With a Bare Bodkin
First published in the UK, 1946, Faber and Faber
This edition: Penguin Books, 1954
‘This place would make quite a good setting for a homicide.’
When I last encountered Frances Pettigrew, in 1942’s Tragedy at Law, he was an unsuccessful barrister eking out a living on the South-East Circuit. Despite his precarious financial situation, and the looming war, he was in his element (until his friend ran over a pianist, anyway):
Circuit life was the breath of his nostrils. Year by year he had travelled it from Markhampton right round to Eastbury, less and less hopeful of any substantial earnings, but certain always of the rewards that good fellowship brings.
Soon after, at the beginning of With a Bare Bodkin, Pettigrew is off to take up his war work – a position as legal advisor to the Pin Control in remote Marsett Bay. He enters a world of carbon transfer slips, PC52 forms, requisition notes, and a million other bureaucratic details, all overseen by the ‘female gorgon’ Miss Clarke and a horde of other minor officials.
Pettigrew seems different in this book. On his beloved Circuit, he is a noted raconteur and bon-viveur. Away from the company of other lawyers, he becomes more precise and lawyerly, if not a positive kill-joy. He also seems to feel his age, describing himself as elderly at just past 50.
He shares his lodgings – the Fernlea Residential Club – with various other officers of the Pin Control. One of them turns out to be that old detective story stalwart, the writer of detective stories. Atypically, Mr Wood doesn’t get involved in solving any mysteries. Instead he leads a group of the other residents in concocting a ‘perfect murder’ for the office. Their hypothetical target is the august Pin Controller Mr Palafox, and their experiments in sneaking about (establishing alibis and the like) are the cause of much disruption at the Control, especially in Pettigrew’s corridor. Their game greatly upsets one Miss Danville, who is their nominated killer.
Meanwhile, as early as chapter 4, Pettigrew has begun to fall for his secretary, the demure Miss Brown. As he is in elderly lawyer mode (and as she is, to be fair, a lot younger than he is), his affection takes the form of a paternalistic concern for her well-being. Unfortunately, Miss Brown is also being successfully wooed by Mr Phillips, another Fernlea resident. Pettigrew doesn’t trust Phillips one little bit:
‘This is nothing to do with me,’ he told himself again and again. ‘Absolutely nothing. If this young woman chooses to make a fool of herself, it is her affair, exclusively and entirely. Merely because she happens to be thrown in my way, I absolutely refuse to let myself be jockeyed into the position of father confessor.’
Nobody, it occurred to him at this point, had asked him to act as father confessor – least of all Miss Brown herself.
Meanwhile, an old friend turns up in Marsett Bay just in time for the real crime to start. Inspector Mallett has been posted in the town to keep an eye on the Pin Control. There have been leaks of confidential information to commercial firms and he is on the trail of the culprit. Soon Mallett, paired up with the taciturn local Inspector Jellaby, has to investigate a murder as well (the killer has used one of those spikes for impaling correspondence – the bodkin of the title).
With a Bare Bodkin is very readable,with a similar pent-up home front atmosphere to Christianna Brand’s Green for Danger. I like Pettigrew and was glad to meet him again in this amiable novel, even though the romance with Miss Brown is simultaneously cringe-worthy, unlikely, and sudden (Karyn at A Penguin a Week says: ‘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.’ ). Still, good luck to them, I say.
This is my entry for this month’s #1946book challenge, for which the field of eligible books is noticeably narrower than usual. Chapter 2 provides some idea of why:
Modestly, Mr Wood pointed out that his books were not readily obtainable. The shortage of paper had, in fact, constrained his publishers to take them off the market altogether. The war made it difficult for authors.
A Penguin a Week: 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.