Detection and the Law: An Appreciation of Cyril Hare


Martin Edwards and Philip L. Scowcroft

The connections between the law and crime fiction are intriguing, whether we consider authors who are also practising lawyers, or — and at times the categories overlap — authors who create lawyer sleuths. (Incidentally, both co-authors of the present article are solicitors though only Martin Edwards — who is also the only one of the two who still practises — has actually written crime fiction, often featuring a solicitor detective.)

The American Erle Stanley Gardner and his attorney creation Perry Mason are perhaps the ones who come most readily to mind, but in both the above categories there are several British examples. H.C. Bailey, Anthony Gilbert (Lucy Malleson), R. Austin Freeman and, in The Franchise Affair (Davies, 1948), Josephine Tey (Elizabeth MacKintosh) created lawyer detectives. Two lawyer mystery writers were Henry Cecil, who, like the subject of this article, was a County Court judge (his real name was Leon), and the recently deceased Michael Gilbert. The latter was a London solicitor, whose prolific pen ranged over thrillers, spy stories, legal stories, traditional detective stories and writing about crime fiction generally. In the course of the latter he wrote a generous and entertaining introduction to The Best Detective Stories of Cyril Hare, a fact which leads us into the theme of this paper.

Hare was born Alfred Alexander Gordon Clark, at Mickleham, in Surrey, on 4 September 1900 and died on 25 August 1958, having been taken ill while on holiday in France. He was brought up in the country, and learned to hunt, shoot and fish; hunting is recalled in Hare’s last novel, He Should Have Died Hereafter and fishing plays an important part in Death Is No Sportsman. He was educated at Rugby School and New College, Oxford, where he took First Class Honours in Modern History. He then went into the law, being called to the Bar in 1924. In 1933, when he married, he lived in Cyril Mansions, Battersea and was in chambers at Hare Court, Temple and those residences between them furnished his nom de plume.

His literary career developed steadily at first. We may assume that his career in the law was more successful than that of his barrister creation, Francis Pettigrew, though Clark did write articles for the Law Journal and, with Alan Garfitt, worked on the 16th edition of Roscoe on Criminal Evidence, so, to some extent, he did know Pettigrew’s feeling of “eking out his practice by the drudgery of legal authorship.” Early on there were humorous sketches for Punch and short stories for the Illustrated London News and other periodicals; all told, he had notched up fifty pieces of all types, twenty of them published, by 1936. In that year he wrote Tenant For Death bringing him a modest advance of £30. This was followed at intervals of around a year by Death Is No Sportsman and Suicide Excepted. All three featured, in greater or less degree, Inspector Mallett of Scotland Yard. A period as a judge’s marshal in 1939 provided some of the ‘copy’ for arguably Hare’s finest crime novel, Tragedy At Law, which introduced Francis Pettigrew while retaining Mallett. The judge’s marshal in the book, Derek Marshall, is young (though by no means lacking in shrewdness) so one is mildly surprised to learn that Clark/Hare was one at thirty-nine years old.

Clark’s life over the next dozen years or so continued to provide copy for Hare detective novels. During 1940 he spent a short time at the Ministry of Economic Warfare — which clearly inspired With A Bare Bodkin — but for the rest of the war he was a temporary civil servant in the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions which involved him in much travel countrywide and many meetings with police officers. In 1950 he was appointed as a County Court judge for his native Surrey, which is clearly the “Markshire” of most of the Pettigrew books and at least two of the others. In this particular, at least, his career was more fulfilled than was Pettigrew’s, who, as we are told in Tragedy At Law, put in for the “Markshire” county court position but was turned down in favour of one Jefferson. As Pettigrew wryly remarks to Derek Marshall, “not even the rummiest Lord Chancellor is ever going to make me a County Court judge after Jefferson.” Amusingly, however. Pettigrew is much later to deputise for a sick Jefferson in That Yew Tree’s Shade. Latterly Clark lived in Dorking, near Box Hill, the “Yew Hill” of That Yew Tree’s Shade. He was in demand as a speaker and was a popular and highly respected member of the Detection Club. When he died just short of his 58th birthday, an early demise traceable to his contracting tuberculosis in 1946, he was still at the height of his powers, both in his legal career and as a writer.

So much for the biographical details; let us now look more closely at his crime fiction, which comprises nine novels and at least forty short stories, thirty of which were collected in the previously mentioned volume, edited by Michael Gilbert. Those thirty include twelve categorised as “Murder”, seven as “Other Crimes”; the five “Legal” stories could easily have been fitted into one of the two earlier categories, as indeed could the six stories devoted to “Monday’s Child”, “Tuesday’s Child” and so on (there is no “Sunday’s Child”). Two of these tales feature Pettigrew, just one of them Mallett. Three Hare short stories appeared in EQMM after his death, at least one of them (and possibly the others but we have not positively identified them) from the Gilbert collection and there are a considerable number of others which are uncollected and even unpublished in any form. Many of the stories, collected and uncollected, are very short and turn on a single, at times even trivial, point, but are usually very entertaining. Certainly in earlier days Hare’s short stories were a useful addition to his income; “The Death of Amy Robsart” earned him 40 guineas (£42) in 1937, though that was perhaps a peak.

Passing on to Hare’s novels, Tenant For Death, already mentioned, introduced his principal police detective, Inspector (later Superintendent) Mallett, a heavily built man, yet light on his feet, with a moustache whose tips bristle when he is on a hot scent. As befits a big man, he, like Freeman Wills Crofts’s classic sleuth, Inspector (again later Superintendent) Joseph French, enjoys his food. Wartime rationing was to be a sore trial for him. He is highly intelligent, indeed one of the shrewdest of British fictional police detectives of his, perhaps any, period (police detectives at that time had by no means the virtual universality they now enjoy in crime fiction). Tenant For Death is the first of six novels to feature him in greater or lesser degree. It was based on an unpublished play Murder In Daylesford Gardens (1929; rewritten as The Noose Is Cut in 1935). A great financier whose crooked dealings have caught up with him is found murdered in a rented home in Chelsea. Mallett’s enquiries uncover the culprit (who is not too difficult for a reader to spot) but he is unable to bring him to justice as he commits suicide. (Mallett was to be similarly thwarted in Tragedy At Law.) This is an excellent first effort which still reads well in the 21st Century. Maybe it depends a little too much on coincidence, as did Suicide Excepted two years later, though Hare’s deft writing was usually able to cover up any improbabilities.

Mallett reappeared in Death Is No Sportsman, in which he is seen in a rural setting, the first time “Markshire” figures in a Hare novel. The “sport” is fishing and the interplay between the members of the fishing syndicate form an intriguingly piquant background to the murder mystery which again is not too difficult of solution by an intelligent reader, though collateral skulduggery ensures that suspicion is reasonably well distributed. We have to admit, though, that the murder motive is rather perfunctory.

Mallett has not much more than a walk-on role in Suicide Excepted in which three private citizens constitute themselves as an amateur detective syndicate in order to prove that an apparent suicide is murder. The novel represents an advance on its two predecessors and the dénouement is a surprise, though on his first reading of it half a century ago one of the present co-writers [PLS] spotted whodunit, unusually for him. Incidentally it did not sell too well, doubtless due (as Hare himself asserted) to the outbreak of war; later tedious hours in air-raid shelters and on fire-watching duties were to bring an upsurge in reading and sales generally.

Hare’s first three novels make little, if any, use of his experience at the Bar, but that was all to change in the next and, for many of his readers, finest, novel, Tragedy At Law, which is set in the first six or seven months of the second World War. In it he drew on his own recent experience as a judge’s marshal and on over fifteen years as a practising barrister. Mallett is there, though by no means all the time. This is partly due to the exceptionally delayed murder, which occurs on page 221 (out of a total of 252 pages) of PLS’s 1953 Penguin reprint, though Mallett is involved earlier in the book in connection with the many bizarre incidents which occur on the Southern Circuit during the autumn of 1939. His first appreciation of these turns out to be to be very near the mark, though three, even four, different people turn out to be responsible for one or more of those incidents.

With the emergence of modern Crown Courts, Assize Circuits, not to mention Quarter Sessions, are things of the past, though they are well remembered, at least by PLS, who practised in both; but this Assize Circuit is described in affectionate, often amusing, detail. The Assize judge, although he is in many respects good at his job, is an unsympathetic character and we do not feel too sorry when he receives his quietus on page 221. This leaves a reader little time to spot the whodunit, but this has, we suspect, been a surprise to many down the years. Appropriately, the motive is a ‘legal’ one, arising out of an obscure — to a layman, that is — point of the law of limitation of actions contained in a (real) Act of 1934, as interpreted by a reported case of the same year which surely gave Hare the idea for his plot. The point is even more obscure nowadays as long ago it was repealed by subsequent legislation; curiously that does not make the motive less convincing. It may be argued however that it is at the limit of ‘fair play’ for the reader in accordance with Golden Age rules.

This is where Francis (Frank) Pettigrew comes in, to explain the legal complexity to a puzzled Inspector Mallett. Pettigrew, Hare’s most convincing and affectionate creation and whose first appearance this is, has been in the story more or less from the start. He is a barrister who, despite great ability and a most engaging wit (something he shares with his creator, although Pettigrew is more than a decade older), is unsuccessful, both professionally and in other directions, due largely to persistent bad luck. Furthermore, in this book he has often to contend with the animosity of the judge which we can be sure has something to do with the fact that Pettigrew was once, and indeed still is, in love with the judge’s elegant, intelligent and charming, if at times arrogant, wife. To solve the murder affords Pettigrew none of the pleasure which a fictional sleuth so often seems to display, as witness the book’s last bitter words. It is a fact that throughout the Pettigrew saga (five full length books and two short stories) he is practically always a reluctant detective. This may add spice to his interface with Mallett which is shrewdly depicted. And the sharing out of the elucidation between official and amateur detectives is brilliantly and convincingly handled, at least as well as anywhere else in crime fiction.

Pettigrew’s character was clearly capable of much more development and in the next Hare, With A Bare Bodkin, he is found (as his creator was) as a temporary “hostilities only” civil servant, the legal adviser to the “Pin Control”, a wartime (and of course fictitious) Government department, whose headquarters is in the north of England, “somewhere on the Polar Circuit,” as Pettigrew terms it to a barrister colleague, who, bombed out of his own chambers, keeps Pettigrew’s “warm” in the latter’s absence. As a setting for murder — because in due course murder occurs — an office proves to be as interesting as it is in Dorothy L. Sayers, Murder Must Advertise (Gollancz, 1933), Nicholas Blake, Minute For Murder (Collins, 1947) and Michael Gilbert, Smallbone Deceased (Hodder, 1950). Pettigrew’s civil servant colleagues are an amusingly observed bunch. And things are looking up for Pettigrew himself. Not only does his Government employment assure him a regular income, but at the very end of the book he proposes successfully to his (much younger) secretary, who is competent, quiet (but no doormat) and also has a private income of her own. Mallett comes on the scene, initially to investigate a breach of wartime regulations within the Pin Control, but when murder is done he is drafted in to help the local police. Again the murder motive has a legal connotation, though as this concerns probate practice, usually more of a matter for a solicitor than a barrister, Pettigrew has to apply for advice to his verbose brother barrister Flack — whom we have met in Tragedy At Law — who was, conveniently, at one time a solicitor, before he (Pettigrew) can explain to Mallett and Co. With A Bare Bodkin did well, earning Hare about £900, more than he had received from all his previous publications.

In When The Wind Blows Pettigrew, now for some years a married man, is living in “Markhampton” (Guildford?), on his beloved Southern Circuit and still practices as a barrister in a desultory way. His wife Eleanor is musical and plays in the Markhampton Orchestral Society (surely inspired by the real Guildford Philharmonic Orchestra) which provides the background to the murder. Music was always one of Clark/Hare’s particular interests. Readers of Tragedy At Law will recall that that book turns on the fact that the crushed little finger, the principal injury suffered by the victim run down by the judge while driving without valid insurance, is much more serious from the aspects of potential damages because he is a concert pianist; that book, incidentally, alludes in passing to Myra Hess’s celebrated wartime lunch-hour concerts at the National Gallery. And in 1955, Hare, under the Clark byline, was to edit Leith Hall Musical Festival 1905–1955: A Record of Fifty Years of Music Making in Surrey. So we are hardly surprised that When The Wind Blows is full of persuasive detail on how an amateur (or semi-amateur) orchestra is run.

For readers to solve the crime, the murder of a visiting solo violinist, they have to have a detailed knowledge of the orchestration of Mozart’s symphonies. When he first read the book, in the mid-1950s, PLS did have that knowledge but, maybe arrogantly, assumed that the author did not. He should have known Hare better! Again the motive has a legal flavour, although we may question whether it is a very cogent one in post-war England, so once again it is a rather reluctant Pettigrew who has to explain it to the Markshire detective inspector, Trimble by name, who has done all the routine investigation competently enough. He is less phlegmatic, less good at ‘man management’ and in general a much less attractive character than Mallett. However the Chief Constable, a Scot called MacWilliam, shrewd and having a dry sense of humour, is delightfully drawn. The advance, incidentally, for When The Wind Blows was £500, five times that for its predecessor.

Pettigrew and Trimble, now a Detective Superintendent, reappear in Hare’s next but one novel, That Yew Tree’s Shade. The Pettigrews have left Markhampton, having inherited a cottage in nearby “Yewbury” (is this Mickleham?), on the slopes of “Yew Hill” (obviously Box Hill and admitted as much by Hare in a prefatory Note). They spend much of the time looking at the view, which has its fortunate side, as the murder takes place on the slopes of the hill. The victim is the wife of a convicted financial swindler, a smoothie reminiscent of Horatio Bottomley. The civil case concerning the disposal of Dr Crippen’s estate is in point here, as Pettigrew realises, and he duly puts Chief Constable MacWilliam wise to it. Pettigrew’s relationship with Trimble, who, unlike Mallett, resents “interference” by amateurs, is a decidedly prickly one. As a mystery this is not perhaps the best Hare, but it is pleasantly light in touch, not least where the Pettigrews and their relationships with others are concerned. In particular the scenes in which Pettigrew acts as a Deputy County Court judge are deliciously amusing; but all Hare’s descriptions of court cases, in whatever book, are, as one would expect, surely handled and highly entertaining. That Yew Tree’s Shade apparently takes place in 1952 when a few post-war restrictions on, for example, the sale of eggs and pork, are still in force and housing is in short supply.

In Hare’s last novel, He Should Have Died Hereafter, set probably in 1955, though published three years later, the Pettigrews are on holiday in a part of Exmoor which has childhood recollections for Frank (among them seeing, while on horseback, a dead man lying on the moor) and where an old school friend of Eleanor’s lives. Pettigrew, overcome by nostalgia and left to himself, mounts, for reasons best known to himself, an unattended Exmoor pony and almost immediately catches sight once again of a dead man lying on the moor. The pony bolts and when Pettigrew is able to summon assistance it is found that the body has disappeared, to be rediscovered two days later when apparently it has been dead for just a few hours. Has Pettigrew been imagining things or is this a story of the supernatural? There is a rational explanation, thankfully, and it is good to meet Mallett again, now retired and conveniently living nearby. There is no ‘legal’ murder motive here, though we read with delight of some collateral proceedings in a Chancery court. Pettigrew’s nose for a crime is as strong, albeit reluctant, as ever; he and Mallett arrive at the truth with the aid of one of the classics of detective fiction, on which Mallet is writing a treatise. Again this is not the best Hare as a mystery, though it teaches the lesson that to reach the right answer one has to ask the right question. It is rather short; was it affected by Hare’s increasing ill health? But once again its lightness of touch makes it a pleasure to read and re-read.

We have departed from a strictly chronological survey of Cyril Hare’s novels by leaving until last An English Murder, which is unique in his output in that it features neither Mallett nor Pettigrew. Its origin was a half-hour radio play entitled “The Murder at Warbeck Hall”, one of the six penned by members of the Detection Club broadcast at weekly intervals during January and February 1948. (Hare is also credited with a play, “The House of Warbeck” which looks like another version of the same events, but we have not seen a script. At all events a play version of An English Murder was produced at the Theatre Royal in Margate in 1955.) Nor have we seen the script of the original half-hour version which must, compared with the novel, have been a masterpiece of compression, short though the novel is; as a fourteen year old PLS heard this and liked it.

It is Christmas and family and friends of the frail Lord Warbeck gather for the festive season at the rather dilapidated Warbeck Hall (which is, you’ve guessed it, in Markshire). The heir to the Warbeck title, an unappetising character with Fascist association, is poisoned as midnight strikes on Christmas Eve. The Markshire police cannot be summoned as a heavy snowfall has isolated the Hall, The only policeman on hand is the personal bodyguard of Lord Warbeck’s brother who is Chancellor of the Exchequer in the (Labour) government. He investigates, rather reluctantly, and two more deaths occur. Yet again the plot turns on a legal point but one of English constitutional law this time and ironically this is elucidated by a foreigner, Dr Wencelaus Bottwink, an historian late of Prague University, who is at the hall researching the Warbeck family archives, to illuminate his “period”, the British constitution between 1750 and 1784, a period illuminated in reality around mid-century by the writings of Sir Lewis Namier and others. Hare clearly retained his love of history after his First at Oxford and he started another novel starring the engaging Dr Bottwink in 1958; ME has read the fragment but though he praises the characteristically careful, yet easy, style, comments that it offers no hint as to the direction in which the story was heading — a pity, because there are relatively few true academic sleuths in fiction. Short though it is, An English Murder is Hare’s only example of the classic ‘country house’ murder, but the treatment is so fresh that a reader should have no feeling of tedium or déjà vu.

Hare has been dead for nearly half a century, but his writings still appeal to a connoisseur. Some of his nine novels are more ingenious than others, but all are admirably written with much of the wit and good humour which made him so prized as a public speaker. Mallett, even Trimble, are much more than pasteboard policemen; Frank Pettigrewis a wonderfully rounded, believable character, philosophical and with a strong sense of humour which enables him to laugh at his misfortunes; a part self-portrait of his creator. Several lawyers appears in Hare’s pages from Tragedy At Law onwards but Pettigrew is head and shoulders above them all and has claims to be reckoned the most convincing lawyer anywhere in detective fiction. Not that Hare concentrates on law to the exclusion of all else; the first three novels feature it little if at all. His writings reflect other interests: music, as we have seen; and sport, not the more popular team sports but fishing, darts (remember Beamish in Tragedy At Law) and stag hunting, so much a part of the economy of Exmoor, are all significant in their respective books.

Nor did he confine himself to crime fiction. It comes as a surprise to learn that in 1946 Faber published a children’s tale. The Magic Bottle, typically amusing if less successful than his detective stories — a pity that the late Bill Sarjeant, in his extensive writings for CADS, never got round to discussing this. Hare could have excelled at drama, too; we have seen that An English Murder began (and apparently finished) life as a play and it is surely no coincidence that this novel offers probably the best drawn set of characters in the whole of Hare’s oeuvre. What a shame he was not spared for many more years to continue delighting lovers of the detective story.