Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Telephone
With a Bare Bodkin (1946) is a wartime set mystery, with Francis Pettigrew leaving his chambers to work as a legal advisor for Pin Control in Marsett Bay. Whilst at Marsett Bay, Pettigrew is staying at the Fernlea Residential Club, which is populated by many other Pin Control employees, one of whom called Wood, is revealed to be a mystery writer. To remedy the fact that only Pettigrew has read any of his work and to get around the issue of none of his books being easy to get a hold due to war time paper shortages, the merry widow, Mrs Hopkinson, suggests that he write a mystery novel based on them and set his murder at Pin Control. They soon decide on a victim, the head of Pin Control, but it gets more difficult to decide on who the killer should be. Eventually the elderly and dotty Honoria Danville is chosen, as Wood thinks her religious beliefs would create a good motivator for committing a murder. Of course being very adverse to this exercise in the first place means that no one tells her fictional designated role, a secret which also leads to division within the club.
The reader will not be surprised that real murder inevitably occurs. However, Hare does spend some time looking at the events prior to this moment of violence. We see various members of the Fernlea Residential Club working on their fictional murder plot, organising alibis and working out in exact detail how the murder should happen in their workplace. We see the formation of a relationship between Tom Phillip and Eleanor Brown, a relationship which Pettigrew is far from sanguine about, but what mystery lover would be when they hear that Brown is taking out life insurance at widowed Phillip’s instigation? An old friend of Pettigrew’s also arrives at Pin Control, Inspector Mallet, who is looking into the leaking of industrial and governmental secrets and is also trying to find evidence of unlawful trading. The murder when it does occur is surprising and leaves the field of suspects wide open. Did the victim know too much about the criminal activity Mallet was investigating? Or perhaps the fictional murder plot which many of the suspects were working on became a smoke screen for someone’s very real and murderous designs?
This was definitely a much stronger read from Hare, than my last Pettigrew read, When the Wind Blows (1949). Granted you would still need to know some aspects of the law to fully solve the case, but I think most readers can probably roughly figure out who did it, even if they can’t fully explain the why. Well I say most readers, I mean this reader. For all I know everyone else’s knowledge of the law could be far superior to mine. But specialist knowledge is definitely something that crops up a lot in Hare’s work, where a legal point is at the centre of the crime, as in the novel, Tragedy at Law (1942) and An English Murder (1951).
Hare’s choice of setting in this book is one of its main strengths, as his involvement of the war makes for an interesting workplace mystery. The references to the war begin a little obliquely such as when the narrative talks about the loss of the buildings near Pettigrew’s chambers:
‘Two months previously one high explosive bomb and a handful of incendiaries had opened up the vista by removing the red brick wall and the two blocks of buildings beyond it.’
The war also means that the employees at Pin Control come from far and wide, which means that people have to accept the information people offer about themselves. As we see in this book it is not always the full truth. Furthermore it also interested me that one of the reasons why Danville disagrees with the group making up a murder plot is because ‘so many men and women are being sacrificed all over the world,’ as it did get me to thinking about the role of mystery novels during the war. With so much violence going on why would or should people read about more violence for pleasure? I think one of my immediate thoughts to this query was that in a world where violence cannot be easily controlled, a reassurance found in the mystery novel is that the murderer will be the caught, the violence will be avenged. Of course there are exceptions to this rule but in the main it does hold true for many books published at that time.
On the whole this was a good read. Hare weaves in his metafictional narrative strand well, with the murder plot created by the group generating gentle humour and also complicating the real murder. The characterisation is mostly strong and Hare is good at masking the real intentions of his characters. The only two qualms with the characters was firstly Miss Danville. She felt too much of a stereotypical mad religious spinster, which showed up more because of the other more well drawn characters. Secondly although Eleanor Brown is an interesting character, I think she was left a bit too mysterious. I guess this was because of events which happen later in the book. But the problem is that because we don’t really get inside her head the later events are a bit hard to fully believe and take on board. However Hare gives us a well-constructed mystery and his use of setting is refreshing, as although it is your commonly used closed set mystery, the more unusual workplace setting makes it feel more different.
There are a few elements thrown in at the end of the book, in an afterthought kind of a fashion, but I don’t think these have a detrimental effect on reader enjoyment. The length of the book is just about right for the plot size, as I think if Hare had written much more the pace would have begun to have suffered. I wouldn’t say this was my favourite Cyril Hare novel, that would Suicide Excepted (1939), but this was definitely an entertaining read and would not be a bad place to start if you are new to the author.