasses in hand, noting the daily changes to the landscape, the blossoming of the trees, and the many sightseers attracted by the beauty of the hill and its literary associations. In this way he becomes the last person, other than the attacker, to see Mrs Pink as she descends into the woods while walking home from delivering the parish newsletter to the residence on the summit. She is found the next day, close-by the giant Yew known locally as Archdruid's, metres from where the various paths through the woods converge.

The consensus view is that Mrs Pink was a remarkable woman. She lived the frugal life of a widow while devoting all her time to the administrative tasks essential to the efficient functioning of the various boards and committees integral to village life. Her defining qualities seemed to be goodness and usefulness, although she did pose a problem for her landlord Mr Todman, by refusing to vacate his house despite his threats, bribes, and bullying. Was he desperate enough to kill her? He certainly threatened to do so, and he was on Yew Hill on her final afternoon, but so were a number of other villagers, including Mrs Ransome, a divorcee who had abandoned her infant son, and Horace Wendon, an upper-class pig farmer left destitute years before as the victim of a swindle. The architect of that swindle was the disarming former MP Humphrey Rose, recently released from prison, and also walking on Yew Hill on Mrs Pink's final afternoon.

I felt a little sorry for Detective Inspector Trimble, the uptight, defensive, and ambitious officer investigating Mrs Pink's murder; the author is clearly having a little fun at his expense. Perhaps he was determined to ensure all the credit came his way, for he is very distrusting of Pettigrew, and keen to avoid any possibility of outside (and what he considers amateur) assistance. However, despite Pettigrew's attempts to keep in the background, he soon learns all the pertinant facts simply through conversation and observation, and in the end is the only one who realises the motive.

Cyril Hare was the pseudonym of the barrister Alfred Gordon Clark, which he chose by combining the names of his home and his chambers, Cyril Mansions and Hare Court. He notes that his setting is easily identifiable, with Yew Hill based on the location of his own retirement, Box Hill in Surrey. Intriguingly, he also mentions that one of these characters is based on someone long dead, and though he gives no further clues, with his unrepentant criminal inclinations the obvious candidate is Humphrey Rose. Could he be based on Jabez Balfour? The timing seems right.

When I think of words to describe this story, the ones that come to mind are pleasant, or adequate, or satisfactory, but nothing stronger. It is easy to read and quietly entertaining, recording aspects of British village life in the early 1950s with its food rationing and housing shortages. There are some delightful portraits of the eccentric villagers and of one slightly pompous policeman, and some gentle humour directed at human capriciousness. But it is a story rather than a puzzle, and although the solution is plausible, Hare could easily have chosen any of the characters as his murderer and made the solution fit the known clues. It seemed to me a book to be enjoyed passively; the type of book I would choose for a long flight, when I need to be diverted, but lack the concentration for anything too complex.

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

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