Cyril Hare: With A Bare Bodkin

With_a_Bare_BodkinWith a Bare Bodkin
Cyril Hare
First published in the UK, 1946, Faber and Faber
This edition: Penguin Books, 1954
220 pages

‘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.


See also:

A Penguin a WeekI 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.

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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16 Responses to Cyril Hare: With A Bare Bodkin

  1. tracybham says:

    I liked the romance. In a mini-review, I said ” This book has some elements of romantic involvements, which I found appealing but is not unanimously liked by other readers.” A Penguin a Week is probably one of the reviews I saw at the time. Maybe I was just being nostalgic when I reread the book. I remember loving all of the Pettigrew books (from this point on) when I read them the first time. I agree, it is the wartime atmosphere that is the best part of the story.

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  2. Santosh Iyer says:

    I have just obtained the book. I’ll comment further after reading it.

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  3. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    I confess to never having read Cyril Hare – which is a bit of an omission for someone who loves classic crime. After this, I shall certainly be looking out for his books because they sound very, very appealing!

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  4. Santosh Iyer says:

    I have finished the book.
    It is a good and enjoyable read. Often humorous. The suspense does mount towards the end with a clever resolution.
    However, it is strange that the probate of will could be obtained without the ……. certificate.
    By the way, how does one pronounce Eglwyswrw ?.

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  5. heavenali says:

    Love the sound of this. The only Cyril Hare I’ve read was Tragedy at Law.

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  6. John says:

    I’ve only read Hare’s When the Wind Blows. For it’s musical milieu alone it’s worth reading. The mystery was not all that inventive and the characters seemed to me rather familiar. Pettigrew has his moments. (It’s Francis with I , BTW. ) He’s likable enough.

    P.S. Did Santosh really find and read this book in less than 12 hours? Seems rather miraculous to me.

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  7. Anonymous says:

    I found the war atmosphere of this book rather dull, despite in general being a Hare fan, and usually enjoying homefront books. But there is the huge advantage that I don’t remember much about the plot, so can read it again sometime….

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  8. Pingback: ‘I ‘ave ‘alf a mind to ‘ave ye keelhauled, ye blithering ape!’ #1946book | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

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