The Reluctant Detective Francis Pettigrew & Cyril Hare
by Martin Edwards
Few amateur sleuths care as little
for detection as the barrister Francis Pettigrew, Nevertheless, Pettigrew plays an important part in solving the
mysteries at the heart of five of the novels written by Cyril
Hare. Unlike most of crime fiction's series characters, who stumble upon murder and
mayhem in their private lives with monotonous regularity and much enthusiasm, Pettigrew is
an interesting and credible figure. His humanity manifests itself in many ways, including
his refusal to treat "murder in the raw" as a game and his passionate opposition
to capital punishment.
Pettigrew made his début in that classic novel of life on the judicial circuit, Tragedy At Law (1942). Able but unlucky, he is described as having reached "an age, and a stage in his profession, when he did not care much to be reminded of the passage of time". He ekes out a precarious practice at the Bar, supplementing his income by way of legal authorship. It is said that not a little of his lack of success was due to his mistaken belief that other people would be as reasonable as himself . Although a witty and engaging companion, he remains emotionally scarred by the failure of his courtship of Hilda Matthewson, now the wife of Sir William Hereward Barber, a stern circuit judge.
Against his will, Pettigrew becomes embroiled in Barber's misadventures and when murder occurs - as late as the 21st chapter in a book of only 24 chapters - the barrister makes use of his professional knowledge of the law of "limitation of actions" to identify the culprit. The unusual tone of Tragedy At Law is caught by its closing words, when Pettigrew reflects bitterly "that it is the first time on record that anyone has been driven to commit suicide by a quotation from the Law reports".
The authenticity of the portrait of a disillusioned lawyer, and of the book as a whole, derived from Hare's keen observation of the legal process; under his real name of A.A.Gordon Clark, he practised at the criminal bar for many years. Clark's war-time experience in the Ministry of Economic Warfare provided the background material for With A Bare Bodkin (1946), in which Pettigrew makes a welcome reappearance, as legal adviser to the Pin Control, an obscure government department. Its workings are described with the amiable humour that characterises all the Hare novels and the period atmosphere is well conveyed. Once more Pettigrew helps Inspector Mallet of Scotland Yard to unravel a murder tangle which hinges upon a special feature of probate practice. He also falls in love with one of the suspects, his secretary, Eleanor Brown.
By the time that When The Wind Blows (l949) opens, Pettigrew has married Eleanor and moved to the country. Their involvement with the local orchestral society causes them to be present at a concert which is rudely interrupted by the murder of the solo violinist during a performance of Mozart's Prague Symphony. The official detective this time is the energetic Inspector Trimble, but it is Pettigrew who, despite his desire not to become yet again enmeshed in the investigation, contributes a scrap of legal know-how to explain the killer's motive. This story is so skilfully told that it is easy to over look one or two improbabilities in the plot; the novel was considered by Barzun and Taylor to be "a masterpiece by any standards", and although it lacks the unorthodox brilliance of Tragedy At Law, it still makes good reading today.
Pettigrew's lifestyle becomes steadily more comfortable throughout the series and That Yew Tree's Shade (l954) brings the inheritance of a house in the country from Eleanor's aunt. Pettigrew is even called from retirement to take up a temporary judgeship (Clark had been appointed a County Court judge a few years earlier) and the courtroom scenes, as always in the Hare novels, are delightfully done. When murder occurs, Pettigrew reminds the Chief Constable how much he loathes "this business of detection"; all the same, his memory of a long-ago legal case involving a dispute over the estate of Dr. Crippen enables the police to solve the crime.
Frank Pettigrew is not one of those detectives, like Holmes, Poirot and even nowadays Wexford, who never age. In He Should Have Died Hereafter (l958), he is an elderly man spending a summer holiday with Eleanor on Exmoor, where he re-lives the experiences of his youth, one of which was the discovery of a corpse on a remote hill. He again finds a body, which promptly disappears. Later, Pettigrew is called to give evidence in a Chancery lawsuit which is to determine the order in which two men named in a family settlement died. He is able to pass on a clue to Mallett - who has by now also retired - and the police thus uncover a neat murder plot.
Clark died at the age of 57, shortly after He Should Have Died Hereafter was published. At the time of his death, he was working on another book, but its central character was to be Dr. Bottwink, the detective introduced in An English Murder, rather than Pettigrew. Although there were only nine Hare novels, and a collection of short crime stories (in one of which Pettigrew appears), the recent republication in paperback of the complete oeuvre has brought to the attention of a new generation of readers one of the most talented practitioners of crime fiction. There have been many lawyers who have written murder mysteries, but few have matched the originality of Cyril Hare and none have produced a lawyer detective quite as convincing and likeable as Francis Pettigrew.
Article originally appeared in CADS and is reproduced with kind permission of the author and Geoff Bradley
See BIBLIOGRAPHY of Cyril Hare