I was in Guernsey for a few days a week or so ago and was pleased to have the opportunity of exploring some charity shops, one of the things I miss about not living in the UK. The books selections didn't altogether grab me, but I seized on this one and read it with great pleasure.
Some time ago I read a novel by Cyril Hare called An English Murder. I quite enjoyed it but don't appear to have reviewed it on here. I seem to remember that the denouement turned on a fine point of English law, not very surprising as Cyril Hare's real name was Gordon Clark, and he was a barrister and later a judge, in addition to writing crime novels. In his most famous novel, Tragedy at Law (which I haven't read though I'd really like to) he introduced a character by the name of Francis Pettigrew, himself a barrister though not a terribly successful one, with a penchant for solving crimes. Pettigrew reappears in With a Bare Bodkin. The book was published in 1946 but it's set in the middle of WW2. In this novel, Pettigrew has been unwillingly removed from his chambers in London and sent to do war work for an obscure Ministry, the Pin Control, which is located in the north east of England. The staff work in a 'monstrous structure' a sort of Victorian pleasure dome of marble halls, built by an eccentric peer, and live in a sort of residential club nearby.
The work is desperately monotonous, and Pettigrew has nothing in common with his 'brother or sister pin controllers', though he develops a definite soft spot for his serious, efficient secretary Miss Brown, whose beautiful eyes have rather swept him off his feet. Unfortunately Miss Brown is being courted, apparently successfully, by the middle-aged widower Mr Phillips, who nobody thinks suitable for her. Nobody, that is to say, apart from the decidedly eccentric Miss Honoria Danville, whose main purpose in life seems to be making tea for the staff, and who is energetically encouraging Miss Brown to accept the proposals of Mr Phillips.
Another staff member is a Mr Wood, a completely unremarkable man who proves very unexpectedly to be a successful crime writer, working under the name Amyas Leigh. When the bored inhabitants of the club discover this fact, a group of them decide to pass the dreary evenings in constructing their very own crime story, in which they themselves will be the characters. Started as a joke, the whole thing takes off in a big way, and the group decides that the rather peculiar Miss Danville should be cast as the murderer. However, everything goes off in a completely different direction when Miss Danville is herself found murdered in the room she uses to make the tea. The murder instrument is an instrument known as a bodkin, normally used for spearing the endless piles of paperwork accumulated in the course of work. Present in the area happens to be Detective Inspector Mallett, an old acquaintance of Pettigrew's, who is visiting to investigate quite a different matter but becomes involved in the Danville murder case. He and Pettigrew spend long hours discussing the matter but can come to no conclusions as to who might possibly have a motive for murdering this undoubtedly irritating but completely harmless woman.
This is a novel of great charm and wit. The solution to the mystery is not entirely astonishing, but Pettigrew's knowledge of the law is crucial and it is he who eventually works out what the motive was. The novel is wonderfully evocative of the period in which it is set, and filled with delightfully vivid characters. I shall be looking out for more of Cyril Hare's novels.